Book of Kells

Ms. 58] (A.I.6) - Library of the Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland)

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Codiology

Type
Extent / Format

680 pages / 33.0 x 25.0 cm

Origin
Date
Around 800
Style
Genre
Content

Canonical tables, several portraits of evangelists, ornamental and initial pages. With just two exceptions, all the pages have decorative initials and marginal drawings

Language
Artist / School

Irish monks

Short description

One of the earliest and simultaneously most-splendid manuscripts in the history of book art originated in 8th century Scotland. It is the so-called Book of Kells, which is named after its centuries-long abode in the Abbey of Kells in Ireland. The book is furnished with fascinating, almost magical miniature scenes, which account for a breathtaking attestation of the origins of illumination in Europe. Precious colors and rare decorative elements adorn nearly every page of the masterly manuscript.

Facsimile editions available

Description

Book of Kells

In the 6th century, illumination in the center of the foundering Western Roman Empire lived on at a modest standard and merged into Merovingian art. At the same time, an unmistakable, independent style of illustration developed at the periphery of Europe – far removed from the turmoil of the Migration Period and outside of earlier Roman civilization. This painting style is described as insular illumination and developed in Ireland and in surrounding missionary regions since Christianization in the 6th century. The field of research has unanimously identified the 8th century Book of Kells as a textbook example of insular illumination. The mystical masterpiece, wrapped in legends, is one of the oldest books in the world and was selected to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011. It contains the four Gospels, a compiled canon written by Eusebius of Caesarea concerning the concordance directories and possessory documents of the Abbey of Kells. The splendid illumination of the book represents an incomparable highpoint of Irish artistic work. Practically every page of the text is furnished with elaborately colored and symbolic illustrations.

A Masterwork Steeped in Legend

Disagreement continues to rule over the origins of the Book of Kells to this day. It is thought that it was made by brilliant monks in the Sottish monastery of St. Colmcille on the island of Iona. The monastery continuously fell victim to Viking raids. In order to protect the precious book, the Scottish monks fled to Kells in Ireland with their masterpiece ca. 806. In the year 1006, the manuscript was stolen from the Abbey of Kells in the Irish earldom of Meath, as is related by an account of a church robbery from the year 1007. A few months later **it reappeared, but without its legendary golden binding. The Book of Kells remained in the Irish parish for a total of 850 years and gained its name from this sojourn. It was later relocated to Trinity College in Dublin for safekeeping and can there be wondered at ever since. However only two pages from the grandiose work can be admired. It lies open in a glass cabinet and astounds around a half-million visitors every year.

Splendid and Original Illumination

The Book of Kells was made by monks unbeknownst by name who possessed the most-sound technical expertise and an excellent knowledge of past and contemporary art. They created early-medieval miniatures which count among the most beautiful images of handcrafted book art altogether. Impressive, full-page illustrations of Christ, Mary with Child, and the Evangelists decorate the work. The typeface is elaborately designed and decorated, the initials in particular were sometimes executed with very fine patterns in luminous colors. The high technical knowledge base of the books’ master is made apparent by the selection and production of the colors and decorative elements. In the place of gold, orpiment was used, a rare arsenic sulfide mineral. Lapis lazuli was applied for the production of the blue color, which in this time could have been found exclusively in Afghanistan. The particular charm of the mystic manuscript is represented by a few humorous depictions. In one part, the letter “N” is made from two small men who reciprocally pull on their beards. At another part, there is a mouse with a stolen communion wafer, and as a punishment, is pursued right across the page by a cat. The Book of Kells is a tour de force of early book art in every respect and measurably influenced medieval manuscript production.

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