Emerald Isle

The Book of Kells

Ancient treasures and wonders of Ireland, mysterious gems and gold, lost creatures and Irish wonders

High jewel of the middle ages

Many centuries ago, on a windswept and hostile rock in the North Sea, a place called Iona, the great monk, philosopher and evangelist Colmcille founded a monastery. Men devoted to the new faith worked with fervour, bending their backs to hew from the pitiless stone, amid bleak and harsh weather, a place for worship and meditation upon the saviour of humanity.

In this merciless wintry abode a great beauty flowered within the beehive stone cells, far brighter than any that had grown on the rocky landcape of Iona before. Some centuries after Columba built the monastery, monks travelled from all over Ireland to commit their skills to the creation of a single masterwork, the pinnacle of illuminated manuscripts, their poem to the creator-God, a tome which became known as the Book of Kells.

The latest and finest in a series of illuminated manuscripts produced by Irish monks, including such books as the Cathach of St. Columba, the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the Book of Armagh, the Book of Kells represented the pinnacle of Gaelic ecclesistical artwork, intertwining animals, biblical figures and fantastical creatures with knotwork and richly coloured patterns of sublime intricacy in the four Gospels.

These marvellous works were largely independent of the influence of the classical Roman style which had subsumed most of Europe's artistic and cultural development, demonstrating an energy and creative talent unheard-of in those dark times.

Although there is some dispute as to the original location of the book's creation, with some believing it was first created in Iona and brought to Kells when Viking raiders slaughtered many of the monks, and others believing it was inked in Kells itself, it has survived remarkably intact for centuries upon centuries. Only sixty pages are missing, perhaps because medieval sources do record that an illuminated manuscript was stolen from the stone church of Kells in 1006, which is likely to have been the Book of Kells. According to the Annals of Ulster it was found "two months and twenty days" later "under a sod" without its jewelled cover.

Strangely, Kells Abbey was plundered several times by Vikings and yet the book managed to escape all of these depredations without harm.

It is a work of unbelievable ambition, almost all of its vellum leaves decorated with extravagant patterns laden with mystical symbolism. As one medieval observer described it,

"This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite.

Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man."

Today it resides in Trinity College Dublin, and serves as a lasting tribute to the genius and creative power of Irish Gaelic culture.

Kells is marked on the map below!


Ancient Treasures of Ireland

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