The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells, which eclipsed all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages, was created around AD 800 by Irish monks to glorify the life of Christ.

The first mention of this work of art is probably the entry in the Annals of Ulster under the year 1007 which records that ‘the great Gospel book of Columcille, the chief relic of the western world, was wickedly stolen during the night from the great stone church of Cenannus (Kells). That Gospel was found after 20 nights and two months with its gold stolen from it, buried in the ground’. The manuscript remained in Kells until it was entrusted to Trinity College in the mid-17th century.

The Book of Kells contains the latin text of the four Gospels, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and a canon table with concordances compiled by Eusebius of Caesarea. Of the 680 pages all but two are decorated with a wealth of symbolic imagery which is woven into countless intricate designs. At the beginning of each of the four Gospels, the words are placed within a richly ornamented page filled with brightly coloured animals, faces and figures which are entwined round the letters with great skill and artistry. The colours, from costly pigments, astound in their brilliance and, in the case of the dazzling ultramarine blue, would have come from a lapis lazuli stone brought from the Himalayas.

More than 30 folios present full page paintings which are some of the best known and loved images of the period. The subjects depicted include the evangelists and their symbols, which recur throughout the manuscript, four portrait pages showing Christ, the Virgin and Child and Saints Matthew and John. There is also an intricate carpet page and a magnificently decorated canon table.

The original manuscript, which has been bound in four volumes since 
1953, can be seen in Dublin at Trinity College where it is displayed in the Library to show a major decorated page, and two pages of script.

During the last century an ever increasing number of scholars wanted access to the manuscript and in 1986 Trinity College allowed Facsimile Verlag of Luzern to photograph the complete manuscript and create a limited edition of 1480 numbered facsimile copies. Most of these are in libraries around the world.

However, the facsimile provides a perfect replica of all 680 pages of the manuscript. It is bound in a cream, full-leather binding and housed within a case based on the design of an 8th century book shrine.

“the work of an angel rather than a human being.”
“The Book of Kells is universally recognised as the greatest example of medieval illumination to be produced before AD1000”

The Guardian

‘The Book of Kells ‘one of the most important and spectacular illuminated manuscripts in Europe’

The Telegraph

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