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Book of Kells, Folio 292r

Book of Kells, Folio 292r



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The Book of Kells: Image and Text / The In principio Initial

The In Principio Initial

The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 292r, Opening of St John’s Gospel, In principio (letters traced) © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

This post focuses on the text and imagery of folio 292r, which reads In principio erat verbum (‘In the beginning was the word’, John 1:1). The first three letters of the text are the largest and most elaborate. The I and N share a vertical shaft in the far left of the image. The diagonal of the N is then formed by linking that shaft to another by means of two circles and a cruciform shape. Sitting at the top of the image is a human figure robed in purple and clutching a book. The figure has been identified as a deacon holding a Gospel book, but also as an image of God the Father or the creating Logos. As pointed out by Małgorzata D’Aughton, the position of the figure above the circle parallels images of Christ seated on the globe of the world as in the fifth-century mosaic found in the baptistery of San Giovanni in Fonte, Naples or the later San Marco mosaic in Venice, which was inspired by a fifth- or sixth-century manuscript illustrations of the creation of the world. The iconography of the creation provides an appropriate context for the Kells page that glorifies the Word that existed at the beginning (John 1:1). The opening words of the Gospel of John evoke the opening words of the Book of Genesis that reads In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram (‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’, Genesis 1:1) as the two texts emphasize the role of the word in the process of creation. In the Book of Genesis, God calls the universe into existence and then names all created things and beings (Genesis 1:1-31).

The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 292r (detail) © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

The letter P is the last of the three largest letters on the folio. The vertical shaft of this letter is joined to the second vertical of the N, while the loop is an independent rectangular shape. The second human figure is positioned above the loop of the P. He is shown seated, drinking from a cup, while a monstrous face of a lion, stares at him, mouth agape. This human figure has been identified as a Christian, who is saved from evil by drinking the Eucharistic wine. It may also, as argued by George Henderson, be a representation of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he asks his disciple Peter, whether he, Jesus, can refuse to drink from the chalice prepared for him by the Father (John 18:11). This passage features at the opening of the Passion account and is directed at Peter as he attempts to prevent the arrest of Jesus.

The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 292r (detail) © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

The next line includes letters R, I, N, and C that are formed by serpent-like creatures and are relatively easy to read, as well as the letter I formed by a human figure grappling with the letter C. Imagery of wrestling or grappling in Biblical and patristic texts often relates to a struggle against evil. One such text is St Paul’s verse in the Epistle to the Ephesians that describes Christians as ‘wrestling not against flesh and blood but against the world rulers of present darkness’ (Ephesians 6:12). The Kells image may evoke this theme. The remaining letters that appear at the bottom of the page in two lines are the easiest to read they spell out the letters P, I, O, E, R, A, T, V, E, R, B, U, and M. These letters are executed in a clear style without any decoration in a dark hue that contrasts them with the lighter background.

The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 292r (detail) © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

Further reading

Krasnodębska-D’Aughton, Małgorzata, ‘Decoration of the In principio Initials in Early Insular Manuscripts: Christ as a Visible Image of the Invisible God’, Word and Image 18/2 (2012), pp. 105-122.

Farr, Carol Ann, The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).


What’s So Special About the Book of Kells?

The Book of Kells, folio 292r. Irish (probably Iona, Scotland or Kells, Ireland), c. 800 CE. Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I got some confused questions yesterday while unboxing my deluxe The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012). Questions like: “What is a Kell?” “Can you read Latin?” “Is that book full of strange gods?” I thought that everybody was familiar with the Book of Kells, but I now see that’s not true. I can’t stand for people not to know about this great work of art, so let me explain what the Book of Kells is and why it’s so special. Follow along with Trinity College Library’s complete digital facsimile of the manuscript. I haven’t included many photos here, since the available Public Domain images aren’t of very high quality.

The Book of Kells is a medieval illuminated manuscript handwritten and decorated by Irish monks living in the British Isles around 800 CE. It contains the Latin texts of the four Christian gospels, but that’s actually its least noteworthy feature. Instead, the book is highly valued today as a work of art and a symbol of Irish cultural achievement.

What makes the Book of Kells fascinating to so many people today – Meehan says that more than half a million people come to see it every year – is its incredibly dense and masterful decoration. The Book of Kells contains pages and pages of intricate, colorful artwork. There are several illustrations of stylized human figures, but most of the decoration centers on the letters themselves. For example, a single capital letter might transform into an owl, or the word “et” could become part rabbit. There are whole pages filled with just a few letters so elaborately decorated that they more closely resemble intricately-woven carpets than text in a book. They’re called “carpet pages” for that very reason. Miles of twisted and tangled interlace, which comes from the rich Irish metalworking tradition, mesmerizes the eye almost everywhere. Animal forms such as mice, rabbits, moths, fish, lions, funny little bird heads, and more appear amidst all this interlace.

The decoration is so dense that much of it is essentially hidden from view unless you look long and hard. You could stare at one page forever and still continue to discover new features. This trait makes the Book of Kells seem mysterious, magical, and whimsical. You feel that you can’t ever fully understand its secrets, but what you see makes you happy and light-hearted all the same. The reasons for the profuse decoration in general and the symbolism behind many particular elements are lost on us today, further enhancing the book’s allure. All of this together makes the Book of Kells a strong candidate for the title of World’s Most Famous Book, which it’s frequently claimed to be.

As I said before, the text contained in the Book of Kells isn’t what’s most important. You don’t view the Book of Kells for its verbal content any more than you visit the Roman Colosseum because of the entertainments once performed inside. If your goal is to read the gospels, there are much better books to do it in. Even if you can and want to read them in Latin, you would still turn elsewhere, because all the decoration seriously obscures parts of the text. For example, the page shown at the top of this article reads “In principio erat verbum” (“In the beginning was the word”), but that’s not too obvious, is it? Most pages are more user friendly than this example, but even still, the Book of Kells was probably intended more for presentation than intense reading.

What is highly important, however, is the Book of Kells’s well-deserved status as a symbol of Irish culture. It may have been created in Kells, County Meath, where it was located and named later in the Middle Ages, in a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona, or partially in both places. Regardless, it was definitely made by Irishmen, who populated both monasteries. And it was created during the so-called “Dark Ages”, when Ireland had the skill, resources, or learning to make something so spectacular and the rest of Western Europe didn’t. Therefore, it’s an unparalleled source of pride to the Irish, whose culture (unfairly) isn’t usually given credit for such artistic and intellectual greatness.

The Book of Kells is presently owned by Trinity College Dublin, where it’s displayed in the Old Library. I look forward to one day travelling there to see it for myself. Since it will not be on display for the next few months due to renovations, I’ll have to wait and enjoy all the high-quality, enlarged photographs in Meehan’s book in the meantime. I really hope that some more people will become interested in this gorgeous artwork now that they know what it is and why it’s special.


Description

The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels of the Christian scriptures written in black, red, purple, and yellow ink in an insular majuscule script, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and concordances of Gospel passages. [26] Today, it consists of 340 vellum leaves, or folios. The majority of the folios are part of larger sheets, called bifolios, which are folded in half to form two folios. The bifolios are nested inside of each other and sewn together to form gatherings called quires. On occasion, a folio is not part of a bifolio but is instead a single sheet inserted within a quire. The extant folios are gathered into 38 quires. There are between four and twelve folios (two to six bifolios) per quire the folios are commonly, but not invariably, bound in groups of ten. Some folios are single sheets, as is frequently the case with the important decorated pages. The folios had lines drawn for the text, sometimes on both sides, after the bifolios were folded. Prick marks and guide lines can still be seen on some pages. [20] The vellum is of high quality, although the folios have an uneven thickness, with some being close to leather while others are so thin as to be almost translucent.

The book's current dimensions are 330 by 250 mm. Originally, the folios were of no standard size, but they were cropped to the current size during a 19th-century rebinding. The text area is approximately 250 by 170 mm. Each text page has 16 to 18 lines of text. [20] The manuscript is in remarkably good condition considering its great age, though many pages have suffered some damage to the delicate artwork due to rubbing. The book must have been the product of a major scriptorium over several years, yet was apparently never finished, the projected decoration of some pages appearing only in outline. It is believed that some 30 folios of the original manuscript have been lost over the centuries. [20] Ussher counted 344 folios in 1621, but several leaves had already been lost by then. The overall estimate is based on gaps in the text and the absence of certain key illustrations.

Contents

The extant book contains preliminary matter, the complete text of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Gospel of John through John 17:13. The remainder of John and an unknown amount of the preliminary matter is missing and was perhaps lost when the book was stolen early in 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 is probable that, like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Books of Durrow and Armagh, part of the lost preliminary material included the letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus I beginning Novum opus, in which Jerome explains the purpose of his translation. It is also possible, though less likely, that the lost material included the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus, in which he explains the use of the canon tables. [27] Of all the insular Gospels, only the Lindisfarne manuscript contains this letter.

There are two fragments of the lists of Hebrew names one on the recto of the first surviving folio and one on folio 26, which is currently inserted at the end of the prefatory matter for John. The first list fragment contains the end of the list for the Gospel of Matthew. The missing names from Matthew would require an additional two folios. The second list fragment, on folio 26, contains about a fourth of the list for Luke. The list for Luke would require an additional three folios. The structure of the quire in which folio 26 occurs is such that it is unlikely that there are three folios missing between folios 26 and 27, so that it is almost certain that folio 26 is not now in its original location. There is no trace of the lists for Mark and John. [28]

The first list fragment is followed by the canon tables of Eusebius of Caesarea. These tables, which predate the text of the Vulgate, were developed to cross-reference the Gospels. Eusebius divided the Gospel into chapters and then created tables that allowed readers to find where a given episode in the life of Christ was located in each of the Gospels. The canon tables were traditionally included in the prefatory material in most mediaeval copies of the Vulgate text of the Gospels. The tables in the Book of Kells, however, are almost unusable because the scribe condensed the tables in such a way as to make them confused. In addition, the corresponding chapter numbers were never inserted into the margins of the text, making it impossible to find the sections to which the canon tables refer. The reason for the omission remains unclear: the scribe may have planned to add the references upon the manuscript's completion, or he may have deliberately left them out so as not to spoil the appearance of pages. [27]

The Breves causae and Argumenta belong to a pre-Vulgate tradition of manuscripts. The Breves causae are summaries of the Old Latin translations of the Gospels and are divided into numbered chapters. These chapter numbers, like the numbers for the canon tables, are not used on the text pages of the Gospels. It is unlikely that these numbers would have been used, even if the manuscript had been completed, because the chapter numbers corresponded to old Latin translations and would have been difficult to harmonise with the Vulgate text. The Argumenta are collections of legends about the Evangelists. The Breves causae and Argumenta are arranged in a strange order: first come the Breves causae and Argumenta for Matthew, followed by the Breves and Argumenta for Mark, then, quite oddly, come the Argumenta of both Luke and John, followed by their Breves causae. This anomalous order mirrors that found in the Book of Durrow, although in the latter instance, the misplaced sections appear at the very end of the manuscript rather than as part of a continuous preliminary. [27] In other insular manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Armagh, and the Echternach Gospels, each Gospel is treated as a separate work and has its preliminaries immediately preceding it. [29] The slavish repetition in Kells of the order of the Breves causae and Argumenta found in Durrow led scholar T. K. Abbott to the conclusion that the scribe of Kells had either the Book of Durrow or a common model in hand.

Text and script

The Book of Kells contains the text of the four Gospels based on the Vulgate. It does not, however, contain a pure copy of the Vulgate. There are numerous differences from the Vulgate, where Old Latin translations are used in lieu of Jerome's text. Although such variants are common in all the insular Gospels, there does not seem to be a consistent pattern of variation amongst the various insular texts. Evidence suggests that when the scribes were writing the text they often depended on memory rather than on their exemplar.

The manuscript is written primarily in insular majuscule with some occurrences of minuscule letters (usually e or s). The text is usually written in one long line across the page. Françoise Henry identified at least three scribes in this manuscript, whom she named Hand A, Hand B, and Hand C. [30] Hand A is found on folios 1 through 19v, folios 276 through 289, and folios 307 through the end of the manuscript. Hand A, for the most part, writes eighteen or nineteen lines per page in the brown gall-ink common throughout the West. [30] Hand B is found on folios 19r through 26 and folios 124 through 128. Hand B has a somewhat greater tendency to use minuscule and uses red, purple and black ink and a variable number of lines per page. Hand C is found throughout the majority of the text. Hand C also has greater tendency to use minuscule than Hand A. Hand C uses the same brownish gall-ink used by hand A and wrote, almost always, seventeen lines per page. [31]

Errors and deviations

There are a number of differences between the text and the accepted Gospels. In the genealogy of Jesus, which starts at Luke 3:23, Kells names an extra ancestor. [32]

Matthew 10:34b The canonised Bible reads "I came not to send peace, but a sword," but the manuscript reads gaudium ("joy") where it should read gladium ("sword") and so translates as "I came not [only] to send peace, but joy." [33]

The lavishly decorated opening page of the Gospel according to John in the Book of Kells had been deciphered by George Bain as: "In principio erat verbum verum" [34] [In the beginning was the True Word]. Therefore, the Incipit is a free translation into Latin of the Greek original λογος rather than a mere copy of the Roman version.

Decoration

The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, while smaller painted decorations appear throughout the text in unprecedented quantities. The decoration of the book is famous for combining intricate detail with bold and energetic compositions. The characteristics of the Insular manuscript initial, as described by Carl Nordenfalk, here reach their most extreme realisation: "the initials . are conceived as elastic forms expanding and contracting with a pulsating rhythm. The kinetic energy of their contours escapes into freely drawn appendices, a spiral line which in turn generates new curvilinear motifs. ". [35] The illustrations feature a broad range of colours, with purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow being the colours most often used. Earlier manuscripts tend toward more narrow palettes: the Book of Durrow, for example, uses only four colours. As is usual with Insular work, there was no use of gold or silver leaf in the manuscript. The pigments for the illustrations, which included red and yellow ochre, green copper pigment (sometimes called verdigris), indigo, and possibly lapis lazuli, [36] would have been imported from the Mediterranean region and, in the case of the lapis lazuli, from northeast Afghanistan. [37] Though the presence of lapis lazuli has long been considered evidence of the great cost required to create the manuscript, recent examination of the pigments has proven that lapis lazuli was not used. [36]

The lavish illumination programme is far greater than any other surviving Insular Gospel book. There are ten surviving full-page illuminations including two evangelist portraits, three pages with the four evangelist symbols, a carpet page, a miniature of the Virgin and Child, a miniature of Christ enthroned, and miniatures of the Arrest of Jesus and the Temptation of Christ. There are thirteen surviving full pages of decorated text including pages for the first few words of each of the Gospels. Eight of the ten pages of the canon tables have extensive decoration. It is highly probable that there were other pages of miniature and decorated text that are now lost. In addition to these major pages, there are a host of smaller decorations and decorated initials throughout the text in fact only two pages have no decoration. [38]

The extant folios of the manuscript start with the fragment of the glossary of Hebrew names. This fragment occupies the left-hand column of folio 1r. A miniature of the four evangelist symbols, now much abraded, make up the right-hand column. The miniature is oriented so that the volume must be turned ninety degrees to view it properly. [39] The four evangelist symbols are a visual theme that runs throughout the book. They are almost always shown together to emphasise the doctrine of the four Gospels' unity of message.

The unity of the Gospels is further emphasised by the decoration of the Eusebian canon tables. The canon tables themselves inherently illustrate the unity of the Gospels by organising corresponding passages from the Gospels. The Eusebian canon tables normally require twelve pages. In the Book of Kells, the makers of the manuscript planned for twelve pages (folios 1v through 7r) but for unknown reasons, condensed them into ten, leaving folios 6v and 7r blank. This condensation rendered the canon tables unusable. The decoration of the first eight pages of the canon tables is heavily influenced by early Gospel Books from the Mediterranean, where it was traditional to enclose the tables within an arcade (as seen in the London Canon Tables). [39] The Kells manuscript presents this motif in an Insular spirit, where the arcades are not seen as architectural elements but rather become stylised geometric patterns with Insular ornamentation. The four evangelist symbols occupy the spaces under and above the arches. The last two canon tables are presented within a grid. This presentation is limited to Insular manuscripts and was first seen in the Book of Durrow. [40]

The remainder of the book is broken into sections with the divisions set off by miniatures and full pages of decorated text. Each of the Gospels is introduced by a consistent decorative programme. The preliminary matter is treated as one section and introduced by a lavish decorative spread. In addition to the preliminaries and the Gospels, the "second beginning" of the Gospel of Matthew is also given its own introductory decoration.

The preliminary matter is introduced by an iconic image of the Virgin and Child (folio 7v). This miniature is the first representation of the Virgin in a Western manuscript. Mary is shown in an odd mixture of frontal and three-quarter pose. This miniature also bears a stylistic similarity to the carved image on the lid of St. Cuthbert's coffin of 698. The iconography of the miniature may derive from an Eastern or Coptic icon. [41]

The miniature of the Virgin and Child faces the first page of text and is an appropriate preface to the beginning of the Breves Causae of Matthew, which begins Nativitas Christi in Bethlem (the birth of Christ in Bethlehem). The beginning page (folio 8r) of the text of the Breves Causae is decorated and contained within an elaborate frame. The two-page spread of the miniature and the text makes a vivid introductory statement for the prefatory material. The opening line of each of the sections of the preliminary matter is enlarged and decorated (see above for the Breves causae of Luke), but no other section of the preliminaries is given the same level of treatment as the beginning of the Breves Causae of Matthew. [41]

The book was designed so that each of the Gospels would have an elaborate introductory decorative programme. Each Gospel was originally prefaced by a full page miniature containing the four evangelist symbols, followed by a blank page. Then came a portrait of the evangelist which faced the opening text of the Gospel which was given an elaborate decorative treatment. [42] The Gospel of Matthew retains both its Evangelist portrait (folio 28v) and its page of Evangelist symbols (folio 27r, see above). The Gospel of Mark is missing the Evangelist portrait but retains its Evangelist symbols page (folio 129v). The Gospel of Luke is missing both the portrait and the Evangelist symbols page. The Gospel of John, like the Gospel of Matthew, retains both its portrait (folio 291v, see at right) and its Evangelist symbols page (folio 290v). It can be assumed that the portraits for Mark and Luke and the symbols page for Luke at one time existed but have been lost. [43] The use of all four of the Evangelist symbols in front of each Gospel is striking and was intended to reinforce the message of the unity of the Gospels.

The decoration of the opening few words of each Gospel was lavish. These pages were, in effect, turned into carpet pages. The decoration of these texts is so elaborate that the text itself is almost illegible. The opening page (folio 29r) of Matthew may stand as an example. (See illustration at left.) The page consists of only two words: Liber generationis ("The book of the generation"). The lib of Liber is turned into a giant monogram which dominates the entire page. The er of Liber is presented as an interlaced ornament within the b of the lib monogram. Generationis is broken into three lines and contained within an elaborate frame in the right lower quadrant of the page. The entire assemblage is contained within an elaborate border. [44]

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus. At Matthew 1:18, the actual narrative of Christ's life starts. This "second beginning" to Matthew was given emphasis in many early Gospel Books, so much so that the two sections were often treated as separate works. The second beginning begins with the word Christ. The Greek letters chi and rho were normally used in mediaeval manuscripts to abbreviate the word Christ. In Insular Gospel Books, the initial Chi Rho monogram was enlarged and decorated. In the Book of Kells, this second beginning was given a decorative programme equal to those that preface the individual Gospels. [44] Folio 32 verso has a miniature of Christ enthroned. (It has been argued that this miniature is one of the lost evangelist portraits. However, the iconography is quite different from the extant portraits, and current scholarship accepts this identification and placement for this miniature.) Facing this miniature, on folio 33 recto, is the only carpet page in the Book of Kells, which is rather anomalous the Lindisfarne Gospels has five extant carpet pages and the Book of Durrow has six. The blank verso of folio 33 faces the single most lavish miniature of the early mediaeval period, the Book of Kells Chi Rho monogram, which serves as incipit for the narrative of the life of Christ.

In the Book of Kells, the Chi Rho monogram has grown to consume the entire page. The letter chi dominates the page with one arm swooping across the majority of the page. The letter rho is snuggled underneath the arms of the chi. Both letters are divided into compartments which are lavishly decorated with knot work and other patterns. The background is likewise awash in a mass of swirling and knotted decoration. Within this mass of decoration are hidden animals and insects. Three angels arise from one of the cross arms of the chi. This miniature is the largest and most lavish extant Chi Rho monogram in any Insular Gospel Books and is the culmination of a tradition that started with the Book of Durrow. [44]

The Book of Kells contains two other full-page miniatures, which illustrate episodes from the Passion story. The text of Matthew is illustrated with a full-page illumination of the Arrest of Christ (folio 114r). Jesus is shown beneath a stylised arcade while being held by two much smaller figures. [47] In the text of Luke, there is a full sized miniature of the Temptation of Christ (folio 202v). Christ is shown from the waist up on top of the Temple. To his right is a crowd of people, perhaps representing his disciples. To his left and below him is a black figure of Satan. Above him hover two angels. [48]

The verso of the folio containing the Arrest of Christ contains a full page of decorated text which begins "Tunc dicit illis". Facing the miniature of the Temptation is another full page of decorated text (folio 203r "Iesus autem plenus"). In addition to this page, five other full pages also receive elaborate treatment. In Matthew, there is one other full-page treatment (folio 124r, "Tunc crucifixerant Xpi cum eo duos latrones"). In the Gospel of Mark, there are also two pages of decorated text (folio 183r, "Erat autem hora tercia", and folio 187v, "[Et Dominus] quidem [Iesus] postquam"). The Gospel of Luke contains two pages of fully decorated text (folio 188v, "Fuit in diebus Herodis ", and folio 285r, "Una autem sabbati valde"). Although these texts do not have miniatures associated with them, it is probable that miniatures were planned to accompany each of these texts and have either been lost or were never completed. There is no surviving full page of text in the Gospel of John other than the Incipit. However, in the other three Gospels, all the full pages of decorated text, except for folio 188c, which begins the Nativity narration, occur within the Passion narrative. However, since the missing folios of John contain the Passion narrative, it is likely that John contained full pages of decorated text that have been lost. [49]

The decoration of the book is not limited to the major pages. Scattered through the text are decorated initials and small figures of animals and humans often twisted and tied into complicated knots. Many significant texts, such as the Pater Noster have decorated initials. The page containing text of the Beatitudes in Matthew (folio 40v) has a large miniature along the left margin of the page in which the letter B which begins each line is linked into an ornate chain. The genealogy of Christ found in the Gospel of Luke (folio 200r) contains a similar miniature in which the word qui is repeatedly linked along the left margin. Many of the small animals scattered throughout the text serve to mark a "turn-in-the-path" (that is, a place where a line is finished in a space above or below the original line). Many other animals serve to fill spaces left at the end of lines. No two of these designs are the same. No earlier surviving manuscript has this massive amount of decoration.

The decorations are all high quality and often highly complex. In one decoration, which occupies a one-inch square piece of a page, there are 158 complex interlacements of white ribbon with a black border on either side. Some decorations can only be fully seen with magnifying glasses, although lenses of the required power are not known to have been available until hundreds of years after the book's completion. The complicated knot work and interweaving found in Kells and related manuscripts have many parallels in the metalwork and stone carving of the period. Since their gradual rediscovery from the 19th century on, these designs have also had an enduring popularity. Many of these motifs are used today in popular art including jewellery and tattoos.


How many artists produced the Book of Kells?

Three artists seem to have produced the major decorated pages. One of them, whose work can be seen on the Chi Rho page, was capable of ornament of such extraordinary fineness and delicacy that his skills have been likened to those of a goldsmith. Four major scribes copied the text. Each displayed characteristics and stylistic traits while working within a scriptorium style. One, for example, was responsible only for text, and was in the habit of leaving the decoration of letters at the beginning of verses to an artist while another scribe, who may have been the last in date, tended to use bright colours - red, purple, yellow - for the text, and to fill blank spaces with the unnecessary repetition of certain passages. The extent to which there was an identity between scribe and artist is among the key unanswered questions about the manuscript.


[edit] Description

The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels of the Christian scriptures written in black, red, purple, and yellow ink in an insular majuscule script, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and concordances of Gospel passages. [ 21 ] Today, it consists of 340 vellum leaves, or folios. The majority of the folios are part of larger sheets, called bifolios, which are folded in half to form two folios. The bifolios are nested inside of each other and sewn together to form gatherings called quires. On occasion, a folio is not part of a bifolio but is instead a single sheet inserted within a quire. The extant folios are gathered into 38 quires. There are between four and twelve folios (two to six bifolios) per quire the folios are commonly, but not invariably, bound in groups of ten. Some folios are single sheets, as is frequently the case with the important decorated pages. The folios had lines drawn for the text, sometimes on both sides, after the bifolios were folded. Prick marks and guide lines can still be seen on some pages. [ 16 ] The vellum is of high quality, although the folios have an uneven thickness, with some being close to leather while others are so thin as to be almost translucent.

The book's current dimensions are 330 by 250 mm. Originally, the folios were of no standard size, but they were cropped to the current size during an 18th-century rebinding. The text area is approximately 250 by 170 mm. Each text page has 16 to 18 lines of text. [ 16 ] The manuscript is in remarkably good condition considering its great age, though many pages have suffered some damage to the delicate artwork due to rubbing. The book must have been the product of a major scriptorium over several years, yet was apparently never finished, the projected decoration of some of the pages appearing only in outline. It is believed that some 30 folios of the original manuscript have been lost over the centuries. [ 16 ] Ussher counted 344 folios in 1621, but several leaves had already been lost by then. The overall estimate is based on gaps in the text and the absence of certain key illustrations.

[edit] Contents

The extant book contains preliminary matter, the complete text of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Gospel of John through John 17:13. The remainder of John and an unknown amount of the preliminary matter is missing and was perhaps lost when the book was stolen early in the 11th century AD. 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 is probable that, like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Books of Durrow and Armagh, part of the lost preliminary material included the letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus I known as Novum opus, in which Jerome explains the purpose of his translation. It is also possible, though less likely, that the lost material included the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus, in which he explains the use of the canon tables. [ 22 ] Of all the insular Gospels, only the Lindisfarne manuscript contains this letter.

There are two fragments of the lists of Hebrew names one on the recto of the first surviving folio and one on folio 26, which is currently inserted at the end of the prefatory matter for John. The first list fragment contains the end of the list for the Gospel of Matthew. The missing names from Matthew would require an additional two folios. The second list fragment, on folio 26, contains about a fourth of the list for Luke. The list for Luke would require an additional three folios. The structure of the quire in which folio 26 occurs is such that it is unlikely that there are three folios missing between folios 26 and 27, so that it is almost certain that folio 26 is not now in its original location. There is no trace of the lists for Mark and John. [ 23 ]

The first list fragment is followed by the canon tables of Eusebius of Caesarea. These tables, which predate the text of the Vulgate, were developed to cross-reference the Gospels. Eusebius divided the Gospel into chapters and then created tables that allowed readers to find where a given episode in the life of Christ was located in each of the Gospels. The canon tables were traditionally included in the prefatory material in most mediaeval copies of the Vulgate text of the Gospels. The tables in the Book of Kells, however, are almost unusable because the scribe condensed the tables in such a way as to make them confused. In addition, the corresponding chapter numbers were never inserted into the margins of the text, making it impossible to find the sections to which the canon tables refer. The reason for the omission remains unclear: the scribe may have planned to add the references upon the manuscript's completion, or he may have deliberately left them out so as not to spoil the appearance of pages. [ 22 ]

The Breves causae and Argumenta belong to a pre-Vulgate tradition of manuscripts. The Breves causae are summaries of the Old Latin translations of the Gospels and are divided into numbered chapters. These chapter numbers, like the numbers for the canon tables, are not used on the text pages of the Gospels. It is unlikely that these numbers would have been used, even if the manuscript had been completed, because the chapter numbers corresponded to old Latin translations and would have been difficult to harmonise with the Vulgate text. The Argumenta are collections of legends about the Evangelists. The Breves causae and Argumenta are arranged in a strange order: first come the Breves causae and Argumenta for Matthew, followed by the Breves and Argumenta for Mark, then, quite oddly, come the Argumenta of both Luke and John, followed by their Breves causae. This anomalous order mirrors that found in the Book of Durrow, although in the latter instance, the misplaced sections appear at the very end of the manuscript rather than as part of a continuous preliminary. [ 22 ] In other insular manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Armagh, and the Echternach Gospels, each Gospel is treated as a separate work and has its preliminaries immediately preceding it. [ 24 ] The slavish repetition in Kells of the order of the Breves causae and Argumenta found in Durrow led scholar T. K. Abbot to the conclusion that the scribe of Kells had either the Book of Durrow or a common model in hand.

[edit] Text and script

The Book of Kells contains the text of the four Gospels based on the Vulgate. It does not, however, contain a pure copy of the Vulgate. There are numerous variants from the Vulgate, where Old Latin translations are used in lieu of Jerome's text. Although these variants are common in all of the insular Gospels, there does not seem to be a consistent pattern of variation amongst the various insular texts. Evidence suggests that when the scribes were writing the text they often depended on memory rather than on their exemplar.

The manuscript is written primarily in insular majuscule with some occurrences of minuscule letters (usually e or s). The text is usually written in one long line across the page. Françoise Henry identified at least three scribes in this manuscript, whom she named Hand A, Hand B, and Hand C. [ 25 ] Hand A is found on folios 1 through 19v, folios 276 through 289, and folios 307 through the end of the manuscript. Hand A, for the most part, writes eighteen or nineteen lines per page in the brown gall-ink common throughout the West. [ 25 ] Hand B is found on folios 19r through 26 and folios 124 through 128. Hand B has a somewhat greater tendency to use minuscule and uses red, purple and black ink and a variable number of lines per page. Hand C is found throughout the majority of the text. Hand C also has greater tendency to use minuscule than Hand A. Hand C uses the same brownish gall-ink used by hand A and wrote, almost always, seventeen lines per page. [ 26 ]

[edit] Errors

There are a number of differences between the text and the accepted Gospels. In the genealogy of Jesus, which starts at Luke 3:23, Kells erroneously names an extra ancestor. Elsewhere, Matthew 10:34b should read "I came not to send peace, but the sword," but the manuscript reads gaudium ("joy") where it should read gladium ("sword") and so translates as "I came not [only] to send peace, but joy."

[edit] Decoration

The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, while smaller painted decorations appear throughout the text in unprecedented quantities. The decoration of the book is famous for combining intricate detail with bold and energetic compositions. The characteristics of the Insular manuscript initial, as described by Carl Nordenfalk, here reach their most extreme realization: "the initials . are conceived as elastic forms expanding and contracting with a pulsating rhythm. The kinetic energy of their contours escapes into freely drawn appendices, a spiral line which in turn generates new curvilinear motifs. ". [ 27 ] The illustrations feature a broad range of colours, with purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow being the colours most often used. Earlier manuscripts tend toward more narrow palettes: the Book of Durrow, for example, uses only four colours. As is usual with Insular work, there was no use of gold or silver leaf in the manuscript. The pigments for the illustrations, which included red and yellow ochre, green copper pigment (sometimes called verdigris), indigo and lapis lazuli, [ 28 ] would have been imported from the Mediterranean region and, in the case of the lapis lazuli, from northeast Afghanistan. [ 29 ]

The lavish illumination programme is far greater than any other surviving Insular Gospel book. There are ten surviving full-page illuminations including two evangelist portraits, three pages with the four evangelist symbols, a carpet page, a miniature of the Virgin and Child, a miniature of Christ enthroned, and miniatures of the Arrest of Jesus and the Temptation of Christ. There are thirteen surviving full pages of decorated text including pages for the first few words of each of the Gospels. Eight of the ten pages of the canon tables have extensive decoration. It is highly probable that there were other pages of miniature and decorated text that are now lost. In addition to these major pages, there are a host of smaller decorations and decorated initials throughout the text in fact only two pages have no decoration. [ 30 ]

The extant folios of the manuscript start with the fragment of the glossary of Hebrew names. This fragment occupies the left-hand column of folio 1r. A miniature of the four evangelist symbols, now much abraded, make up the right-hand column. The miniature is oriented so that the volume must be turned ninety degrees in order to view it properly. [ 31 ] The four evangelist symbols are a visual theme that runs throughout the book. They are almost always shown together to emphasise the doctrine of the four Gospels' unity of message.

The unity of the Gospels is further emphasized by the decoration of the Eusebian canon tables. The canon tables themselves inherently illustrate the unity of the Gospels by organising corresponding passages from the Gospels. The Eusebian canon tables normally require twelve pages. In the Book of Kells, the makers of the manuscript planned for twelve pages (folios 1v through 7r) but for unknown reasons, condensed them into ten, leaving folios 6v and 7r blank. This condensation rendered the canon tables unusable. The decoration of the first eight pages of the canon tables is heavily influenced by early Gospel Books from the Mediterranean, where it was traditional to enclose the tables within an arcade (as seen in the London Canon Tables). [ 31 ] The Kells manuscript presents this motif in an Insular spirit, where the arcades are not seen as architectural elements but rather become stylised geometric patterns with Insular ornamentation. The four evangelist symbols occupy the spaces under and above the arches. The last two canon tables are presented within a grid. This presentation is limited to Insular manuscripts and was first seen in the Book of Durrow. [ 32 ]

The remainder of the book is broken into sections with the divisions set off by miniatures and full pages of decorated text. Each of the Gospels is introduced by a consistent decorative programme. The preliminary matter is treated as one section and introduced by a lavish decorative spread. In addition to the preliminaries and the Gospels, the "second beginning" of the Gospel of Matthew is also given its own introductory decoration.

The preliminary matter is introduced by an iconic image of the Virgin and Child (folio 7v). This miniature is the first representation of the Virgin in a Western manuscript. Mary is shown in an odd mixture of frontal and three-quarter pose. This miniature also bears a stylistic similarity to the carved image on the lid of St. Cuthbert's coffin of 698. The iconography of the miniature may derive from an Eastern or Coptic icon. [ 33 ]

The miniature of the Virgin and Child faces the first page of text and is an appropriate preface to the beginning of the Breves Causae of Matthew, which begins Nativitas Christi in Bethlem (the birth of Christ in Bethlehem). The beginning page (folio 8r) of the text of the Breves Causae is decorated and contained within an elaborate frame. The two-page spread of the miniature and the text makes a vivid introductory statement for the prefatory material. The opening line of each of the sections of the preliminary matter is enlarged and decorated (see above for the Breves causae of Luke), but no other section of the preliminaries is given the same level of treatment as the beginning of the Breves Causae of Matthew. [ 33 ]

The book was designed so that each of the Gospels would have an elaborate introductory decorative programme. Each Gospel was originally prefaced by a full page miniature containing the four evangelist symbols, followed by a blank page. Then came a portrait of the evangelist which faced the opening text of the Gospel which was given an elaborate decorative treatment. [ 34 ] The Gospel of Matthew retains both its Evangelist portrait (folio 28v) and its page of Evangelist symbols (folio 27r, see above). The Gospel of Mark is missing the Evangelist portrait but retains its Evangelist symbols page (folio 129v). The Gospel of Luke is missing both the portrait and the Evangelist symbols page. The Gospel of John, like the Gospel of Matthew, retains both its portrait (folio 291v, see at right) and its Evangelist symbols page (folio 290v). It can be assumed that the portraits for Mark and Luke and the symbols page for Luke at one time existed but have been lost. [ 35 ] The use of all four of the Evangelist symbols in front of each Gospel is striking and was intended to reinforce the message of the unity of the Gospels.

The decoration of the opening few words of each Gospel was lavish. These pages were, in effect, turned into carpet pages. The decoration of these texts is so elaborate that the text itself is almost illegible. The opening page (folio 28r) of Matthew may stand as an example. (See illustration at left.) The page consists of only two words: Liber generationis ("The book of the generation"). The lib of Liber is turned in to a giant monogram which dominates the entire page. The er of Liber is presented as an interlaced ornament within the b of the lib monogram. Generationis is broken into three lines and contained within an elaborate frame in the right lower quadrant of the page. The entire assemblage is contained within an elaborate border. [ 36 ]

The border and the letters themselves are further decorated with elaborate spirals and knot work, many of them zoomorphic. The opening words of Mark, Initium evangelii ("The beginning of the Gospel"), Luke, Quoniam quidem multi, and John, In principio erat verbum ("In the beginning was the Word"), are all given similar treatments. Although the decoration of these pages was most extensive in the Book of Kells, these pages were decorated in all of the other Insular Gospel Books. [ 37 ]

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus. At Matthew 1:18, the actual narrative of Christ's life starts. This "second beginning" to Matthew was given emphasis in many early Gospel Books, so much so that the two sections were often treated as separate works. The second beginning begins with the word Christ. The Greek letters chi and rho were often used in mediaeval manuscripts to abbreviate the word Christ. In Insular Gospel Books, the initial Chi Rho monogram was enlarged and decorated. In the Book of Kells, this second beginning was given a decorative programme equal to those that preface the individual Gospels. [ 36 ] Folio 32 verso has a miniature of Christ enthroned. (It has been argued that this miniature is one of the lost evangelist portraits. However, the iconography is quite different from the extant portraits, and current scholarship accepts this identification and placement for this miniature.) Facing this miniature, on folio 33 recto, is the only carpet page in the Book of Kells, which is rather anomalous the Lindisfarne Gospels has five extant carpet pages and the Book of Durrow has six. The blank verso of folio 33 faces the single most lavish miniature of the early mediaeval period, the Book of Kells Chi Rho monogram, which serves as incipit for the narrative of the life of Christ.

In the Book of Kells, the Chi Rho monogram has grown to consume the entire page. The letter chi dominates the page with one arm swooping across the majority of the page. The letter rho is snuggled underneath the arms of the chi. Both letters are divided into compartments which are lavishly decorated with knot work and other patterns. The background is likewise awash in a mass of swirling and knotted decoration. Within this mass of decoration are hidden animals and insects. Three angels arise from one of the cross arms of the chi. This miniature is the largest and most lavish extant Chi Rho monogram in any Insular Gospel Books and is the culmination of a tradition that started with the Book of Durrow. [ 36 ]

The Book of Kells contains two other full-page miniatures, which illustrate episodes from the Passion story. The text of Matthew is illustrated with a full-page illumination of the Arrest of Christ (folio 114r). Jesus is shown beneath a stylised arcade while being held by two much smaller figures. [ 39 ] In the text of Luke, there is a full sized miniature of the Temptation of Christ (folio 202v). Christ is shown from the waist up on top of the Temple. To his right is a crowd of people, perhaps representing his disciples. To his left and below him is a black figure of Satan. Above him hover two angels. [ 40 ]

The verso of the folio containing the Arrest of Christ contains a full page of decorated text which begins "Tunc dicit illis". Facing the miniature of the Temptation is another full page of decorated text (folio 203r "Iesus autem plenus"). In addition to this page, five other full pages also receive elaborate treatment. In Matthew, there is one other full-page treatment (folio 124r, "Tunc crucifixerant Xpi cum eo duos latrones"). In the Gospel of Mark, there are also two pages of decorated text (folio 183r, "Erat autem hora tercia", and folio 187v, "[Et Dominus] quidem [Iesus] postquam"). The Gospel of Luke contains two pages of fully decorated text (folio 188v, "Fuit in diebus Herodis ", and folio 285r, "Una autem sabbati valde"). Although these texts do not have miniatures associated with them, it is probable that miniatures were planned to accompany each of these texts and have either been lost or were never completed. There is no surviving full page of text in the Gospel of John other than the Incipit. However, in the other three Gospels, all of the full pages of decorated text, except for folio 188c, which begins the Nativity narration, occur within the Passion narrative. However, since the missing folios of John contain the Passion narrative, it is likely that John contained full pages of decorated text that have been lost. [ 41 ]

The decoration of the book is not limited to the major pages. Scattered through the text are decorated initials and small figures of animals and humans often twisted and tied into complicated knots. Many significant texts, such as the Pater Noster have decorated initials. The page containing text of the Beatitudes in Matthew (folio 40v) has a large miniature along the left margin of the page in which the letter B which begins each line is linked into an ornate chain. The genealogy of Christ found in the Gospel of Luke (folio 200r) contains a similar miniature in which the word qui is repeatedly linked along the left margin. Many of the small animals scattered throughout the text serve to mark a "turn-in-the-path" (that is, a place where a line is finished in a space above or below the original line). Many other animals serve to fill spaces left at the end of lines. No two of these designs are the same. No earlier surviving manuscript has this massive amount of decoration.

The decorations are all high quality and often highly complex. In one decoration, which occupies a one-inch square piece of a page, there are 158 complex interlacements of white ribbon with a black border on either side. Some decorations can only be fully seen with magnifying glasses, although lenses of the required power are not known to have been available until hundreds of years after the book's completion. The complicated knot work and interweaving found in Kells and related manuscripts have many parallels in the metalwork and stone carving of the period. Since their gradual rediscovery from the 19th century on, these designs have also had an enduring popularity. Indeed many of these motifs are used today in popular art including jewellery and tattoos.


Illumination

The images in the Book of Kells (and other illuminated manuscripts) are called miniatures. Scholar Giulia Bologna explains:

The term miniature is derived from miniare, which means `to colour in red’ miniumis the latin name for cinnabar or mercuric sulphide. This red, used in wall-paintings at Pompeii, was put to common use colouring the initials of early codices, hence its name became the term used to indicate pictures in manuscript books. (31)

The artists who painted these works were known as miniaturists but later as illuminators. The illuminator would begin with a sheet of vellum on which text had usually already been written. The section of the page to be worked on would be rubbed by the monk with clay or isinglass or with “a mixture of ox-bile and egg-albumen or by rubbing the surface with cotton-wool dipped in a diluted glue-and-honey solution” (Bologna, 32). Once the surface was prepared, the monk readied his brushes – which were made of the hair of squirrel tails pressed into a handle – as well as his pens and paints and set to work. Errors in the image were erased by rubbing them away with chunks of bread.

Folio 5 of the Book of Kells with the Eusebian Canons (Trinity College Library) / Photo by Larry Koester, Flickr, Creative Commons

According to Bologna, “we learn of the techniques of illumination from two sources: from uncompleted manuscripts that allow us to observe the interrupted stages of the work and from the directions compiled by medieval authors” (32). The illuminator would begin by sketching an image and then tracing it onto the vellum page. The first layer of paint would be applied to the image and then left to dry afterwards, other colors were applied. Gold or gold leaf was the first on the page to provide the illumination highlighted by the colors which followed. In this way, the great Book of Kells was produced.


The Book of Kells: Image and Text / Opening Initials

Opening Initials

The initial pages of each of the four Gospels in the Book of Kells are not at first glance easy to read. The alphabet used is the same one used by the majority of western countries today, but a different approach to the written word led to the creation of some unusually shaped letters that not only form words, but transmit symbolic meanings. Many of the pages were intentionally written to conceal letters, so the act of reading the text and finding its deeper meaning required focus and spiritual application. The obscuring of the letters in the Book of Kells would encourage the reader to spend time contemplating the deeper meaning of the passage.

The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 130r, Opening of St Marks’s Gospel, Initium Evangelii © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

The Book of Kells conceals the opening words to each Gospel behind highly abstract, brightly coloured, interlocking letters. These letters are further decorated by the inclusion of men, animals and geometric shapes that are designed to act together with the text in illustrating the deeper meaning of the Gospel text. The initial page of the Gospel of Luke, folio 188r (below) contains the word Quoniam (‘forasmuch’) with the letter Q dominating over half of the page. Within the loop of the Q is set a large diamond-shaped lozenge. The lozenge has been interpreted as a reference to the world and the four cardinal directions. As argued by Jennifer O’Reilly, a lozenge shape in the Book of Kells also represents Christ. In expounding on the central position of the lozenge in the Kells Chi Rho page, she shows how the lozenge on that folio brings together the four corners of the world. The arms of the letter chi (X) simultaneously evoke the name of Christ and the Cross, as is discussed in another blog in this series devoted to the Chi Rho page.

The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 188r, Opening of St Luke’s Gospel, Quoniam © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

In the bottom right of the Quoniam miniature there are small figures that populate the letters. George Bain interpreted the seated figure in the green robe as representing Christ, offering a chalice with the Eucharistic wine to several of the surrounding figures. This Eucharistic imagery taken in conjunction with the large lozenge appearing above, suggests that the path to eternal life is through Christ whose life is told in the Gospels. Another blog in this series will go into further detail about the reading and interpretation of the In principio (‘In the beginning’) initial on folio 292r that opens the Gospel of St John.

Further reading

Golden, Sean, ‘The Quoniam Page from the Book of Kells’, A Wake Newslitter 11 (1974), pp. 85-86.

King, Mike, ‘Diamonds are Forever, the Kilbroney Cross, the Book of Kells, and an Early Christian Symbol of the Resurrection’, Lecale Miscellany 19 (2001), pp. 3-13.

O’Reilly, Jennifer, ‘Patristic and Insular Traditions of the Evangelists: Exegesis and Iconography’, in Anna Maria Luiselli Fadda and Éamonn Ó Carragáin, ed., Le Isole Britanniche e Roma in Età Romanobarbarica (Rome: Herder, 1998), pp. 49-94.


The Book of Kells: Image and Text / The Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary

The Virgin and Child, The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 7v © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

The miniature on folio 7v of the Book of Kells is the earliest surviving representation of the Virgin in a western manuscript, as noted by Martin Werner. Devotion to the Virgin Mary is well attested in Ireland and her cult developed there during the early Christian period. Peter O’Dwyer argues that the earliest reference to the Virgin in Irish writings is found in an Old Irish prophecy dated to c. 600. Mary’s cult was also well established within the Columban monastic network, as seen in her depiction on the shaft of St Martin’s Cross at Iona.

Photograph of St Martin’s Cross, Iona, 1901, Victoria and Albert Museum, Prints & Drawings Study Room © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Kells image depicts a tender moment between mother and child but the miniature’s original monastic audience would have been acutely aware that the image was not only a point of emotional connection as modern viewers may understand, but was also intended to be read in terms of the doctrines and mysteries surrounding the Incarnation of Christ.

Mary’s mantle is purple, the colour of royalty, and she wears a brooch in the shape of a lozenge with four smaller lozenges contained within it. The shape occurs on other Kells pages such as the Chi Rho page. The dominant position of the Virgin demonstrates the high respect with which she was treated, and her portrayal as enthroned celebrates her majesty. The halo around her head bears three crosses that link her to the Trinity, and suggests not only Mary’s sanctity but also her role in salvation. Mary plays an integral part in the Incarnation, through which the second person of the Trinity (Christ) becomes flesh for the redemption and salvation of humanity fulfilled through his Crucifixion. Interestingly, Christ is destitute of a halo. As this symbol indicates divinity, its presence around Mary’s head in the Kells miniature celebrates her as the Mother of God, while the lack of the halo around Christ’s head emphasises his humanity.

Six profile heads set in the margin, looking to the left, The Book of Kells, TCD MS 58, folio 7v (detail) © Trinity College Dublin. In Sullivan, The Book of Kells, 1914.

In the right margin of the miniature, six profile heads look across, signalling that the image and facing page should be read in conjunction. The depiction of the Virgin and Child offers an appropriate preface to folio 8r with the text of the breves causae of Matthew, which presents a summary of his Gospel, and begins with Nativitas Christi in Bethlem (‘The Birth of Christ in Bethlehem’). The angel on the lower left of the miniature holds a flabellum (a fan used to protect the Eucharist from flies) with a twelve-petal rosette. This motif is picked up on the following page, as it defines the shape of the initial letter on the facing Nativitas text, and according to Bernard Meehan, former Keeper of Manuscripts, TCD, it represents the Star of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:7-11).

The draping of Mary’s clothing in the Kells miniature clearly reveals her breasts. The triple dots on her robes follow a Near Eastern tradition of using the motif to denote garments of the highest quality. However, here the triple groupings seem to allude to the Trinity and as they are white, the dots according to Meehan represent the mother’s milk. This Irish Virgin is shown as a fertile and nourishing mother. Milk, in exegesis stood for the milk of Christian instruction, where it represents the initial stages of evangelical teaching before one can move onto solid food (cf. Hebrews 5:12).

Isis nursing Horus, Egypt, 332-30 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org

The miniature displays knowledge of various iconographic traditions of depicting of the mother and child. The Kells image shows parallels with early Coptic (Christian Egyptian) images, which themselves engage with earlier non-Christian depictions of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing Horus.

Front cover of the Lorsch Gospels depicts Christ sitting upright on his mother’s lap, flanked by the figures of John the Baptist and the prophet Zacharias. The panel below depicts the scenes of the Annunciation and Nativity. The panel above depicts a medallion with the glorified bust-length figure of Christ. Carolingian Gospel Cover, Aachen, c. 810. Victoria and Albert Museum, Medieval & Renaissance Gallery © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In early Christian monumental mosaic depictions of the Virgin and Child or in Carolingian ivories, Christ was presented sitting upright on Mary’s knee and both showed serious expressions as the Christ Child blessed those he looked upon with his fingers raised. The Book of Kells miniature instead has the Christ Child looking up at his mother, while reaching out to her with his left hand and embracing her arm with his right hand. As well as a God, we are also presented with a child seated on his mother’s lap. It seems that the illuminators of the Book of Kells had exposure to the iconographic models that favoured more intimate depictions of the mother and child.

Christ is depicted as having two left feet, while the Virgin is depicted as having two right feet. That representation is sometimes regarded as an error on the illuminators’ behalf, but this explanation seems unlikely, especially when one considers the high status of the Book of Kells and the immense care taken in its production as well as the spiritual symbolism of feet in the Bible. References to God’s feet or footstool allude to the divine power and glory (cf. Psalm 18:9, 132:6), while the washing of feet is regarded as the act of hospitality and humility (cf. Genesis 18:4, John 13:1-17).

Further reading

O’Reilly, Jennifer, ‘Introduction’, in Seán Connolly, trans., Bede on the Temple (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995).

Rosenau, Helen, ‘The Prototype of the Virgin and Child in the Book of Kells’, Burlington Magazine 83 (1943), pp. 228-231.

Werner, Martin, ‘The Virgin and Child Miniature in the Book of Kells, Part I’, The Art Bulletin 54/ 1 (1972), pp. 1-23.

Werner, Martin, ‘The Virgin and Child Miniature in the Book of Kells, Part II’, The Art Bulletin 54/ 2 (1972), pp. 129-139.


Alberti’s Window

I sometimes have trouble finding satisfying discussions of illuminated manuscripts in general art history textbooks. I have found that many descriptions, while very informative about a specific illumination or artistic style, tend to focus on illuminated manuscript pages as isolated works of art. Although I realize that such isolated descriptions are part and parcel of the general survey textbook (it’s impossible to discuss everything in depth!), I still am a little disappointed. I feel like medieval gospel books were meant to be experienced as cohesive whole, not as merely isolated illuminations.

One such example of an isolated description can be found in a recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which discusses the “Chi-rho-iota (XPI)” page, folio 34 recto of the Book of Kells (c. 800, shown right). Although I really like that Gardner’s touches on historical context by explaining that this particular passage would be read on Christmas Day, I feel like a sense of the illustration within the biblical text and Book of Kells itself (as a whole) is relatively lacking.

This being said, I was quite delighted when I read the following passage yesterday afternoon (see below). This is one of the best descriptions of Folio 34 that I have seen in an introductory textbook. Although the passage doesn’t exactly describe the folio in relation to any other pages in the book (and, as I mentioned earlier, I realize such analysis is largely beyond the scope of an introductory textbook), I really like that the author tries to tie the decoration of the page into the actual context of Saint Matthew’s gospel:

“The earliest surviving Hiberno-Saxon religious manuscripts reveal and interest in decorating the letters themselves, a not surprising development when we remember that the words were believed to be proclamations of God. This tendency reaches its peak in the Book of Kells. When the text discussing the life of Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (1:22) reaches the point where the Incarnation of Christ is mentioned, the letters burst out into joyful, exuberant patterns. This whole page is devoted to three words – Christi autem generatio (“the birth of Christ”) – with most of the page devoted to the first three letters of Christi (XPI). The X is the dominant form, and it surges outward in bold and varied curves to embrace Hiberno-Saxon whorl patterns. Interlace fills other areas, and simple colored frames set off the large initials amid the consuming excitement. The human head that forms the end of the P also dots the I. Near the lower left base of the X, a small scene shows cats watching while two mice fight over a round wafter similar to those used in the Mass – a scene surely of symbolic intent, even if its meaning is lost to us today. The pulsating vitality of the word of God is thus visually demonstrated.” 1

Have you found any descriptions of illuminated manuscripts that you like? Do you know of other descriptions that help the reader to better understand either the biblical context or the folio’s physical context within the gospel book itself?

UPDATE: The Book of Kells is available online as a digital copy through the Trinity College Library in Dublin (which has the book in its permanent collection). You can see a high-res copy of the Book of Matthew, for example, with Folio 34 HERE. The library also has provided an introductory page to the Book of Kells.

1 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 171.

I think the British Library has an entire illuminated manuscript online (unfortunately I don't remember the title), and if I remember correctly there's a lot of supplementary information to go along with it. Might be worth looking for.

Aha, here it is: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/welcome.htm They actually have more than one available digitally.

Buddy, have you heard of the cartoon "The Secret of Kells?" It is a movie based off the "creation" of Folio 34. The story is okay, the ending left me a little wanting, however the animation makes it worth watching at least once.

Oh, coolies! Thanks for sharing, heidenkind. Wow, that site looks like a fantastic resource. If I ever teach a class on illuminated manuscripts, this would be a great site!

phin, I haven't even heard of that movie! I was going to suggest that we should watch it together the next time I am visiting you, but you've already watched it "at least once."

I'll check it out, and let you know what I think. (If anyone is interested, the movie is available for online streaming at Netflix.)

Hi M! Medieval illuminations are truly wondrous things. I have only ever seen the ones in the Medici Collection(Laurentian Library) in person, but am always looking at digitised editions for visual inspiration (and clues to Renaissance iconography!)

In addition to the resource Heidenkind mentioned, here are a few others which I encountered in my ongoing adventures adding sites to the art/history site database (ahdb)

There is also a UCLA site that a catalogues all online medieval manuscriprt collections!
http://manuscripts.cmrs.ucla.edu/

A 2009 volume I am really enjoying on the topic is "Materials, Methods and Masterpieces of Medieval Art" by Janetta Benton.

Great! Thanks for those recommendations, H! They look like good resources. I'll keep my eye out for the 2009 publication by Benton, too.

An emeritus professor of religion contacted me yesterday, recommending this site after stumbling across this post.

This website not only includes some images of other folios from "The Book of Kells," but also has a great quote from Gerald of Canturbury (a 12th century monk).
We don't know which Hiberno Saxon gospel book was described by Canturbury in the following quote, but it may have been the Book of Kells itself:

"This book contains the harmony of the four Evangelists according to St. Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colors. 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 casual glance, and you would think it 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 subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man. For my part the oftener I see the book, and the more carefully I study it, the more I am lost in ever fresh amazement, and I see more and more wonders in the book."


Watch the video: Advise from a Book of Kells Creative Competition winner (August 2022).