Monday, November 8, 2010

The Book of Kells

(Portrait of Madonna and Child)

The Book of Kells is Ireland's most precious medieval artifact. The stunning manuscript contains the Four Gospels. It is considered to be the finest illustrated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe.

It is believed that the Book of Kells was written at a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland in the 8th century. This was done in honor of Saint Columba. The book was then moved to Kells, Ireland in the 9th century after a Viking raid.

The book is well preserved considering what it has been through. Sometime in the 11th century, the book had been stolen; it's cover torn off and thrown in a ditch. The book has suffered little water damage and the cover has never been found. It most likely held gold and gems.

In 1541, when the English Reformation was taking place, the Roman Catholic Church took the book and held it for safe keeping. During the 17th century, it was returned to Ireland. Archbishop James Ussher then donated it to Trinity College in Dublin, where is still resides.

(Portrait of John)
The book of Kells was written on vellum or calf skin. It was time-consuming to prepare the vellum properly, but this made for a smooth writing surface. 680 pages have survived. Only two of those do not contain some sort of artistic illustration. In addition to the character illuminations, there are entire pages that are primarily ornamentation which include portrait pages, "carpet" pages, and partially decorated pages with little writing on them.
It is said there are 10 different colors that were used in the illustrations. Some of them are rare and expensive dyes that were imported from the continent. You need to use a magnifying glass to see some of the workmanship because the details are so fine.
The Fine Art Facsimile Publisher of Switzerland and Trinity College of Dublin began a project in the 1980's to produce a facsimile of the Book of Kells. Faksimile-Verlag Luzern produced more than 1,400 copies of a reproduction of the manuscript.


  1. The one thing I didn't get to do while I was in Ireland--which I deeply regret--is to see The Book of Kells. Wonderful post.

  2. Irish monks were the preservers of the Catholic faith (and possibly of civilization itself!)during terrible times and we can certainly be grateful to them for that. Imagine the painstaking labor that went into the production of the work! Did you ever see The Name of the Rose? After I saw the movie I read the book and it was even better. Not only was it a fabulous read, I was fascinated by the picture it painted of a scriptorium. That the entire library went up in flames made me feel literally sick with loss. Can you imagine a time when there were perhaps only one or two copies of a book in the world? Thanks for a great and informative post, Sarah!

  3. Great post, Sarah! I didn't get to see the Book of Kells when I was in Ireland (we only had one day in Dublin), but I did see some of the incredibly beautiful illuminations at the Chester Beatty Library. Next trip, Trinity College and the Book of Kells.

  4. I discovered the book of Kells in my twenties. At that time I was looking for all things mystical and religious and in my search read about the book of Kells.

    I have always wanted to own a copy of the book and there are several retailers that do a fair re-production of the book.

    Purchasing a copy of the book of Kells may not be the same as traveling to Ireland to see the book but I figure for person like me who most likely will never be able to afford an Ireland or Scotland trip this is the best way to see one of the most divine and artistically prolific books on Christianity.

  5. Thank you ladies for commenting. I'm so glad you liked it. My caption for the picture of John was a little off! =)

    I saw the movie years ago Donna. I will have to see it again. It is amazing the things that were done years ago and how easier things are today. To have a library burn down, all of those books and the time and effort it took to make them. So sad.

    Nancy, if I ever get to Ireland, I am definately going to see this manuscript.

  6. I have to admit I had never heard of it until Lizzie had mentioned it to me. In my writing career I have had the best time doing research and this was one of the most interesting things I have come across.

  7. Aw thanks for the props. I wish we lived closer Sarah so we could share all kinds of info between us. LOL Of course I have NO clue when we would ever write.

    You have been so good to share things with me so turnabout is fair play my friend. :-)

  8. Those Viking rascals caused all sorts of trouble! Fortunately, many treasures survived their pillaging. I've had the privilege of viewing the Book of Kells twice, and I'd go again in a heartbeat. Wonderful summary, Sarah!

  9. Thank you Pat. How exciting that you have been able to see it and twice at that! Lucky girl!

    Thanks Lizzie!

  10. Well done, Sarah! Thank you for such an informative post. :-)

  11. I admit I didn't know much about the Book of Kells when I went to Ireland, but after seeing the pages and learning about the history I was floored, humbled and amazed!

  12. Thanks Maeve!

    Alexa, I am so glad you got the chance to see it. Maybe someday I will!