The Book of Kells: Exploring Its Mysteries

The Book of Kells.

Where the book lives in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin is quiet now.

Folk from all over the world visit Dublin during the course of a year.

Many of them come to TCD to see the Book of Kells. Each person pays the fee, walks up the stairs to the Old Library, explores the exhibits, and often waits to view the one to three pages from the actual manuscript offered for view at any given time.

Well into its second thousand years now, why does this manuscript hold fascination for historians, artists, travelers from across the world?

There are three aspects of the Book of Kells which endure and reach across differing backgrounds,: creativity, spirituality, and mystery. These are aspects which often twine around and through and with each other, as well.

What is the Book of Kells?

It is the text of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, along with some concordances and miscellaneous documents. It’s in Latin, mainly from a version of the gospels by Saint Jerome with some portions drawing on Irish sources and a few of the miscellaneous pieces in Irish.

Book of kells geometric design page page

The art work is what makes the Book of Kells famous, Irish, and unique. There are full page portraits of the four evangelists, scenes from the text, and full page first letters in some sections. The smaller details — hyphens in the forms of running dogs, birds, and fish twine around borders, plants swirling around words and images, geometric and organic designs marking letters and passages of text — are equally intriguing.

It is apparent that some of the art is influenced by styles of Byzantium and Egypt; how the artists came to know of these is not known. Many images draw on Celtic motifs and ideas the artists would have seen in day to day life. Some are clearly from the artists’ own imagination. Cats, stags, snakes, wolves, hens and hares are but a few of the animals they drew. There are people of all sorts and stations in life; geometric patterns including spirals, knots, interlacing, flowers, and all sorts of plants, and there are imaginary creatures too.

The text is written in an expert version of a script known as insular majuscule. 

Then there are those illuminated letters, which may be decorated with any or all of these things. There are more than 2000 illuminated letters in the Book of Kells. They are all different; no design is repeated. There are full page ones: the Chi Rho which opens the gospel of Matthew’s account the nativity is said to be one of the finest examples of medieval art in Ireland, and indeed in the world.

book of kells illuminated  page chi rho

The quality of art and creativity through the book is remarkable; indeed, by the time it was stolen (see about that below) in the eleventh century it was already referred to as ‘Ireland’s greatest treasure’ in the Annals of Ulster.

 coast of iona scotland book of kells

Who created the Book of Kells?
At least three artists did the illustrations and four scribes who copied out the text worked on the book. They were all monks, members of an order founded by Saint Colum Cille (also known as Saint Columba). They would have begun learning their art for some years before having been entrusted for work on a manuscript as important as the Book of Kells. We do not, at this writing, know their names. Consider for a moment too, that they had to work by daylight and candle light. Neither Scotland nor Ireland is famous for sunny dry days.

Why was the Book of Kells made?
It is thought that it was intended for, and used as, a service book at the altar, a book for use in that way rather than a private devotional.

Where was the Book of Kells made?
There’s controversy over this. It’s thought that work began on the book on the island of Iona, which lies just of the coast of the Isle of Mull in Scotland. The book was taken a different monastery, at Kells in County Meath, in Ireland. Was it already finished when it was moved, or was it worked on in Ireland? Maybe yes, maybe no. There are some unfinished pages and some pages which are missing. Did it come to Kells that way and stay that way? That’s not known.

kells priory ireland book of kells

Why was the Book of Kells moved from Scotland to Ireland, and how did it end up where it is now, at Trinity College Dublin?
Vikings often saw monastic houses as good sites to plunder. Those along coasts and rivers were especially easy for them to reach. Iona, on an island, was the object of devastating raid in 806. That was likely the reason for the move to Kells — but Kells itself was raided by Vikings at least three times in the 9th century. It is not known how the book survived. At some point it was enclosed in a gold shrine and was stolen for that shrine in the eleventh century; the book itself was found thrown into a ditch. The Book of Kells remained at Kells for a while, but a series of political and clerical changes resulted in the move to Dublin City with the idea that the book, long recognized as one of Ireland’s great treasures, would be safer there. It came into possession of Trinity College around 1661, where it has been ever since.

easter rising 5 art by kerry dexter

The Book of Kells has had and continues to have a long legacy beyond the walls of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. James Joyce compared the intricacy of design to the flow of story in his book Ulysses; tributes to those who died in the Easter Rising of 1916 have been painted in the style of the Book of Kells;

The Secret of Kells, an animated film, brought the art and a fictional story based in Irish mythology to many. Many more have been inspired by the work of those artists so long ago.

How can you experience the Book of Kells?

At present in person visits are not allowed. Many illustrations and text pages have been digitized by Trinity College Dublin’s Library for you to explore. TCD Library also offers an excellent online short course on the Book of Kells through FutureLearn; there’s no cost for this course There are many fine books for adults and children. You should be able to find a dvd of the animated film the Secret of Kells, too.

You will find many cats in the illustrations of the Book of Kells. The cat Pangur Bán is the subject of a poem about a cat and a monk-scribe by an Irish monk from about the same times as the Book of Kells was created. Listen to Eddi Reader’s take on this story of a monk and his cat in song, from her album Cavalier.

Photographs by and courtesy of KarlandAli,
N Chadwick, Kerry Dexter, and Trinity College, Dublin. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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