Book of Kells - Ireland's national treasure
Link to the original Book of Kells
- Book of Kells Now Free to View Online | Trinity College Library Dublin
As part of the general celebration of St Patrick's Day at Trinity, we would like to announce that the Book of Kells in its entirety is now viewable in the Library’s new Digital Collections online repository, provided by the Library's Digital Resource
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.
- Charlemagne, the Carolingian Revival and Illuminated Manuscripts
The Sacramentary of Drogo, one of the gospel illustrated manuscripts from the Carolingian Revival. wikipedia Western Europe came crawling out of the "Dark Ages" with the arrival of Frankish kings, whom, in collaboration with the pap
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.