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The Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript created by monks in the ninth century.Scholarly consensus has been slow to agree to a date, but currently the general opinion is that Kells was probably a work of the very late ninth century The manuscript presently resides in Trinity College Library, in Dublin, Ireland as TCD MS 58. It’s a beautifully illuminated version of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the Vulgate Latin of Jerome (with some departures derived from the previous standard edition of the Gospels), with the customary medieval additions like canon tables to allow a reader to find equivalent passages in the four Gospels.
The manuscript was rebound in 1953 and is currently in the form of four volumes containing 340 folio pages. The four volumes are each about 13¾ by about 10½ inches (de Hamel 2017, Chapter 3) in height and width, each of them containing one of the four Gospels.
The Book of Kells has had a difficult, even a traumatic life. Some of the pages are missing and others are damaged by wear and exposure to light, and sometime, by excessive trimming of the ms. pages in the course of rebinding. Two of the four volumes are on rotating public view at Trinity College. One is opened to one of the important decorative pages, another displays two of the pages showing the text and the distinctive script. The pages are carefully turned on a regular basis to avoid more damage.
The History of The Book of Kells
In 1007 the Book of Kells was stolen, and then recovered. There’s an entry in the year 1006 in The Annals of Ulster that reads:
Soiscelae Mor Coluim Cille do dubgait isind aidhci asind airdom iartharach i n-daim liac moir Chenannsa; primh-mind iarthair domain ar ai in comdaigh doendai. In soscela-sin do foghbail dia fichet adaig ar dib misaib iar n-gait de a oir & fot tairis.
The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was wickedly stolen by night from the western sacristy in the great stone church of Cenannas. It was the most precious object of the western world on account of the human ornamentation(?). This Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold having been taken off it and with a sod over it.
Cenannas was the former name of Kells, sometimes called Kenlis earlier eras. It’s a town in County Meath a little north-west of Dublin. The Irish text uses the word comdaigh, more conventially spelled cumdach. This is usually associated with portable reliquqries, small boxes, often house-shaped, used to hold precious relics or, in this case, a Gospel that given its associations with Column Cille, was likely considered a relic as well.
The passage almost certainly refers to The Book of Kells. It’s possible the thieves were Vikings; they are known to have stolen contemporaneous similar richly decorated books. It’s quite likely that at the time The Book Of Kells was also protected by an elaborate jeweled decorative cover, which would have been removed. In any case, the thieves apparently kept the cumdach, and stashed the remaining manuscript under a piece of sod, where it was recovered. According to the Annals of Tigernach, in 1090 relics of Colum Cill were brought to Kells from Donegal (T1090.5).
Minda Colaim Chille .i. Clog na Righ & an Chuilebaidh & in da Sosscéla do tabairt a Tir Conaill & .uíí. fichit uínge d’ airged, & Aenghus h-Ua Domnallan is se dos-fuc atuaidh. T1090.5
The reliquaries of Columcill i.e. the Bell of the Kings, and the Flabellum and the two Gospels were brought out of Tyrconnell, together with seven score ounces of silver. And Oengus Ó Domhnalláin it was that brought them from the North to Kells (T1090.5).
It is not impossible that one of the “two Gospels” was the Book of Kells; the other possibly being The Book of Durrow. After the rebellion in 1641 and the ravages of Cromwell, the church of Kells was a ruin. Around 1653 the manuscript was sent to Dublin by Charles Lambert, the Earl of Cavan. A short time after that, Henry Jones, once Vice-Chanceller of the University of Dublin (the home of Trinity College) and the Bishop of Meath sent the Book of Kells to Trinity College, Dublin, where it remains to this day.
The Production of The Book of Kells
There are four primary scribes responsible for the Book of Kells; none of whom have been specifically identified. Each scribe seems to be particularly associated with specific characteristics of style and technique. One seems to have been responsible only for text, and left the decoration of letters at the beginning of verses to another. Another scribe, possibly the last to work on the ms., favored bright colors like red, purple and yellow for the text, and tended to fill blank space by duplicating passages of text. There are three artists primarily responsible for the illumination and miniatures; one of them in particular was extraordinarily skilled; his work is startlingly evocative of the elaborate work of goldsmiths of the era. This is the primary artist responsible for the Chi-Rho page of Kells (f. 34r). Whether some of the scribes were also artists is a question that remains unanswered.
The general scholarly consensus is that The Book of Kells was probably the work of the scriptorium of the monastery of Iona, a tiny island just of the West coast of Scotland, near the island of Mull. The monastery was founded in 561, by Saint Colum Cille. Iona was known for its scriptorium and piety. Work on The Book of Kells probably began sometime in the early 800s. In 806 there was a devastating Viking raid on Iona, (neither the first or the last), but after the raid the remaining monks fled, and many of them arrived at Kells. The monastery at Kells in Meath, Ireland was relatively new, and not yet well established. The assumption is that the monks brought The Book of Kells with them when they fled, perhaps in an unfinished condition.
The production of The Books of Kells was not an inexpensive undertaking, in terms of material, time or skilled labor. It was almost certainly the product of a high-level scriptorium, with multiple scribes and artists, who divided the various gathering or sections between them to allow work on multiple sections at once, sometimes leaving space in the text for later ornamentation, for example.
There are ten extant full-page illuminations including two evangelist portraits, three pages with the four evangelist symbols, a carpet page, a miniature of the Virgin and Child, a miniature of Christ enthroned, and miniatures of the Arrest of Jesus and the Temptation of Christ.
There are thirteen surviving full pages of elaborately decorated text including pages for the first few words of each of the Gospels. In addition, the pages of text are decorated with illuminated capitals and numerous small miniatures.
Most recently, Bernard Meehan has argued that The Book Of Kells was originally two separate works, created up to half a century apart on the islands of Kells and Iona. Meehan theorizes that the Gospel of John and the first few pages of Mark were created by a scribe on the Scottish island of Iona sometime during the last quarter of the eighth century.
He suggests that the remainder of The Gospel of Mark and the Kells texts of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were created up to 50 years later in the Irish monastery of Kells itself.
Handwriting evidence suggests that the Iona monk who created his spectacular copy of St John’s Gospel was, stylistically, a very traditional scribe who had learned his craft at some stage in the mid eighth century. His scribal activity appears to have ceased abruptly, after he completed verse 26 of the fourth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel.
The Text of The Book of Kells
The text of the Gospels in The Book of Kells is a beautiful insular majuscule script (sometimes called Insular half uncial but more correctly identified as insular majuscule). It’s a script that was born in the monasteries of Ireland in the seventh century and was continuously refined right through the nineteenth century. Kells was, however, copied by monks with very little or very poor Latin, consequently there are many errors in the text (though it is lovely to look at). There are a number of noticeable scribal errors. For instance text copied on folio 218v was repeated on the following page, folio 219r, then corrected by marking the duplicated text on 218v with red crosses. But the text was not really the emphasis; the point of Kells is that the elaborate artwork beautifies and celebrates the words of the text. Kells is an example of the book as talisman, as sacred object, rather than as a tool. There are numerous illuminated miniatures and decorated letters throughout the pages of text.
Introduction to the Art of the Book of Kells
The Book of Kells is probably the single most familiar Medieval manuscript. People who aren’t quite sure when the Middle ages took place, can often identify some of the images from the Book of Kells. The extant folios of the Book of Kells number 340, or 680 pages. It took 180 calf skins to make the manuscript, since a single calf hide would yield two folio pages (totaling four pages) of prepared vellum. The pigments were made from natural substances, including blue made from indigo or woad, native to Northern Europe, yellow, or Orpiment made from arsenic sulphide, red from red lead or from as yet not specifically identified natural sources (there are a few possibilities), and a copper green, which with age and dampness has damages some pages. Artists sometimes layered several pigments on top of each other, over a base layer.
There’s a famous description of an amazing manuscript from the twelfth century travel writer and gossip-monger Gerald of Wales. Gerald, in his book The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales is describing a manuscript that he says he saw at Kildare, Ireland. While it’s almost certainly not the Book of Kells (which was already at Kells) it sounds very like the kind of book Kells is, and gives us an idea of the effect of a beautifully ornamented Gospel on a Medieval reader.
This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite. Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.
Probably the most famous of the pages in Kells is the one at the top of this post; F. 34R (click the image 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 (X), the Rho (P), and the Iota (I). These three letters are used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open that passage from Matthew in Latin “XPI autem generatio” or “Now the generation of Christ.” Looking at the image of F. 34R, you can see the generatio at the bottom right.
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 or mice that seems to be playing with (or eating) a mass wafer.
There are moths (symbols of rebirth and Resurrection) 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).
There are many spirals, tiny interlace animals, faces and a variety of knots. Some of the require magnification to see them properly because of the delicacy of detail and intricacy. (The TCD online facsimile of the Book of Kells supports zooming in on any of the pages).
The Contents of the Book of Kells
The beginning of the ms. is missing some leaves, for the first page begins in the middle of an alphabetical list of Hebrew Biblical names Jerome supplied, with a Latin translation or equivalent. It appears to be the last page of Jerome’s list.
This fragment of the list is followed by ten pages of canon tables, which attempt to coordinate equivalent passages in the four Gospels; a sort of concordance (sometimes called a “harmony of the four Gospels”)to the passages that are related. Eight of these canon table pages are illuminated and decorated. The first eight pages are similar in basic style to other canon tables; the passage references are flanked by somewhat abstract renderings of columns. The last two pages of canon tables are colored vertical charts (f.5v).
The canon tables are followed by two pages of copies of legal agreements between associates of the monastery of Kells regarding lands, etc. starting on the very bottom of f. 5v and continuing for three more pages (ff. 5v–7v). There is an additional page of similar transactions copied on f. 27r. These pages were likely originally blank, and the blank leaves were used to record legal contracts, a not uncommon practice, as if the Gospel itself was a third party witness. These transcriptions help date and locate the manuscript at Kells. As de Hamel says “all relate to land around the monastery of Kells between the late eleventh century and 1161” (de Hamel 2017, Chapter 3).
The next page, f.7v, one of the most famous full-page illuminations in Kells; the Virgin and Child, surrounded by four angels, one in each corner. It is said to be the earliest representation of the Virgin and Child in European art. It is followed by another full page illumination, this one announcing the opening of Jerome’s chapter summaries of the Gospel of Matthew. F.8r is an exceedingly ornamented page featuring a few letters of the opening; it is more than a little difficult to turn the images and ornaments into letters. An annotation at the base of the page helpfully supplies a Latin crib: “Nativitas xpisti in bethlehem.”de Hamel notes that it is in “a seventeenth century hand” (de Hamel 2017, Chapter 3).
Next follows more of Jerome’s prefatory material, 21 pages with the Preface to Matthew followed by pages summarizing the chapters of each of the Gospels and Jerome’s Prefaces for each Gospel. The prefatory matter is followed by a full-page illumination on f.27v showing the four symbols of the evangelists (Matthew is represented by the winged Man, Mark by the Lion, Luke by the Calf, and John by the Eagle) followed by a full page full-page illustration of Matthew the Evangelist f.28v, book in hand, facing the first page of the actual Gospel of Matthew, with an elaborate full-page illumination of the Latin opening “Liber generationis . . . ” of f.29r. The next page is a full page of the Gospel text. A few pages later what is often called the “second opening” of Matthew is marked by another full page illumination of Christ in Majesty, sitting on a throne (surrounded by angels and peacocks), f.32v, followed by f. 33r, a full page of elaborate geometric designs with circles, medallions and interlace in several colors; a “carpet page.”
F. 33r is the only carpet page in Kells; similar manuscripts have one preceding each of the Gospels. The carpet page is followed by f. 34r, sometimes referred to as the “second opening” of the Gospel of Matthew, an elaborate ornamented version of the first letters of Christ’s name. This is the famous Chi-Rho page. The text of Matthew continues on the next page and for several pages more.
The Gospels of Matthew and John are each prefaced with a full page portrait of the author of the Gospel; these are are single leaves. There are no extant equivalent portraits prefacing the Gospels of Mark or Luke; it’s not unlikely that they existed but have been lost. Just before the beginning of the Gospel of Mark is another page featuring the four evangelists (f. 129r) followed by an elaborate ornamented page featuring the opening of Mark (f.130r). The opening of Luke is an elaborate ornamented page featuring the opening of the Gospel of Luke (f.188r). Before the Gospel of John is another full page of the four evangelists (F. 290v) followed by a portrait page featuring John the Evangelist (f. 291v) seated in an chair and holding his Gospel, and followed by an elaborate, ornamental interlace page featuring the opening of the Gospel of John (f.292r). The Gospel of John ends early, at the equivalent of John 17:13. The last few leaves are in poor shape, and it’s difficult to know how many more would have originally followe; de Hamel estimates that ten more would be needed to complete the Gospel of John.de Hamel 2017, Chapter 3
The Book of Kells is on permanent display at Trinity College Dublin, in the Old Library, where it is known as Trinity College Dublin MS 58. The entire ms. is available for viewing online in a digital facsimile of the Book of Kells. You can even zoom in to see tiny details, and you should.
Christopher de Hamel. Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. “Chapter3 The Book of Kells.” Penguin Press: 2017. ISBN: 9781594206115.
See this pictorial essay showing images from the Book of Kells, with captions by Bernard Meehan.
There is an article in Celtica Vol. 21 1990 by Michael Herity on “Carpet pages and Chi-rhos: Some Depictions in Irish Early Christian Manuscripts and Stone Carvings.” Click for a .pdf file of the text.
There are a number of books about The Book of Kells; one of the easiest to find, and best values, is Bernard Meehan The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin (Second Edition).
I’ve listed other books about Kells here, including coloring books and Meehan’s 2012 spectacular volume on the Book of Kells.
Thanks to the lovely animated 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.