Thanks to the lovely film The Secret of Kells, large numbers of people who have never taken an art history class or studied paleography now know about The Book Of Kells. For those who haven’t seen the film, go now and watch it.
The Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript created by monastics in the ninth century, and presently resides in Trinity College Library, in Dublin. It’s a beautifully illuminated version of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) with the customary additions like the canon tables.
The real point of the Book of Kells is not so much the text, as it is the art work, and the embellishments applied to the calligraphic text. The most famous of the pages in Kells is the one at the top of this post; F. 34R (click it for a larger version). The page in the Book of Kells known as F.34R is based on the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” This passage is often referred to as the second beginning of Matthew. The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .”
F. 34R is referred to as the Chi Rho page because it features the Greek letters Chi, Rho and Iota. The letters that look like XPI that form the primary page elements are respectively, the Chi, the Rho, and the Iota. These three letters are used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open that passage from Matthew in Latin. If you look closely at the image, you’ll see some of the “hidden” images that Kells is so famous for. There’s a cat with rats that seems to be playing with (or eating) a mass wafer. There are moths (symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation) and several winged figures. My favorite is the otter holding a fish (the otter is lying on his back; look for the fish he holds). If you look at the image of F. 34R, you can see the generatio at the bottom right.
Here’s another example of a Chi-Rho page, to the right. This one is from the Book of Lindisfarne, produced in England sometime between 680 and 720. The Book of Lindisfarne is in the British library now. It’s the beginning of the same verse in Matthew as the Kells Chi-Rho page. You can still see the Chi and the Rho, very clearly. You can click the image for a larger view, or see the entire incredible manuscript in a digital facsimile here; it uses the Silverlight plugin form Microsoft. There’s a collection of high quality images here.