the book of kells


An Irish manuscript containing the Four Gospels, a fragment of Hebrew names,
and the Eusebian canons, known also as the "Book of Columba", probably because
it was written in the monastery of Iona to honour the saint. It is likely
that it is to this book that the entry in the "Annals of Ulster" under the
year 1006 refers, recording that in that year the "Gospel of Columba" was
stolen. According to tradition, the book is a relic from the time of Columba
(d. 597) and even the work of his hands, but, on judging by the character
of the ornamentation, this tradition cannot be sustained, and the date of
the composition of the book can hardly be placed earlier than the end of
the seventh or beginning of the eighth century. This must be the book which
the Welshman, Geraldus Cambrensis, saw at Kildare in the last quarter of
the twelfth century and which he describes in glowing terms.

We next hear of it at the cathedral of Kells in Meath, a foundation of Columba's,
where it remained for a long time, or until the year 1541. In the seventeenth
century Archbishop Ussher presented it to Trinity College, Dublin, where
it is the most precious manuscript in the college library and by far the
choicest relic of Irish art that has been preserved. In it is to be found
every variety of design typical of Irish art at its best.

Some small portions at the beginning and end of the manuscript have been
lost, but otherwise it is in a very good state of preservation. It was apparently
left unfinished, since some of the ornaments remain only in outline. It
is written in part black, red, purple or yellow ink, and it has been thought
that the hands of two scribes, neither of whom is known to us by name, are
discernible in the writing and illumination of the manuscript.

The most characteristic ornaments of the Book of Kells, as of other illuminated
Irish manuscripts of the period, are the closely coiled spirals connected
with each other by a number of curves and terminating in the so-called "trumpet
pattern". Almost equally characteristic are the zoomorphic interlacements,
coloured representations of fanciful beings, or of men, animals, birds,
horses, dogs, and grotesque, gargoyle-like human figures, twisted and hooked
together in intricate detail. Other frequently occurring designs are a system
of geometrical weaving of ribbons plaited and knotted together, and a simpler
ornamentation by means of red dotted lines. The versatility and inventive
genius of the illustrator surpasses all belief. Lines diverge and converge
in endless succession, and the most intricate figures, in lavish abundance
and with astounding variety of ornament, are combined and woven into one
harmonious design. In spite of the extent of the work and its thousands
of exquisite initials and terminals, there is not a single pattern or combination
that can be said to be a copy of another. The artist shows a wonderful technique
in designing and combining various emblems, the cross, vine, dragon, fish,
and serpent. The drawing is perfection itself. It has been examined under
a powerful magnifying glass for hours at a time and found to be, even in
the most minute and complicated figures, without a single false or irregular
line. Some of the most accomplished of modern draughtsmen have attempted
to copy its elaborate designs, but, such is the delicacy of the execution,
that they had to abandon the task as hopeless.

In a space of one inch square were counted no less than 158 interlacings
of white ribbon with a black border on either side. On the other hand, the
pictures of the personages delineated are feeble and primitive and show
but a limited knowledge of the human figure and its relative proportions.
No words can describe the beauty and the extreme splendour of the richly
coloured initial letters, which are more profuse in the "Book of Kells"
than in any other manuscript. The only thing to which they can be compared
is a bed of many coloured crocuses and tulips or the very finest stained
glass window, which they equal in beauty of colouring and rival in delicacy
of ornament and drawing. The artist possessed a wonderful knowledge of the
proportion of colour and the distribution of his material -- sienna, purple,
lilac, red, pink, green, yellow, the colours most often used -- and he managed
the shading and tinting of the letters with consummate taste and skill.
It is remarkable that there is no trace of the use of silver or gold on
the vellum. Sometimes the colours are laid on in thick layers to give the
appearance of enamel, and are here and there as bright and soft and lustrous
as when put on fresh more than twelve hundred years ago. Even the best photographic
and colour reproductions give but a faint idea of the beauty of the original

It is no wonder that it was for a long time believed that the "Book of
Kells" could have been written only by angels.


Previous Page