Book of Kells Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Book of Kells c. 795-806

Irish illuminated manuscript.

Called the "chief relic of the western world," the Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript created by monks over a period of several years, dated to the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries, containing the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Believed to be the work of three scribes, it is written in Latin on calf vellum in Irish script, mostly in its majuscule form. The text is based on St. Jerome's Vulgate Bible but has much of the Old Latin translation as well. Painted by hand, the Book of Kells's colorful and detailed illustrations are considered among the finest representations of religious art. The Book of Kells contains many full-page illustrations, including portraits of Jesus, Matthew, John, and the Virgin Mary. The artwork includes elaborate designs, fine decorations that need to be magnified to be fully appreciated, and representations of foliage and animals, and of abstract and symbolic figures; Matthew is represented as a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as a calf, John as an eagle. Many of the capital letters are of great size, highly ornamented, surrounded by symbolic figures. The Book of Kells also contains a page of etymologies, numerous canon tables, and summaries of and prefaces to the gospels. The manuscript consists of 340 folios with relatively large pages, measuring about thirteen inches by nine-and-a-half. Scholars believe that some thirty folios originally in the Book are missing. In addition, its cover, decorated with gold, and its jeweled binding were forcibly removed by thieves when the book was stolen in 1007 and were no longer intact with the rest of the book when it was found a few months after the theft. The preface and some twelve leaves at the end were destroyed in the damage wrought by the thieves, experts have surmised.

The creation of the Book of Kells probably started in the monastery of Iona, an island in the Hebrides, off the shore of Scotland. It may have been originally intended as a commemoration in 797 of the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of St. Columba. While the Book of Kells was nearing completion, Vikings invaded Iona. The monks deserted their monastery, escaped with the Book, and made their new home in Kells, in County Meath, Ireland, establishing themselves in a new Columban monastery between 807 and 814. While the majority of the artwork is splendid, some of the pages have been finished sparingly and in a notably inferior style by another artist or artists. It is believed the inferior work was done at Kells.

The Book of Kells has been used and admired for more than a thousand years. The book has been rebound and repaired at various times in its history, including an 1830s attempt which resulted in extensive clipping damage. In 1953 an expert restoration occurred and the decision was made to separate it into four volumes, each containing one of the gospels and each bound separately. At the same time the vellum leaves were flattened and creases removed. The Book of Kells has resided in the immense Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin since the seventeenth century.

Areas of critical interest include determining the model or models on which Kells was based, narrowing the date of its creation, tracing its ownership throughout the centuries, and interpreting its symbolism. Most scholars believe it was largely based on a now-lost manuscript from the continent. Considering what such a prototype would have consisted of involves careful study of the decorations; for example, vegetation as ornamentation is rare in Celtic works but is found in abundance in the Book of Kells and the bold blues and yellows (but with an almost total absence of gold) contrast with the predominant colors of other early gospel manuscripts. Defects in the text, which are many, serve as other clues in speculating on the nature of its source. Francoise Henry has written that the painters of the Book of Kells "adapted, transformed, magnified or misunderstood their models." He considers the problem of what these models were and where they came from "one of the most vexed and fascinating questions concerning the Book."