Book of Kells - Ireland's national treasure

The original Book of Kells on display at the Old Library Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.
The original Book of Kells on display at the Old Library Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. | Source
Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland where the Book of Kells has been housed for viewing since 1661.
Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland where the Book of Kells has been housed for viewing since 1661. | Source

During my travels in Europe, I have always been delighted to find illuminated manuscripts and books carefully and copiously written and drawn by the medieval monks. I have viewed illuminated manuscripts in France, England and Germany and they are beautiful.

But, considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in all of Europe is Ireland's Book of Kells. This one I have not viewed yet, but I hope to see it one day.

It is considered the best of the best of medieval European illuminated manuscripts because of its intricate and beautiful Celtic knots and intricate designs along with its script which is in Latin.

The contents of the Book of Kells are the four gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. It is believed to have been created between 600 to 800 AD and it is believed today to have been produced by Celtic monks in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland (west coast of Scotland) to honor St. Columba. The manuscript was never finished and historians today do not know why this is so or the exact time of completion.

It is written on vellum, which is calfskin, because it is an excellent, smooth writing surface. It has 680 individual pages and 340 folios have survived. There are only two pages out of the 680 pages that do not have any form of artistic ornamentation. There are many portrait pages, for example, of Jesus Christ, St. John, and the Virgin Mary with child just to name a few. The entire Book of Kells, all 680 pages of it, can be viewed at the link to the above right.

As many as ten different colors of ink were used in the illuminations. Some of the colors were made from rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the European continent. The workmanship is so fine that some details can only be seen clearly with a magnifying glass.

Today, it is on display in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin and has been on display there since the mid-17th century. Since 1953, it has been bound in four volumes and approximately 500,000 visitors per year view the Book of Kells.

Two volumes of the Book of Kells are on public view at a time at all times. One is opened to display a major decorated page and one volume is opened to show two pages of script. The volumes are changed at regular intervals so that all volumes can be viewed during the year.

The name of the Book of Kells comes from the Abbey of Kells in Kells, County Meath, Ireland which was its home for much of the medieval period.

Folio 27v .  Symbols of four Evangelists (clockwise from top left)  Matthew (man), Mark (lion), John (eagle) and Luke (ox).
Folio 27v . Symbols of four Evangelists (clockwise from top left) Matthew (man), Mark (lion), John (eagle) and Luke (ox). | Source
 One of the Canon pages from the Book of Kells
One of the Canon pages from the Book of Kells | Source
Folio 7.  Image of Virgin and Child.  The oldest image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript.
Folio 7. Image of Virgin and Child. The oldest image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript. | Source
Small illuminations like this decorated initial decorated with intricate Celtic knots.
Small illuminations like this decorated initial decorated with intricate Celtic knots. | Source
Folio 29lv.  John, the Evangelist.  Notice the intricate Celtic knots inside the crosses.
Folio 29lv. John, the Evangelist. Notice the intricate Celtic knots inside the crosses. | Source
Page of text with illuminated letters at beginning of sentences and interlinear art.
Page of text with illuminated letters at beginning of sentences and interlinear art. | Source
One of only two pages in the Book of Kells with no illumination or illustrations.
One of only two pages in the Book of Kells with no illumination or illustrations. | Source

Specific content and history of the Book of Kells

The Irish monks who created the Book of Kells did not create it from memory. They used models already written and illuminated by monks in the past. The text for their gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate version of the Bible. And, there are several passages from an earlier version of the Bible known as Vetus Latina.

The Vulgate Bible was written in the late fourth century and is a Latin translation of the Bible. The translation is largely the work of St. Jerome. He was commissioned by Pope Damasus in 382 AD to revise the Vetus Latina (Old Latin) collection of Biblical texts. It is these two Biblical texts that the Irish monks used to create the Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells contains the text of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and the gospel of John through John 17:13. The remainder of John is missing and so the Book of Kells is not complete.

Also included in the book are the Breves causae and Argumenta that belong to the pre-Vulgate tradition of manuscripts, the Vetus Latina. The Breves causae are summaries of Old Latin translations of the Gospels and are divided into numbered chapters. The Argumenta is a collection of legends about the Evangelists.

This masterwork of Western calligraphy represents the peak of Insular Art illumination. Insular Art is also known as Hiberno-Saxon art and it is a style produced in the post-Roman history of the British Isles. In fact, Insula is the Latin term for island. So it is any art that is produced on the British Isles.

During this period of Insular Art, Great Britain and Ireland shared a common style different from that of the rest of Europe. That is because of the Celtic influence in the British Isles.

Historians group this period as Early Medieval Western Art and also as part of the Migration Period Art movement. The Migration Period is artwork of Germanic peoples (300-900 AD). It is the art of the Germanic tribes on the European Continent and the start of the Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic fusion of art in the British Isles.

This era in history combined the Celtic styles with the Anglo-Saxon (English) styles. If you look closely at the decorations on the pages of the Book of Kells, you will see the different intricate and beautiful Celtic knots in the illuminations.

However, the illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpasses that of other Insular gospel books in its extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with ornate swirling motif typical of Insular Art.

The Book of Kells incudes figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, along with Celtic knots interlacing patterns in vibrant colors. Many of these minor decorative elements have Christian symbolism to further emphasize the themes of the major illustrations. The text pages are vibrantly decorated with initials and interlinear miniatures.

Historians and scholars have determined that the Insular majuscule (miniatures and the most formal of the illuminations) are the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering in the book is of iron gall ink.

Other manuscript and illuminated texts from this time period, 600-800 AD are:

  • early 7th century - the Cathach of St. Columba, the Ambrosiana Orosus, fragmentary gospel in the Durham Dean and Chapter Library.
  • late 7th century - Book of Durrow
  • early 8th century - Durham Gospels, Echternach Gospels, Lindisfarne Gospels and Litchfield Gospels
  • late 8th century - St. Gall Gospel Book
  • early 9th century - Book of Armagh (807-809 AD)

Historians and scholars place these above manuscripts together based on similarities in artistic style, script and textual tradition.

Therefore, the fully developed style of the ornamentation of the Book of Kells places it late in this series of monk scripted series. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels and in the Book of Kells both feature intricate decorative Celtic knot work patterns inside the outlines formed by the enlarged initial letters of the text.

It is surprising and unusual that the Book of Kells survived so well intact from the ninth century. It is believed today that the dating of the ninth century coincides with Viking raids on the Scottish Island of Iona began in 794 AD. The monks working on the book dispersed and with them took their holy relics into Ireland and Scotland.

This is now the book is believed to have come to the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. At one point the Book of Kells was actually stolen. The cover was ripped off and never recovered because it was encrusted with gold and jewels. The force of ripping the manuscript free from its cover may account for the folios missing from the beginning and end of the Book of Kells. The book was eventually found a few days later lying in a muddy ditch and it is amazing that there is only slight water damage to a few of the pages.

Historians know the Book of Kells was safely at the Abbey of Kells in the twelfth century because of land charters pertaining to the Abbey were copied into some of its blank pages. This practice of copying charters into important books was widespread during the medieval period.

The Abbey of Kells was dissolved because of ecclesiastical reforms in the twelfth century and it was converted to a parish church in which the Book of Kells remained until the 17th century.

During the mid-17th century Cromwell's cavalry was quartered in the church at Kells and the governor of the town sent the book to Dublin for safekeeping. Governor Henry Jones later became bishop of Meath during the Restoration of the church and presented the manuscript to Trinity College Dublin in 1661 and it has remained there ever since.

The book had a sacramental rather than an educational purpose. The Book of Kells would have been left on the high altar of the church and taken off only for the reading of the Gospel during Mass. The aesthetics of the book were given priority over utility.

One thing is certain, the lavish illuminations of the Book of Kells are far greater than any other surviving Insular Gospel book.

I have been fascinated by illuminated manuscripts ever since I studied about them in college and seen a few throughout Europe.

Note: Be sure to watch the video below. It offers some more information about the Book of Kells and a bit of a delightful animated film about the book made in 2010.


Sources:

historymedren.about.com/od/bookofkell1/p/book-of-kells.htm

www.tcd.ie/Library/bookofkells/book-of-kells/

tcld.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/book-of-kells-now-free-to-view-online/


Evolution of written calligraphy used in illuminated manuscripts during the medieval period.  Notice the Insular script is used in the Book of Kells.
Evolution of written calligraphy used in illuminated manuscripts during the medieval period. Notice the Insular script is used in the Book of Kells. | Source

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Comments 27 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

Any lover of history will appreciate this article. I know I did. :)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill: Thanks so much for reading this and I am pleased you enjoyed it. I have been hearing about this Book of Kells lately, so I had to write a hub about it. I do love these illuminated manuscripts and find the intricate art amazing. That these monks sat for hours painstakingly and lovingly creating these illustrations is amazing to me. What talent. I can't imagine having the patience to illustrate one of these books - but then what else was there to do? LOL!

I downloaded your novel, "Resurrecting Tobias," and I have been reading it for about the last hour or so. It is really good, Bill. I love your character of Tobias - what a hoot. And I like how you tell the story in flashbacks. So far, I like the the characters of Pete and Maria and your compassion for them comes through in your writing. Your writing is fantastic. I love your metaphors and similes - they make me chuckle. "I am the pimple on your ass" - that's a good one Bill. Very clever. Thanks again for reading this.


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 2 years ago from California

I love libraries and universities, so when we had a day in Dublin my teacher friend and I went to Trinity Library. Oh my, the art work in the book of Kells is amazing.

We visited one of the places the books were supposedly copied. It is a tiny cold stone place with little light. I wish I could remember where it was.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

tirelesstraveler: You have seen the Book of Kells. How wonderful! I would love to see it one day. I too, love the old European libraries and have been to them in England, Germany, France and Spain. I am always in awe of the ancient books, the writings and illuminations and illustrations. I just have to get to Ireland someday. What a wonderful time you had in Ireland even getting to one of the places the Book of Kells was written. I find what those monks did and worked on amazing. Thanks so much for sharing your experience with me and for your comments. Most appreciated.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

Suzette, thank you so much. You have given me a broad smile with your kind words. I am one happy writer. :) Oh, and Tobias says to say hi to you. :)


MartieCoetser profile image

MartieCoetser 2 years ago from South Africa

Very-very interesting! Can you imagine the life of a Western writer in the Middle Ages? Firstly you must have been a monk or privileged nun, and secondly the "holy scriptures" was supposed to be your only source of knowledge and inspiration. Nevertheless, I think you would have been extremely happy :)

Thanks for this most interesting hub, Suzette :)


Genna East profile image

Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

“Turning darkness into light.” The illuminated manuscripts are stunning in their beauty and detail. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, Suzette, and learned more of the history of the mysterious “Book of Kells.” It is easy to see why this is hailed as Ireland’s national treasure. Thank you!


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

Suzette; this is my favorite article of yours. I just love it and I will bookmark the Book of Kells link so I can read it whenever I want. It is a real treasure; thank you so much!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Martie: I know - the painstaking task of writing and illuminating these books and manuscripts by hand was amazing. I think it is why some of these were never finished. And they wrote these by sunlight and candlelight. These monks were really talented artistically and yet they get almost no credit for their work. I do find these manuscripts and books so interesting. Thanks so much for your visit and I am pleased you enjoyed reading this.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Genna: I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this. I find these books and manuscripts so interesting and beautiful. The artwork is amazing and stunning to me. Thanks so much for your visit and comments. Most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Jackie: How sweet of you to say this. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this. You are a treasure to read and comment on my hubs and I appreciated your visits. So glad you stopped by.


The Examiner-1 profile image

The Examiner-1 2 years ago

Amazing Suzette. I am surprised that it has survived such a long time, and it seemed to travel quite a bit of distance too. From Scotland, across the ocean, all the way to Ireland. You really did your research on this. I gave it a thumbs up +++ and shared it.

Kevin


Elizabeth Bowers profile image

Elizabeth Bowers 2 years ago from Tennessee

Beautiful book, and an awesome Hub! Thanks for all the great pictures and wonderful information! Voting up and sharing!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

The Examiner-1: It is true - I have seen other manuscripts throughout Europe and this one has survived the most and most intact. The Abbey at Kells took good care of it. Those monks worked too hard on these manuscripts to allow them to be destroyed. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and thank you so much for your comments.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Elizabeth: Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for your comments. Most appreciated. I think this is such an extraordinary book and wanted to write a hub about it. Thank you for your visit.


gamerjimmy23 profile image

gamerjimmy23 2 years ago from California

It would be interesting to view "The Book of Kells," especially since it has 678 pages of "artistic ornamentation." I couldn't imagine how long it must have taken to create the entire product, including fabricating the calfskin pages and the time and cost it took to acquire imported inks from various places throughout Europe. This hub reminds me of the many things we take for granted in the 21st century. - Voted up.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

gamerjimmy23: Isn't the art work in this book beautiful? Those monks worked painstakingly long hours morning, noon and night to produced these illuminated manuscripts. The Book of Kells is extraordinary in that most of it survived the times. Amazing isn't it. We do take a lot for granted in the 21st century. It is good we have these books on display to remind us of art from previous centuries. Thanks so much for your comments and you vote. Most appreciated.


travmaj profile image

travmaj 2 years ago from australia

Isn't this Book of Kells superb, such skill, such devotion, so inspiring. Imagine working on it slowly, day in, day out, perhaps never seeing the finished book. Thank you for such detailed information and pictures, video. I'd love to see it. Voting.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

travmaj: Yes, I find this book amazing. Yes, you bring up a good point. It took so long to write and illuminate one of these books that the monks probably never did see the finish product. It could take a lifetime working on one of these books. It makes us appreciate the printing press and the computer. What those monks would think of publishing today and the self-publishing that goes on! Thanks so much for your insightful comments and visit. Most appreciated.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

Thanks for writing about this book's history. I didn't know it existed. Lots of interesting facts here for all people to know.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Dianna: Thank you so much for your comments. I love illuminated manuscripts and would love to see the book of Kells one day. This is on by bucket list. LOL! I appreciated your visit and being a teacher it doesn't surprise me that you enjoyed this.


chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 2 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

The Book of Kells is a masterpiece. How those artists created such detail and in such vivid colour is a wonder. You can just imagine the masters meeting in the scriptorum to decide which patterns, knotwork, pen and inks they were going to use today! And which apprentice they were going to allow into the fold!

Your article has helped illuminate the history of this venerable old book.

Votes and a share.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

chef-de-jour: Yes, isn't it a great work of art as well as biblical? I can just imagine the patience it took to painstakingly illustrate each page of it. What is interesting and wonderful about the Book of Kells is that it is nearly complete and the the one illustrated book in history that is so. It took years to copy the bible into it and then add all the illustrations. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this and thank you for your visit.


writercb1 profile image

writercb1 2 years ago from United States

This topic fascinates me. Thanks for a thorough article, with pictures, about it!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

writecb1: Thanks so much for your visit and I am glad this was so interesting to you. I find illuminated manuscripts so interesting and beautiful. The painstaking decorations, many on each page, are beautiful and I can imagine how long it took to copy the gospels into these books. I am so pleased you enjoyed reading this.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 weeks ago from England

I love all those old manuscripts and books! they are absolutely fascinating! If someone said to me, money or old book? it would be the book! lol!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 6 weeks ago from Taos, NM Author

Nell: I feel the same way as you - I'd always take the book.

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