The Book of Kells

29/09/2015 09:40

Kells is a small town in County Meath which has about five thousand inhabitants. It’s so far as tewnty four miles from Dublin. The M3 motorway has approached considerably the capital reducing travel time and making it an easy alternative to dwell. Twelve hundred years before there was yet to build the monastery. The Vikings had sacked Iona in the Scottish Hebrides, expelling the monks of St. Columba and killing sixty-eight. They sought refuge in Ireland.

But if the city is known for anything it is for his illustrated book, the Leabhar Cheanannais, or the Book of Kells. Between the late seventh or early eighth were made on the desks of the monasteries of the British Isles, especially in the Irish manuscripts that have been called enlightened, referring to the rich illustrations and covers that were hand decorated and have been called work of the angels. The Codex Ardmachanus or Book of Armagh, the St. Columba Cathach, containing possibly the oldest elements known from ancient Gaelic language, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Durrow are other examples of contemporary texts, where calligraphy called scottica was used as an embryo of the current Gaelic or Celtic font. Viking raids, Norman invasions, the absorption of the Irish church by Rome and the arrival of European monastic orders contributed to the demise of this art around the twelfth century. The last vestiges of the traditional motifs of the La Tene Celts merged with a new style: Romanesque from England and the continent.

The Book of Kells is an incunable IX century Latin manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament with some prefaces. What makes it unique is the exceptional care taken in the development not only of its illustrations but in the exquisite attention to detail dedicated in its handwriting. It is one of the masterpieces of this art in the West and the finest of Irish bibliographic treasures.

There are several theories about the origin and provenance of the manuscript. Perhaps the most consistent would be that it was created by Community of St. Columba monks in Iona, and preventing Norman raids, was continued in the Kells monastery desks. Others say it was entirely produced in only one of the two places, Iona or Kells. The first is the most widely accepted.

The earliest mention about the book, and its presence in Kells, is a 1007 Annals of Ulster entry, which states its theft and recovery to the sacristy a few months later: The Great Gospel of Colum Cille, the chief relic of the Western World,  was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Cenannas (Kells) on account of its wrought shrine. It was the most precious object in the western world thanks to its decoration. This Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, golden lids were removed and the grass grew longer on.

In the twelfth century was still there, in Kells, as in its pages were copied documents relating to lands belonging to the abbey. The book remained in the city until 1654, when facing the threat of Cromwell's troops, the governor decide to send  it to Dublin. Henry Jones, then future Bishop of Meath, gave the book to the Trinity College in 1661, where it has remained ever since.

The manuscript currently comprises 339 pages. These were made with vellum, calfskin or sheep skin repeatedly polished to get the right quality to set the ink on them. Initially in a relatively irregular size, was re-bound to a size of twelve  by nine inches, cutting off some of the illustrations. Each page contains between 17 and 19 lines to single column. It is believed that the writing of the texts should be from the hand of three different scribes, for the inks used, and the characteristics of the strokes and line spacing. The book is primarily known for its exceptional illustrations and miniatures. Ten come to occupy the entire page. Among those are the four representing evangelists, John, Luke, Mark and Matthew, the Virgin and Child and the images of Christ enthroned and scenes of his arrest and his temptation. The decoration of the first words of each Gospel and some initial is extremely overdone, to the point that some details can only be seen with a magnifying glass or a loupe. One of the most elaborate monograms is called Xi Ro, or monogram of the Incarnation. Xi Ro are the Greek names of the letters X and R, representing the first two letters of the word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, (Christos). The two letters are composed of an infinite number of hatched, among are discovered animals, insects and Angels. In its stroke end, Ro becomes a human being.

The last rebinding of the book dates from 1953, when it was restored and divided into four volumes. In the library of Dublin Trinity College two of them are displayed in a permanent exhibition on the Hiberno-Saxon illuminations entitled Turning Darkness into Light. One it’s shown open in one of the illustrated pages, the other showing snippets. The pages are periodically passed to minimize the effect of light on dyes.

© J.L.Nicolas


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