Ireland has much to enchant both the novice and the expert with its artistic wealth, but nothing says their culture is more astounding and exciting than the Book of Kells. There, I’ve said it thus revealing a long held personal opinion of mine which dates back to only a scant knowledge of its importance and carries forward through a close study of the contents of this codex. I probably should have given the facts first and let you make your own decision, but that would mask the document’s vitality and so I herewith declare that the Book of Kells is really something.

When I went to see the codex (this is the proper name for a manuscript volume) I looked at it differently. As a non-Christian I think I could be objective about the art of it. l had been prepared for its beauty fortified by several semesters of observation in art history. Here is a document created in the year 800 that is a light shining for us out of the Dark Ages. It is now housed in Trinity College and the historian and the casual visitor are exposed to the same material. The story of the Book of Kells, of the mystery surrounding its provenance and the anonymity of the master scribes and artists who executed it, is a splendid romance. Few emblems of medieval European civilization have caught the imagination of the international public to the same degree. Every year tens of thousands of visitors to Dublin file through the Long Room of Trinity College to view its intricately decorated pages. The artistry, color, exuberance and wit that went into the making of this illuminated version of the four Gospels was described in the 11th century as the most precious object of the western world.

To begin this discussion, the Book of Kells is probably a misnomer. The best scholarly opinions date its arrival and subsequent residence in the small village of Kells from the 11th century to 1650 when it was taken to Dublin for safekeeping. It quite honestly is not known where the codex was created. The creation of the work is assumed to be by Columban monks on a small island off the West coast of Scotland. Viking raids decimated the island on a fairly regular basis from 795 on and by 810 the monastic community moved to Kells as a place of refuge for themselves and their book.

Strangely this version of the Gospels is not particularly accurate. The text is not in any rational order and the errors in it may be the result of eyeskip (the scribe’s eye has jumped from a word to its next appearance, omitting the intervening text). Experts regularly rebuke the creators of the documents, “There is considerable carelessness in transcription.” But we perhaps should consider what it was like for a lonely scribe with quill in hand hunched over a sheet of vellum in a cold damp stone beehive. Imagine that he sees a mistranscription of the text. What does he say as he claps his hand to his brow? We shudder at what words he might utter.

The book was made from 180 calfskins of which 680 pages are still preserved. (Cows were a very important part of the monastic economy and thus the use of 180 skins to be used for the codex advertised the order’s wealth.) Lost or destroyed are whole folios and original bindings of the book. The scribes, simply called A,B,C, and D, had their work cut out for them. Each scribe could produce about 180 letters per hour. The major illustrations took much longer to execute than script pages. In order not to delay transcription, reverse sides of script were left blank to be filled in by the scribes after the decoration of the verso was completed. Scribes normally erred on the conservative side feeling that an additional decoration could fill in any empty spaces. In order to achieve an evenly justified right hand margin, sometimes the final letter or letters of a work had to be inscribed below the remainder. Often the decorations were delightful or witty or elegant reminders of the mission of the scribes.

The early Irish church had its differences with Rome which gave rise to the occasional sly squib. The date of Easter was a thorny question which created a great dispute and resulted in Irish hostility toward St. Peter, founder of the Roman Church. The Columban monastic order, which wrote the Book of Kells, held a lingering resentment of Rome but were forced to adopt the Roman method for dating Easter each year. The Coumban scribes and artists depicted their lingering resentment with a line of text referring to Peter’s denial of Christ as a figure of a hare, an animal usually considered extremely timid. One could see the delight and wicked laughter this passage and illustration would provide to the creators of the codex. They seem to have predated James Joyce’s proposal that the church of Rome was built on a pun, when Christ chose Peter as the rock of its foundation.

The Book of Kells is endlessly fascinating. For many it symbolizes the power of learning, the impact of Christianity on the life of the country and the spirit of artistic imagination. This is the ultimate extension of anti-classical art. Its unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation of the text pages and the folios of the gospels is truly magnificent. You need not be a Christian to appreciate the book’s beauty and power, expressing as it does our love of the natural world and the pathos of our yearning toward transcendence. May I humbly offer up the Book of Kells to our readers as our celebration of the season? Happy Holidays!



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