The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript which is more than 1,200 years old. It is regarded as one of the greatest treasures of Celtic art.
Monks and Manuscripts
Early Irish Monasteries
After Ireland was converted to Christianity in the 5th Century AD, Irish monasteries developed as centres of learning. In special work rooms or scriptoria, many monks devoted their lives to copying manuscripts, not just of the Bible but of many other texts. In the 6th and 7th centuries AD, Irish monks founded monasteries in Britain and mainland Europe, and brought their manuscripts and skills with them.
To make a manuscript, the monks first prepared the parchment or vellum. Sections of calfskin were soaked in lime, then stretched and scraped until they were paper-thin. More than 150 skins were needed to make a book the size of The Book of Kells, and since only healthy animals would provide vellum of the quality needed, it is clear that the cost of a single manuscript was enormous.
The sheets of parchment were cut to size and lined up together. The scribes then began to write the text by hand, using quill pens, and to decorate it with special pigments. These pigments were prepared from a range of natural materials, from lapis lazuli to orpiment (arsenic sulphide), usually mixed with egg white as a binding agent.
The writing style known as Uncial had rounded letters, influenced by Greek. The Irish monks developed a distinctive script from this, which is now known as Irish Uncial (or more technically Insular Majuscule). Latin written by Irish monks can also be recognised by some other features, including the use of distinctive abbreviations.
Celtic Knotwork and Ornament
In Celtic art and metalwork, increasingly complicated patterns of interlaced lines or knotwork were common. Stylised animals and birds became part of these patterns. The Irish monks used these patterns to decorate the manuscript pages, especially on the initial letters of texts. Pages where the knotwork took over completely from the text are often known as 'Carpet Pages'.
History of The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells was written around the year 800 AD, probably in the monastery of Iona, off the Scottish coast. This monastery was founded by the Irish Saint Columba.
The book originally consisted of over 350 leaves, each approximately 33cm by 25cm. The main text is that of the four Gospels in Saint Jerome's Latin version, but there are also some pages of prefaces and summaries. It originally had a cover inlaid with gold and jewels.
The Columban monks also had a monastery at Kells in County Meath. Iona was under regular threat of attack by Viking raiders, and at some point in the 9th Century the book was sent over to Ireland for safekeeping. It remained in the monastery at Kells for nearly 700 years, with one unfortunate interruption. In the year 1006 the book was stolen. When it was found a few weeks later, the gold and jewels of the cover were missing, along with some of the pages, leaving the 680 pages (340 leaves) that can be seen today.
During the troubled era of the Reformation and its aftermath, ownership of the Book changed hands a number of times. When the monastery was suppressed in 1539 it passed to a relative of the last abbot, Richard Plunkett. It later came into the hands of the Protestant Archbishop Ussher. In 1661 it was donated to the library of Trinity College in Dublin.
The Book of Kells Today
The Book of Kells has been on display in the Old Library of Trinity College since the 19th Century. During restoration work in 1953, it was bound into four volumes. There are usually two volumes on display, one showing ordinary script and one showing a page with particularly detailed decoration.
Some visitors are disappointed that only four pages are on view, and by the rather dim light required to protect the inks. However, only a look at the real thing can give a full understanding of the almost incredibly minute detail. Reproductions of carpet pages and other highly decorated pages such as the Chi Rho page1 are widely available. Many university libraries have copies of the excellent Swiss facsimile edition of 1990, which allows more detailed study than is possible with the original2.