The importance of Ireland’s stunning illuminated manuscript The Book of Kells can’t be understated.
To understand the Book of Kells is to understand Ireland itself – old and new – a little better.
Not only is it a masterpiece of the illuminator’s art, it is a global symbol of Irishness, and that makes it no surprise that its presence in Trinity College Library draws a non-stop stream of visitors.
Fifteen centuries ago, on the rugged storm swept island of Iona off the coast of what is today Scotland, there were momentous events in the history of the Western World. Although much is known about this time and place, many great mysteries remain.
This much is known─in the year 563, an Irish monk named Columba with 12 fellow monks went to Scotland. There, he began his 36th Christian Monastery, this one on the island of Iona. The abbey grew quickly and became one of the largest religious centres in Western Europe.
This was an age sometimes known as the Dark Ages. Groups of warring tribes inhabited the British Isles and the continent of Europe. In Ireland, almost no one could read (not even kings), all teachings and learnings were centred in the monasteries which are also where books were made. In this time before printing existed, the monks copied and illustrated books by hand. Their skills became great. The books were written in exquisite calligraphy and decorated with wonderful illuminations.
One of the Greatest Creations
300 years after the founding of the monastery at Iona, around 800 AD, one of the most incredible artistic treasures of the Western World was created. That treasure is the Book of Kells. There are also things that we don’t know. No one knows for sure where that special book was made, no one knows who made it.
These are great mysteries that may never be solved. We do know that the Book of Kells was created as a work of religious art. Just like most of the artworks of that time. The book is written in Latin. It is a copy of a Christian Bible.
The artwork and calligraphy are so fine that the book is considered a masterpiece even today, twelve centuries later. The Book of Kells is part of the cross-cultural history of art. In it are blended together art styles that are Celtic, Christian, Islamic, and North African as well as Near Eastern.
The materials that were used to make this book came from as far away as Mesopotamia. Inks were made from precious jewels like Lapis lazuli.
These are just a few of the many, many things known about the Book of Kells and has perhaps been studied more than any other book. It is one of the best-known books in the world. It is considered by many to be the most eloquent book of all time.
Mysteries of the Book
Margaret Mannion, one of the scholars who studied the book, said: “throughout the centuries, the pages of this great book have aroused wonder and admiration at the ingenuity and creativity of the human spirit. Moreover, the story of the book’s survival for over twelve hundred years makes it all the more precious.”
There are more great mysteries; how did the book survive the attack of the Vikings in 893? What happened to the abbey at Iona? What happened when the book was stolen in 1006 and where was it found? Was its jewelled cover ever recovered?
There are other things we know… the Book of Kells was so famous, half a million people go to see it each year in Dublin, Ireland at Trinity College.
The Book of Kells is so precious, in the 1980s a Swiss publisher developed a way to copy the book so well to make it suspended in air and the pages were turned by air, never touched. From that process, a limited edition of 1480 copies of the printed Kells were made. Some 700 were reserved to the Western World. One of these replicas is held at the University of British Columbia.
As aforementioned, every year, half a million people pay to see The Book of Kells exhibit at Trinity College Dublin, and to catch a glimpse of the book itself. Housed in the Old Library in Trinity, the Book of Kells is over 1200 years old.
It is considered a transcription of the 4 Gospels by Irish Monks who were seen as the most talented scribes in and illustrators in Europe. It has been described as a lot of things such as “the most remarkable artefact of medieval art” and “the book that would turn darkness into light”.
The book is celebrated for its ornate illustrations and minute detail. It is so beloved that the story of the book was recently made into a fascinating, Oscar-nominated animated feature film.
The Chi Rho page is one of the best-known pages in the book. It introduces St. Matthew’s account of the nativity. The page is illustrated with images of people and animals. Including an otter with a fish, a peacock and two mice fighting over a Eucharistic host while two cats watch.
The preliminary matter is introduced by an iconic image of the Virgin and Child (folio 7v). This miniature is the first representation of the Virgin in a Western manuscript. Mary is shown in an odd mixture of frontal and three-quarter pose. It is the oldest surviving portrait of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child in Western Art.
It is considered to have been influenced by Egyptian and Oriental Arts.
A recurring motif throughout the book is the use of illustrations that act as visual aids to guide the reader’s eye to the facing page. A fine example of this motif is the six onlookers in the bottom right of this page. There is even a page of the book that shows the Four Evangelists and their symbols. These four are Mark the Lion, Matthew the Man, John the Eagle, Luke the Ox.
More on the Symbols of The Book
In the sixth century, St Gregory identified the symbols as the four stages of Christ’s life: Christ was a Man when he was born, a Calf in his death, a Lion in resurrection and an Eagle in his ascension to heaven. The symbols are arranged around a vibrant yellow cross, each enclosed by a bright yellow circle. Each of the symbols is accompanied by an associated creature, Man (top left) is accompanied by another man or perhaps an angel, the Lion (top right) by a Calf and an eagle, The Eagle (bottom right) by a calf and a lion and the Calf (bottom left) by another calf.
Fan of Irish myths? Read more about them here.
More information on the Book of Kells
This page operates on many visual levels. The outer frame contains interlacing snakes, birds, vines, and eucharistic chalices, so intricately painted that it is difficult to discern them. You can also marvel at the balance of straight and circular forms, of enclosed symbols and decorated margins.
There is a simple elegance to the design and at another level an almost unbelievable wealth of intricate detail. It is a page that could be seen both from a distance in a medieval church or in a laboratory with a magnifying glass. It would confound at both levels
Sadly, 30 folios from the book have been lost over the years. Viking raids were what spurred the book’s move from Iona to Kells. Then Kells, in turn, was sacked. The book was never fully completed. The Vikings raided the abbey at Kells repeatedly during that time and how book survived at all is something still unknown. Its bejewelled cover was never found, however.
The book was kept in Kells until 1654. In 1661, it was presented to Trinity College, where it has enjoyed sanctuary and preservation ever since.
Visiting this ancient university founded in 1592 is one of the most popular things to do in Dublin. You can book an easy 13 euro tour delivered by knowledgeable Trinity College students. This way you will learn great details about the university’s buildings, history, and monuments.
You will see and learn about the famous Sphere Within Sphere, a bronze sculpture by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro. Then finally, you will be taken in to learn about the Book of Kells hosted in one of the chambers of the library.
The library of the Trinity College Dublin has a very dark, old, and dusty appeal. It is synonymous with the Book of Kells but it’s home to a wealth of lesser-known medieval manuscripts spanning from the 5th to the 16th century, ranging from Arabic and Syrian texts to Irish insular gospel books.
Other displays include a rare copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read out by Pádraig Pearse at the beginning of the Easter Rising in 1916, as well as the so-called harp of Brian Ború, which was definitely not in use when the army of this early Irish hero defeated the Danes at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. It does, however, date from around 1400, making it one of the oldest harps in Ireland.
The Book of Kells Movie
There was also a movie made that was inspired by the book called ‘The Secret of Kells’. The animated fantasy film was created in 2009 by Cartoon Saloon that was released in three countries, Belgium, France and Ireland. The film was even nominated for best animation at the Academy Awards but lost out to the popular ‘Up’ Movie. Although the movie did win many other awards including ‘Best Animated’ at the Irish Film and Television Awards’. As well as European Animated Feature Award at the British Animation Awards. Long with six other awards and five other nominations.
The movie was very successful, gaining a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes and creating a lot of positive reviews such as a news reporter from the Philadelphia Daily News saying “is noteworthy for its unique, ornate design, its moments of silence and gorgeous music”
The Book of Kells, Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, is a must-see for anyone who visits Dublin.
You’ll also have the chance to wander around the 18th century Long Room, which is filled with 200,000 of the Library’s oldest books.
The Old Library and The Book of Kells open seven days a week for visitors…we hope you have a chance to be one!
Quick Facts About The Book of Kells
Is the Book of Kells the oldest book in the world? Dating back to 800AD the Book of Kells is considered the oldest book in the world as well as one of the most famous books.
When was the Book of Kells Written? The book was written in back in 800AD by Celtic monks containing Four Gospels of the New Testament.
Where is the Book of Kells located? The Famous book can be found in the historic Library located in Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
Why is the Book of Kells Important? The book is considered important because the inscriptions within the book provide evidence about its location at the time. The book helps to tell us about medieval history along with Christianity history at a particular time.
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