The Book of Kells holds a special place in the history of Western art as a crowning achievement of the Insular manuscript tradition. Created in the years around 800, it survived Viking raids and the theft of its jeweled covers. Named for the monastery in Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland, the book was brought there after the monastic community on Iona fled raids in the early ninth century.
No page of the gospel book is without some form of decoration, but each of the nine full-page figural illustrations are remarkable images rich in enigmatic detail. It is, however, the initials of each gospel that are the most marvelous pages of the Book of Kells. The spectacular incarnation initial, the Chi-Rho monogram page, is perhaps the most famous example of Insular calligraphy.
Thought to be made by the monastic community established by Colmcille (St. Columba) on the isle of Iona in modern-day Scotland, this Latin gospel book is a stunning manuscript in which text has transcended being words on a page to become the iconic art of a nation.
A Masterpiece of Insular Art
In the Book of Kells, it is difficult to separate the pictures from the text. Between the canon tables, the figural images and the calligraphic initials to the Gospels, there are two dozen pages of iconic art. Among the book’s illustrative pictures are the Virgin and Child, the Crucifixion, and the haunting image of the Arrest of Christ. Jesus stands with his hands cast out pointing to the crosses in the border of the page, anticipating his crucifixion. He is flanked by two men who hold his wrists as they take him into custody.
The vines of the garden of Gethsemane curl asymmetrically from the crowns of their heads. Acting as a keystone to the framing arch, monstrous heads, their tongues intertwined, echo the confronted gazes of the men arresting Christ. The figures are flattened and stylized as if made in metalwork, yet the pathos and tension of the scene remain stark and vibrant.
Bejeweled but not with Gold and Silver
The main text of the Book of Kells is written in Insular majuscule in rich black ink, yet each page is so embellished with colored and decorated initials and fantastic, brightly-colored intertwined creatures that the devotion of the manuscript’s scribes is inscribed throughout the book.
The intricacy and detail of the craftsmanship filling the pages is a testament to the dedication with which the book was made. It records the Eusebian canon tables, Jerome’s vulgate Latin version of the Gospels with accompanying Argumenta and Breves Causae and additional readings from the Old Latin translation.
A Survivor of the Vikings
When the monastic community on Iona fled to Ireland and settled at Kells with their precious gospel book, they did so to escape the devastation brought by Viking raiders, who had been a constant threat through the eighth century. Unfortunately, the Vikings came to Kells and the book was stolen, likely for its gold and jeweled covers.
The pages of the book were recovered, having been buried by its thieves. After the dissolution of the monastery, it eventually passed to Archbishop Ussher who, in 1621, sold the book to the English army. It was kept in Dublin Castle until 1661 when it was presented to Trinity College, Dublin by Charles II. It remains there today.