The Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript created by monks in the ninth century. The manuscript presently resides in Trinity College Library, in Dublin, Ireland. It’s a beautifully illuminated version of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) with the customary medieval additions like the canon tables to allow a reader to find equivalent passages in the four Gospels. The manuscript is currently in the form of four volumes, after re-binding in 1953. It’s had a difficult, even a traumatic life, and some of the pages are missing and others are damaged by wear and light. 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 Book of Kells is one of the best known illuminated manuscripts, and features 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). 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.
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.
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, but frankly, it sounds more like The Book of Kells than any of the other similar manuscripts we still have.
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.
The general scholarly consensus is that The Book of Kells was the work of the scriptorium of the monastery of Iona, an island just of the West coast of Scotland. The monastery was founded in 561, by Saint Colum Cille, and was known for its scriptorium and piety. In 806 there was a devastating Viking raid on Iona, (neither the first or the last), but after the raid the 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 a partially unfinished condition. There’s an entry in the year 1006 in The Annals of Ulster that reads:
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.
The passage describes a stolen ms; one that was considered precious for its art. We think it probably refers to The Book of Kells, and that it describes the cover having been removed, since the ms. would have had an elaborate jeweled cover. Today, after a brief sojourn in Rome, 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.
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. There’s a collection of high quality images here.
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). There’s a good discussion of Celtic illumination styles and a comparison between the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, an earlier manuscript in a similar style, here.
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.
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. I’ll wait. Or you can simply buy a copy of The Secret of Kells.