It is impossible to talk about Ireland and its Celtic-Christian heritage without paying tribute to Ireland’s finest National Treasure, The Book of Kells. This book is considered to be a sacred work of art and is one of the finest examples of an illuminated manuscript in existence.
But what is the true nature of this great book, a tourist centerpiece at Dublin’s Trinity College since the mid-19th Century? Why was it initially believed – in Irish folklore and beyond – that angels authored and illustrated this unparalleled manuscript of Gospels? Who actually wrote it, and why is it still studied in Christian colleges throughout the world?
The Book of Kells is a series of intricate calligraphies of medieval manuscripts in Latin text, making up the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It was produced over a period of 250 years, from the late 6th Century to the early 9th. It is written entirely on calfskin, the correct preparation of which is, in itself, a time-consuming art.
The Book was written by Columban Monks, transcribers of remarkable technique and talent. The intricate minute lines and coiled drawings are works of incomparable skill and dexterity. Having been studied and examined many times under the most powerful magnification, the workmanship is often noted as being without flaw or irregularity. This, perhaps, gave rise to the belief in Irish folklore that the book is the work of angels.
In the 11th century, the Book of Kells was stolen. The book was eventually discovered in a ditch and, and even after suffering water damage, remained remarkably well preserved. However, the cover, which was believed to have included gold and gems, had been torn off. To this day its whereabouts remains a mystery.
In the mid-16th century, during the height of the British Reformation in Ireland, the sacred Book was removed by the Roman Catholic Church for safekeeping, eventually being returned to Ireland around 100 years later. Upon its return it was gifted to the Library at Trinity College by Archbishop Ussher. Yet it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that two Gospels from the Book of Kells were displayed to the public. The remaining two gospels are kept behind closed doors, reserved for the scrutiny and admiration of a privileged few.
Amongst other biblical stories, The Book of Kells tells of the coming of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the temptation of Jesus. These stories are only enhanced and glorified by the captivating and illuminating Celtic art and the blend of shade and tinted colors in the lettering. The precise coiled spirals, intricately detailed in geometrically woven script, display a draughtsmanship that even today’s artisans would find difficult to reproduce.
Thousands of exquisitely detailed lines weave masterfully together to create whimsical characters of fish, serpents, horses, dogs and various religious emblems. Not one line, pattern or figure imitates another as the stories of the Gospels are retold.
There are several debates as to the birthplace of the Book of Kells, though it is widely believed that the production of the book was begun by the Columban Monks on Iona, a small island between Ireland and Scotland. The invasion of Iona by Vikings in the late 8th Century forced the monks to leave Iona and re-establish themselves in an Abbey in Kells, County Meath. This displacement interrupted the completion of the four Gospels, yet out of the 680 pages only two are without color.
In 1986, after much debate, the officials at Trinity College agreed to have high-quality facsimiles of the book produced in order to make the manuscripts more accessible. Stringent rules were enforced to ensure the book’s safety: the original was not allowed to leave Trinity College, it could not be unbound and it was forbidden for the pages to be touched by either hand or machine.
Urs Duggelin, a Swiss publisher who specialized in rare illuminated manuscripts, invested 250,000 Swiss francs and two-and-a-half years of his time to make this happen. He created a one-of-a-kind photographic system that was able to recreate the pages without touching them. From there, expert lithographers made facsimiles of the photographic reprints, and finally the book of Kells could be shared with the world.
There are 1,480 copies of the facsimile Book of Kells worldwide, with copies costing as much as $18,000. Students and scholars of Christianity now have these perpetually intriguing copies at their disposal to deliberate over for years to come.
Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Housing and protecting the ancient manuscripts of The Book of Kells.