On first seeing the Book of Kells at the end of the twelfth century, the Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis exclaimed it was so exquisite that it could easily be mistaken for “the work of an angel and not of a man.” It is regarded as the finest achievement of Celtic art and considered by many to be the most beautiful book in the world, but what is the Book of Kells?
Simply put, the main part of the Book of Kells contains the gospels of the evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke & John – in Latin and Vulgate text, written in Irish script. It also contains a preface and some legal text. But what makes this book a masterpiece of Western art is the wealth of richly elaborate illustrations contained on all but two of its 680 pages. These illustrations are referred to as “illuminations” as the pictures were intended to light the way, or guide the reader to a deeper understanding of the text.
The Book of Kells was produced around the year 800 A.D. by Celtic monks drawing on a rich and flourishing culture of Celtic artistry (see, for example, the Tara brooch and Ardagh Chalice, both circa 700 A.D.). Production of the book began in the scriptorium of the monastery of the order of St. Columba on the island of Iona, between Scotland and Ireland. It’s not clear whether further work was done on the book in Ireland, but it is certain that repeated Viking raids forced the monks to flee in 806 A.D. to the safer haven of Kells, County Meath, about 40 miles from Dublin.
The artwork in the Book of Kells combines Christian icons and zoomorphic creatures with beautifully colourful and complex Celtic knots and spirals. Even today the colours are lustrous, and we can only imagine how richly vibrant they must have appeared when the book was first produced. Animals and mythical beings such as angels, gargoyles, serpents, dragons, birds, dogs, cats and horses abound and are used symbolically to reinforce the Christian message. The full page illumination of the 4 evangelists, for example, shows the saints in the guise of their traditionally associated zoomorphic symbols: Matthew – the man; Mark – the lion; Luke – the ox; John – the eagle.
Styles range from the whimsical (see, e.g., a cat chasing mice) to the sublime, from adornments of capital letters (there are hundreds of these, and no two are alike), to the magnificent, incredibly intricate full page illuminations. So intricate is one detail, in fact, that you would need a 10x magnifying glass to discern 158 perfectly interlaced ‘ribbons’ in the space of one square inch. How such beautiful and complex patterns were produced is something of a mystery, as magnifying glasses were not available until hundreds of years after the Book of Kells was produced.
The Book remained in Kells for more than 800 years and, somehow, survived. Despite constant pillages in the 10th century by the Danes, a theft in 1006 in which the book was stripped of its jewelled cover and buried for nearly 3 months, and more invasions in the 1600′s by the English under Cromwell, the Book of Kells emerged relatively and miraculously unscathed. It was presented to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1660 and has remained there ever since as its greatest treasure. The Book of Kells is available for viewing by the public in the college Library, where each day a different page is displayed.