…before the morning on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood before him in a dream and showing him a picture drawn on a tablet which he had in his hand,[and] said to him, “Do you think that you can draw this picture on the first page which you propose to copy?” The scribe, who doubted his skill in such exquisite art, in which he was uninstructed and had no practice, replied that he could not. Upon this the angel said, “…[e]intreat your Lady to offer prayers for you to the Lord…and give you spiritual vision…”— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 39: How the Book was Composed
The scribe having done as he was commanded…All these, aided by divine grace, the scribe made himself master of, and faithfully committing them to his memory, exactly copied in his book in their proper places. In this manner the book was composed, an angel furnishing the designs, St. Brigit praying, and the scribe copying.
Angels on Folio 285r in the Book of Kells in the Trinity College, Dublin. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
The Book of Kells is one of great heirlooms of the Celtic, Hiberno Scottish world. It has been on a permanent display at Trinity College Dublin since the seneteenth century, where it was brought from Kells sometimes after 1661. At that stage, the monastery in Kells was falling into ruins and was additionally threatened by the soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Thus the Bishop of Meath, Henry Jones (circa 1605 – 1681) thought to be safer to bring the Book of Kells to Dublin, where it has been preserved at Trinity College Library for over three hundred years until now, classified as TCD MS 58. In the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, the Book has been admired by millions who have made a pilgrimage to see it from all the world and to have been dazzled by the beauty and its intricacy of its craftsmanship. Yet, what exactly does the Book of Kells mean? What is the nature of the historical and artistic context that gave rise to it? Where was it made and by whom? What has been its fate across the centuries, from the time of its origins until the present?
The Book of Kells is handwritten and hand-decorated book that now contains 340 parchment leaves, which gives a total of 680 pages (folios). At Trinity, the Book remains open with two of its pages visible to visitors. Only one of its pages is turned over every day, so in order to look through the whole manuscript, one would have to allocate at least one year of daily visits. The pages measure about 13 inches (33.02 cm) by 8 inches (20.32 cm). Originally, it had more leaves than that and had a form of the one single book, while it is now in four seperate volumes, one for each Gospel, which was the result of its successive rebounding in 1953 by a bookbinder Roger Powell to preserve its rare pages in a better condition. It contains the text of the four Gospels according to SS Matthews, Mark, Luke and John in the Latin translation that Saint Jerome had made in Rome during the 380s AD. It is an example of a particular type of book that modern scholars call the Insular Gospel Book, that is to say, a copy of the four Gospels that were made in the British Isles between the middle of the seventh century and the early ninth century. Hence the term Insular has been coined. Like other manuscripts of the same kind, the Book of kells was intended as a large liturgical Gospel Codex, which was possibly displayed as a relic on an altar and may have been carried in processions during Christian festivals to be shown to laypeople.
During the hundred and fifty years or so, during which the Insular Gospels were made, the genre underwent significant development. The earliest member of this genre, the Book of Durrow, made either in Ireland or Northern England, around the year 650 AD., contains a relatively simple repertory of artwork. The Book of Kells was among the very last Insular Gospel Codices to be made, and it surpasses all others in the amount and quality of its artistic decoration. One of the Insular books, which is closest to the Book of Kells in its intricacy and grandeur is the Book of Lindisfarne Gospels, now preserved in the British Library, in London. It was made a several decades, possibly a century, before the Book of Kells appeared. The Lindisfarne Gospel Book represents a very sophisticated exemplum of the genre and only the Book of Kells surpasses it.
The basic structure of the Book is the same as the Lindisfarne Gospels and other manuscripts but the Book of Kells adds further decorative pages over and above this basic structure. It literally abounds, as no other Insular illuminated manuscript, in decorations on almost each folio, including famous full-page illuminations and exceptionally lavish Hiberno-Scottish incipits (the first few words of the text), which many a time turn into elaborate frontispieces. Yet, although the Book of Kells goes far beyond any other representative of this genre of Insular Gospel book, there is known nothing for sure, which is the major difference between it and the Lindisfarne Gospels, including the fact there are no notes in the artwork about its authorship. Stylistically, the Book of Kells can be dated around the year 800 but possibly it was not fully compeleted exactly in this particular year. Given its magnificence, it is likely that it was made at the great monastery on the Island of Iona.
Iona itself is a very small island, of only about 3,5 miles (around 56 km) from N-S and 1,5 miles (24 km) E-W. It is located off the southwestern tip of the much larger Island of Mull, which itself stands off the western coast of Scotland. It was here on Iona that in the early 560, Saint Columba founded the monastery which became the headquarters of the Columban Church, which extended across a considerable portion of western Scotland, and it was from Iona that Saint Aidan was sent to Northumbria in around 635 AD., to found the monastery of Lindisfarne. The Celtic monks had a particular taste for remote locations, such as Skellig Michael, one of the first Saint Michael’s sanctuaries on Apollo/Michael Axis. They were all set apart from the hurly-burly of the world, where the monks can give themselves over fully to the life of the spirit. Having left Ireland in self-imposed exile for the purpose of seeking God, the great Columbkille, known as Saint Columba in the Latin form of his name, also chose a distant and remote island for his new home and monastery. This was a man of vurnerable life and of blessed memory, the father and founder of monasteries, who was given the same name as the Old Testament Prophet Jonah. What is pronounced Iona in Hebrew and is translated as Columba in Latin means a dove. So great a name coud not have been given to a man of God but by divine providence. For it is shown in the Gospel that the Holy Spirit descended upon the only begotten Son of God in the form of that little white bird.
Saint Columba was born in County Donegal around 520 AD. into a culture of the written world. To the Earliest Irish Church the written word was the Word of God. From the Hand of God came Scripture. God was the author of the book and that book was Scripture. So the best art and hand-craft were used in Hiberno-Scottish literal tradition to write and explain Scripture. For the Irish the skill of writing and the miraculous were very close together, and so Insular books were miracles in themselves, as if they had been only created by divine or mystical assistance of heavenly beings.
… if you apply yourself to a more closer examination, and are able to penetrate the secrets of the art displayed in these pictures, you will find them so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn, and the work of interlacing so elaborate, while the colours with which they are illuminated are so blended, and still do fresh, that you will be ready to assert that all this is the work of angelic, and not human, skill…“— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written
Such beliefs are not surprising. All in all, there are so many miracles reported in Hiberno-Irish hagiographies about saints and their encounters with angels, about their books created with their miraculous skills of writing. And as such, the Book of Kells had remined enigmatic for a very long time.
Early Christian communities’ life in the Dark Ages, like the one of the monks from Iona was not simple as they lived in a tangible threat of Viking raids. On the other side, independent on the Roman Church, they were free to use christianised Celtic traditions of pagan origins, yet deeply combined with Oriental Christian iconology, mostly coming from the Desert of Egypt, to eventually create the greatest work of art ever to come on the British Isles. The first reference to the Book of Kells appeared only in the twelfth century, where it was found in Kells, Co. Meath. That’s why it has got its modern name. Like the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells has had an eventful history over the centuries. At Kells it was treated with great reverence. Even though Saint Columba had alrady died circa 597 AD., during the eleventh century it was believed to have been written by his own hand and thus was known as the “Great Gospel of Colmcille, the chief relic of the Western world”. The Book had remained at Kells until the monastery was abolished in 1539. At that moment in history, it passed through the hands of Gerald Plunket, plausibly a relative to the last Abbot of Kells, who inscribed notes onto the pages of the Book’s marginalia; at the very beginning, he added a note observing that this manuscript surpasses the cunning of all men. He struggled the text on several of the major decorated pages, entering his transcriptions at the bottom of this pages. By 1621, the Book of Kells had come into the hands of a prominent Anglican clergyman and scholar, the Archibishop of Armagh, James Ussher, who calculated that the World had been created on October 23rd, in 4004 BC. Having been displayed at Trinity College, in 1849, the Book of Kells was proudly presented to the Queen Victoria, who signed her name on the front …
If it was originally made on Iona, it reached Kells when the monks of Iona fled the island in the eraly ninth century, under the pressure of Viking attacks. The whole monastery would have been involved in making over the Book, and there were around several hundred men working in the monastery. It is indeed the work of very fine artists, painters and calligraphers. Its uniqueness lies in its decoration, the scale of it and in the intensity of it. Apart from figural representations, Hiberno-Scottish artists went back to very early Celtic art, which loves the assymetry of curves. They were also insipred by contemporaneous masterpieces of matalwork. Both, book illuminators and craftsmen used such devices as compass, rulers and templates, so they all started from initial drwaings to create a final artwork either in metal, sculpture or painting.
In 795, Iona was subjected to a ferocious Viking raid, one of the earliest Vikings’ attacks on Western Europe. Iona continued to suffer at the hands of the Vikings in the ensuing years until in 807 most of the monks led by their abbot migrated to Ireland and built a new monastery for themselves at the inland location in Kells of County Meath. So was the Book of Kells written on Iona before the Viking raids or was it written in Kells after the community migrated there? Or could it perhaps have even began on Iona and completed in Kells? These are questions never to be answered for sure. Neither names can be put to the makers of the Book of Kells, unlike in the case of the Book of Lindisfarne Gospels. Yet, it is based on detectable differences in style both in the handwriting and in the artwork, the manuscript seems to be the work of a team of three or four scribal artists. The art historian and archaeologist, Francoise Henry, called the artist of the Book of Kells’ Chri Rho page the goldsmith, not only for the use of yellow but also for fine details of his work, which was reminiscent of metalwork. The so-called ‘goldsmith’ was also responsible for the eight circle cross page or carpet page. The ‘illustrator’ is the name she gave to the artist who executed the Temptation page and page normally identified as the Arrest of Christ. Additionally, there is a ‘portrait painter’ – as she called him, who was responsible for the depiction of the Virgin and Child. In contrast to the personalities that Francoise Henry gave the artists, she simply termed the scribes A, B and C, “to which I’m inclined to add the fourth scribe D. Th e scribe A was a sovereign conservative who concentrated entirely on script. On the other hand, the scribe B was a unbind personality who clearly enjoyed using different coloured inks. The scribe C integrated his script closely into the decoration. The scribe D, I regard as the most accomplished of all. In some places, I have the impression that he was responsible for both, decoration as well as script”.
Moreover, it is believed that the Book of Kells has a few layers of understanding. The basic one generates from the scale of the work itself to be admired as the work of angels. As such, it was venerated by both, educated and illiterate believers who were dazzled by its colours. It was a mircale itself for laypeople to see the divine rainbow enclosed in the Book. There were various types of inks used in writing manuscripts. The most common ink was made using inkberry holly but there were also used various plant and mineral extracts. Some of the pigments were produced locally, like those received from oak galls or lamp black. Others were very exotic, such as lapis lazuli brought from the far East. What that does tell us about the contemporaneous trade links is the fast that these remote Insular religious centres, like Iona, were plugged into the international exchange of goods. In the Book of Kells, the range of colours used is much wider than previously, its illuminators went even a stage further; they overpainted with colour wahes, they engaged a little bit with a sort of pointilist optical mistic by having different little decorative motifs overlying the base colours. Yet, another level of the insight the Book of Kells has offered is not a visual and not for the illiterate at all, as it contains an extremely encoded text for the initiated. Letters on many of its pages can be only put into phrases and read when a reader exactly knows what he is looking for. The words in the Book of Kells are even more hidden and difficult to be discerned in between their curves and shapes than in any other codices, including the Lindisfarne Gospels.
The Book of Kells has not survived the centuries intact. Near 1006 or 1007, it was stolen from the sacristy of the Church of Columba in Kells. It was not for the Book of Kells itsel, as its thief was most possibly illiterate, but for the Book’s wonderful binding and the casket, in which it was held, that had kept the attention of the thief, who stripped off the binding and threw the Book in the bog, from where it was happily recovered three months later. It is very difficult to imagine the richness of such a book cover for the Gospel Codex of a similar caliber but we can get some idications from the surviving book shrines. The closest complete example that has survived is the cover of the Soiscél Molaisse, which was once a used as an Irish cumdach for a more pocket Gospel Book. It originated from an eighth-century wooden core embellished in the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. The cover shows the ringed cross, surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists and these representations, of course, find their parallels on a few pages from the Book of Kells. At one time or another, the latter has lost about 30 leaves, including about 10 leaves at the beginning, about 12 at the end and 8 or 9 leaves at various points within the Book. Some of the lost leaves would have included the major decorations. After it was sent to Dublin, the worst came; the Book of Kells was savagely trimmed by a binder at some point in its history, when the manuscript was rebound but it is not known exactly when. It is specifically visible on Folio 291v, with the Portrait of Saint John, where the Evangelist is enbraced by a larger figure with his head partly chopped off. Rebounding was to make the Book look tidy, with its edges fitting perfectly its new binding, which turned out to be extremely harmful to the Book itself.
The beginning of each Gospel in all Insular Gospel Codices is the following: The Evangelist portrayed, carpet page, opening words of the Gospel. In the Book of Kells the sequence is similar but not quite the same. The first page of the sequence is a page showing all four of the Evangelists’ symbols: angel, lion, ox and eagle. This is on a left-hand page. The facing page is left blank. The next left-hand page has a picture of the Evangelist but only two of the original four Evangelists’ portraits had survived , those showing Matthews and John. The picture of Matthew faces the opening words of his Gospel, which is, as mentioned above, much more difficult to read in the Book of Kells than in the Lindisfarne Gospels. In the Book of Kells there is also a sequence of not one but of three decorated pages at the point of Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1, Verse 18). First comes a picture of Christ Himself, holding the Book of Life in His hand. This image of Christ occupies a left-hand page. It faces a Carpet Page, which incorporates a double-cross design. After turning that page over, there are the opening words of Matthew Chapter 1, verse 18, with the letters X P I, abbreviating Christ’s name in Greek. The Book of Kells has lost its first pages but they may have contained Saint Jerome’s letter to his comissioner, Pope Damasus, but it does still have a set of Canon Tables. Instead of having the columns headed by the names of the Evangelists, as in the Lindisfarne Gospels, there are their symbols. What more distinguishes the Book of Kells from other Insular Gospel codices is that it goes far beyond them, both, in the amount and elaborateness of decoration, and in the number of miniatures; it includes all three pictures depicting key moments in Christ’s life on earth. It is worth emphasising that these three scenes are the only narrative representations of events in Christ’s life to be found in any Insular Gospel works. At the front of the Book, following the Canon Tables, comes the deception of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child group surrounded by four archangels, alluding to Christ’s birth on earth. Toward the end of Matthew’s Gospel appears the picture depicting the Arrest of Christ after Judas had betrayed Him. And within Saint Luke’s Gospel, immediately after the section of text describing baptism comes the image representing Christ’s Temptation. Regarding pages with regular text, the style of the handwriting is the same as for the Lindisfarne Gospels, yet there are touches of colour and decoration scattered across the pages. Each verse of the text begins with a collet and decorated initial so that even on pages of regular text the decoration of Kells goes beyond that of Lindisfarne. Also some text pages are afforded special treatment, e.g. the page that contains the beginning of Saint Luke’s listing of the ancestors of Jesus. The page with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5,3-48) is also given a special treatment, so it is once again more colourful and more elaborate. Pages of text that describes events at the end of Jesus’ life are treated even more decoratively, like the page that begins the account of the Crucifixion in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.
It has been long recognised that the Book of Kells is a consummate masterpiece of early medieval design. The pioneer scholar of the study of the medieval manuscripts, John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893) wrote, commenting on both, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells: “I have examined with the magnifying glass the pages of the Gospel of Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells for hours together, without ever detecting of false line or an irregular interlacement. And when it is considered that many of these details consist of spiral lines and are so minute, as it is impossible to have been executed without a pair of compasses, it really seems an enigma not only with what eyes but also with what instruments they could have been drawn”.
Despite its overhelming grandeur, the Book of Kells rarely appears in known medieval accounts of annals, and if it does, authors dedicate to it just short passages. The exception comes from twelfth-century chronicler, Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis’ (1146-1223), who travelled across Ireland in 1180s gives a long and elaborate medieval description of The Book of Kells in a really literal and descriptive manner, as if it was a fairy tale. Topographia Hibernica by Giraldus Cambrensis shows how much the author was amazed by the beauty of the Book’s illuminations when he traveled to Ireland. He describes it as “so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn”. Having applied the whole range of iconographical, iconological, technical and stylistic elements, the Book of Kells reached the highest level in its genre. It is so fascinating to discover there ancient Celtic motifs and techniques, interlaced with Oriental iconological religious ideas and iconography, with some additions of the European Meditteranean stylistic touches. All these aspects make the Book of Kells a real masterpiece and a glorious refection of knowledge speard in one of the enlightened enclaves in the contemporaneous world. For its intricacy, the Book of Kells was authentically believed to have been created with divine or mystical assistance. In Giraldus’ account, the scribe working on the Book was inspired by an angel and one of the major Patron Saints of Ireland, Saint Brigit. Yet invoking such a heveanly assistance of angels was not an uncommon phenomenon, frequently described as real events, especially in Insular chronicles or hagiographies, and was also practiced by means of adapted orthopraxy, by means of various rituals, which were not always in accordance with the canonical orthodoxy assumed in Rome. It is finally not surprising that in the eyes of medieval public, the Book of Kells was regarded as the “work of not men but of angels”. Those seems appropriate words to be applied to this most beautiful book …
Among all the miracles in Kildare, none appears to me more wonderful than that marvelous book which they say was written in the ti[m]e of the Virgin at the dictation of an angel. It contains the Four Gospels according to St. Jerom[e], and almost every page is illustrated by drawings illuminated with a variety of brilliant colours. In one page you see the countenance of the Divine Majesty supernaturally pictured; in another, the mystic forms of the evangelists, with either six, four or two wings; here are depicted the eagle, there the calf; here the face of a man, there of a lion; with other figures in almost endless variety…— Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written.
Featured image: In front of the representation of the page with Angels or Archangels on Folio 285r in the Book of Kells in the Trinity College. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
Beckett, W. 1996. ‘The Mists of Time’, in Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, S.1, E.1. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Giraldus Cambrensis, The Topography of Ireland, accessed March 21, 2018, Thomas Wright, trans. (Cambridge, Ontario 2000), pp. 55-6.
Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales] (c. 1146-1223) in Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188), in Medieval Hollywood. (https://bit.ly/42T43Sv; accessed 14th May, 2023).
Grahams, T. 2009. ‘The Book of Kells: A Celtic Treasure’, in UNM Youtube Channel. The University of New Mexico. (https://bit.ly/3O8qMWw, 2009; accessed 14th May, 2023).
Grigor, M., Lenton, L. 2009. The Book of Kells – The Works of Angels? Crescendo Concepts LTD.
Lewis, S. 1980. Sacred Calligraphy: the Chi-Rho Pagein the Book of Kells. Traditio , 1980, Vol. 36, pp. 139-159. Cambridge University Press.