Book of Kells
* Trinity College Dublin Library * Dublin, Ireland *
Leabhar Cheanannais or “Book of Columba”, “The Book of Kells”, is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book written in Latin that contains the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various texts and tables. It was written in 800 C.E. by Celtic Monks. The texts are largely drawn from the Vulgate including passages from earlier versions of the Bible known as the “Vetus Latina”. It is one of the World’s masterworks of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is one of Ireland’s finest national treasures. The decoration combines Christian iconography with ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art with figures of humans, animals, and mythical beasts combine with Celtic knotwork, interlacing patterns in vibrant colors, and Christian sybolism. The manuscript today has 340 folios which have been bound into four volumes. THe leaves are on high-quality calf vellum and the lettering is in iron gall ink with colors made from substances imported from various distant lands. The manuscript was never finished. There are 5 competing theories for its place of origin and time of completion. The first theory, is that it was created at Iona and then brought to Kells where the illuminations were then added but never finished. The second theory is that the book was entirely produced at Iona. The Third theory is that it was produced entirely in the scriptorium at Kells. The Fourth theory is that is was produced in the North of England, transferred to Iona, and then to Kells. The Fifth theory, is that it is the product of an unknown monastery in Pictish Scotland. It is named after the Abbey of Kells where it lived for many centuries. When the Kells Abbey was plundered by Vikings in the 10th century, the Book was believed to be moved out of Kells to save it from being looted. The earliest historical reference to the book was found in a 1007 entry in the Annals of Ulster stating that “the great Gospel of Columkille, the chief relic of the Western World, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Cenannas on account of its wrought shrine.” It is assumed the “Great Gospel of Columkille” is the “Book of Kells”. It was recovered in Kells by the 12th century and remained there until 1654. It was sent to Dublin for safekeeping when Cromwell’s cavalry was quartered in the Church of Kells. It has remained in the Trinity College Library in Dublin ever since. It has been rebound several times over the centuries. Some of these damaged the illustrations, especially during the 18th century. It was damaged again in 1985, 1953, and then again during its last binding in 1953. It also sustained minor pigment damage when sent for an exhibition to Australia. The book is 330 x 250 mm. The cropped folios, done in the 19th century rebinding, brought the text area to 250 x 170 mm with each text page having 16-18 lines of text. The extent book contains preliminary matter, such as the complete text of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John through John 17:13. The remainder of John and some preliminary matter is missing since the 11th century. The remaining preliminary matter consists of two fragmentary lists of Hebrew names contained in the Gospels, Breves causae (Gospel summaries), Argumenta (short biographies of the Evangelists), and Eusebian canon tables. It also contains the text of the four Gospels based on the Vulgate but does not contain a pure copy of the Vulgate. The illustrations feature a broad range of colours, with purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow being the colours most often used. The Insular work pigments contain red and yellow ochre, green copper pigment (verdigris), indigo, and lapis lazuli.