|The Book of Kells contains portraits of all the Evangelists as well as of Christ. This portrait of John has a notably intricate border.|
As part of the general celebration of St Patrick’s Day at Trinity, the Book of Kells in its entirety is now viewable in the Library’s new Digital Collections online repository. The link is slow, slow, slow but the images are gorgeous, one of the great treasures of the early Middle Ages.
The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais) (Dublin, Trinity College Library). is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables.
There is great uncertainty about its origins. It is thought that the Book of Kells was first worked on at the monastery on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, and was continued, after Viking raids, at the monastery of Kells in Ireland. Kells Abbey was plundered and pillaged by Vikings many times in the 10th century, and how the book survived is a miracle.
It was stolen in the 11th century, at which time its cover was torn off and it was thrown into a ditch. The cover, which most likely included gold and gems, has never been found, and the book suffered some water damage; but otherwise it is extraordinarily well-preserved.
In 1541, at the height of the English Reformation, the book was taken by the Roman Catholic Church for safekeeping. It was returned to Ireland in the 17th century, and Archbishop James Ussher gave it to Trinity College, Dublin, where it resides today.
The Book of Kells was written on vellum (calfskin), which was time-consuming to prepare properly but made for an excellent, smooth writing surface. 680 individual pages (340 folios) have survived, and of them only two lack any form of artistic ornamentation. In addition to incidental character illuminations, there are entire pages that are primarily decoration, including portrait pages, "carpet" pages and partially decorated pages with only a line or so of text.
As many as ten different colors were used in the illuminations, some of them rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass.
The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is also widely regarded as Ireland's finest national treasure.