Monday, March 16, 2009

The Book of Kells

Iona, where the Book of Kells may have been made.

On St. Patrick's Day, I'm reminded that I'm about as Irish as cassoulet and weisswurst.
And yet, I'm fully aware that, but for the Irish monks who followed St. Columba into Europe, I would still be illiterate and eating raw meat off a sword like my Frankish and Teutonic ancestors.

The Book of Kells is the finest and most famous of the tiny handful of surviving Celtic Gospel books from Ireland and the north of Britain. There were once scores of these, and now I can only think of about 6 that survive. The Book most certainly did not come from the small impoverished monastery at Kells where it was found. It probably came from one of the great centers of Celtic Christianity like Iona or Armagh, and was sent to Kells for safe keeping when Goran's people raided the monasteries and founded Dublin, laying the foundations for the future Guiness Brewery on the Liffey.

I fought my way through a mob (and I mean a mob) of elderly German tourists to see the Book of Kells at the library of Trinity College in Dublin (our very clever young guide reminded us of what Samuel Beckett said about the students of Trinity; the cream of Ireland and like all cream they're rich and thick). I finally fought my way through to get a glimpse of the opening pages of the Gospel of Luke. The Book was much smaller than I expected, about the same dimensions as a National Geographic magazine.

So here are some sample pages from one of the most beautiful books ever made.

The Cross Page

detail of the Cross Page

Opening of the Gospel of Matthew

The Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew

Opening of the Gospel of Mark


Rick+ said...

Wow! Incredible! What devotion it must have taken to create such a piece of religious art!

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Beautiful...thank you

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

A French historian (Georges Duby?) reminds us that "Kaligraphy is a sign of in-culture in a way that kakography isn't ;=)

For it shows us that books were revered, but not read!

Brian R said...

I was very fortunate to see one of the volumes which was sent to Canberra, Australia for display in 2000. Yes beautiful.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I saw two beautiful pages, too, Counterlight, but I don't remember having to fight my way to get a look. There was a line, but not very long. This must have been in the 1980's. I was disappointed to see only two pages. What was I thinking? That I could thumb my way leisurely through the book?

Anonymous said...

I have a little "take-off" version of this book near my bed, for obvious Scots-Irish reasons. Oh my. How lucky your eyes!

Anbazhagan said...

Singapore Airlines' in-flight magazine 'Silver Kris' in its May 1990 issue has published an article "A Facsmile of the Past", with text by Simon Worral and photographs by Faksimile Verlag.For some reason i have kept with me the 5-page article and am still keeping it !

It is said:
" Irish monk named Connachtach,'eminent scribe and Abbot of Iona' as he would later be described in the Annals of Ulster, brought together a team of the finest calligraphers and book illustrators the world has ever seen.They came to Iona, a sliver of rock off the northwest coast of Scotland, from Northumberland, Constantinople, Italy and Ireland.All of them had worked on other illuminated manuscripts.But Connachtach wanted from them the most richly ornamented, sensual book that man's hand ever created, a book that would become a rainbow-bridge of light across the abyss of the Dark Ages."