The Book Of Kells

This article will describe what the Book of Kells is, the history behind it and what it means to thecountry of Ireland.

Claimed by many scholars and experts to be the most beautiful book in the world, the Book of Kells is truly an artistic masterpiece. This article will describe what the Book is exactly, the history behind its construction and what it means to the island of Ireland.

The first impression one gets when seeing the Book of Kells is its size. Roughly the size of an A4 sheet it is 33x24 centimeters, and it is difficult not to be astonished that the detailed intricate, artwork and fanciful calligraphy can be crammed into such a small space. Believed to have been written by the monks on the Scottish island of Iona, careful analysis of the script reveals many different scribes. The handwriting changes throughout its pages, and experts have also determined that the artwork was undertaken by at least four different artists.

Basically, a copy of the four gospels - Mathew, Mark, Luke and John - from the Bible's New Testament, it also contains several additions. These include the 'Breves Causae' (or summaries of each Gospel), Canon Tables (reference sections and comparisons of Gospels' teachings to each other), Argumentum (details about the four scribes of the Gospels - e.g. their occupations, family history, etc) and various glossy pictures depicting the life of Christ (3 full-page paintings). Every single page is richly decorated - tiny animal and human figures are depicted within the capital letters beginning principal sections, in the margins and in any blank spaces throughout the manuscript.

The text itself is written in old Latin or St. Jerome's Vulgate, and close inspection reveals that it most closely resembles the Latin used by the Irish Catholic Church in medieval times rather than the Latin used by the Vatican in Rome. There are mistakes in the Latin, and this fact has led several historians to speculate that parts of the Book of Kells may have been copied from similar manuscripts that were written around the same time.

These other manuscripts are: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the Lichfield Gospels, the Book of Armagh, and the Book of Durrow. It is the latter book - the Book of Durrow - which experts believe was copied in some parts by scribes of the Book of Kells - the errors in the two are practically identical. Such 'borrowing' was quite likely because monasteries in those days were closely linked. Also monks at this time rarely copied the entire Bible - that would have taken many more years to complete.

Believed to have been written between 700 and 800 AD it was spirited to Kells, County Meath, in Ireland when the Vikings invaded the Scottish Island of Iona in 805. Kells was thought to be a safe haven from Viking raids, and the Book was probably finished here. The next notable date in the manuscript's history was 1006/7 when it was stolen, stripped of its ornate gold cover (possibly inlaid with precious jewels) and thrown into a ditch. There it stayed until it was discovered and returned to Kells.

Unfortunately, its time in the waterlogged ditch had lasting impact on its condition. The outer leaves and margins of the pages (made of vellum - a form of calf skin) were damaged and wormholes were evident throughout.

It stayed in the Kells until the time of Oliver Cromwell, when his Chief of Intelligence, Henry Jones, gave the Book in 1654 or 1661 to Trinity College in Dublin, a British-run University at this time. Today, it is still at Trinity College, housed behind glass in the Old Library and can be viewed by the public Monday to Saturday (9.30 am until 5.00 pm) throughout the year, and on Sundays (12 am until 4.30 pm October to May; 9.30 am to 4.30 pm June to September).

The public does not see all of the Book of Kells however, but rather only two of the four volumes - one depicting a full-page painting of Christ and the other depicting a page of text. Few people are allowed to handle its delicate pages. The manuscript was bound in 1953 into the current four volumes and over-trimming of some water-damaged pages further impacted on the Book's condition.

The text itself is written in insular majuscule script, the capital letters beginning principal sections depicted in what is referred to as 'Calligraphic Irish hand' while the main body of the manuscript is written in tiny, compressed script.

The interest in the Book of Kells is international. A CD-rom has been compiled for purchase by Trinity College (depicting the entire manuscript), the College host's specific exhibitions which focus on various aspects of the Book (the latest running from February of 1999 until the end of the year 2000 and titled: 'The Book of Kells: Turning Darkness into Light') and various copies of the Book can be observed in libraries and museums worldwide.

The copies were made by the Fine Art Facsimile Publishers of Switzerland, who took 10 years to make a limited edition of 1480 copies. These copies are practically indistinguishable from the original - they even depict the uneven pages and worm holes! One of these copies resides at the Oregon State Library in the United States and this simply highlights the international interest in the Book.

The reason for such widespread interest is obvious - the book is a masterpiece of Medieval Art depicting an ancient time in its fanciful script and breathtaking pictures and drawings. The Irish regard it as one of their national treasures, which draws thousands of tourists to Dublin annually.

In conclusion, the Book of Kells is more than just another book - it is one of the great masterpieces of western Art, a jewel from Medieval times. As Giraldus Cambrensis said of the 1200-year-old Book of Kells: "you might believe it was the work of an angel", and this is indeed the impression you get when you see the manuscript with your own eyes.

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