KellsFol034rChiRhoMonogramCrossing the treacherous sea one stumbles upon an inhospitable rocky island. At the ends of the Earth this lonely isle emerges from the deep. Like the famous ark of Noah this island sheltered a community of writers and artists from the ignorance and violence that engulfed the rest of the medieval world. This island is the mysterious Iona.

In the 6th century a luminary later known as St. Columba arrived on Iona with his followers. On the isle he established a monastery and its influence spread throughout Scotland and the isles. The name, Columba, meant “dove” evoking the white bird of hope that brought tidings of land and life to Noah. It is an auspicious title. For the Holy Spirit of Christianity is also represented as a dove heralding the conception of Christ. The bird of peace symbolized miracles.

The Book of Kells is that miracle. For the Christians of this time writing in and of itself was a miracle. They believed that each letter was a message from heaven and that with each stroke of the quill God was speaking to them. It is an ancient idea; the ancient Greeks would always invoke the Muses at the start of every tale.

Work on the manuscript likely began in the 8th century in that monastic community. Generations of the community’s greatest scribes and illuminators toiled through the years on this task. This collection of the four gospels was so finely written and illustrated that it was deemed the work of angels.

KellsFol292rIncipJohnIronically for a Christian Bible much of the iconography is actually derived from Pagan culture. The combination of Christian ideas and Celtic symbolism is startling. For instance, the snake boss motif abounds throughout the Book of Kells. This leads to the question: Why, in a book glorifying Christ, is the traditional symbol of the Devil so prevalent? The answer lies with the Celtic culture. To them, snakes were not emissaries of deception and evil but rather transmitters of wisdom. In shedding their skins, they signified rebirth and resurrection. The monks of the Iona abbey latched onto the idea of snakes as symbols of resurrection and connected it to the story of Jesus Christ. The Book of Kells illustrates quite literally the adaptation of Celtic art and culture into the Christian tradition.

Another relic of Celtic art is the presence of so many circles, curves, and knots. Every millimeter of space is threaded with these delicate loops. Some of the designs may have been inspired by metalwork as can be seen in the Ardagh Chalice. It is likely that both illustrators and metalworkers utilized similar tools and techniques. This style of art, a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon motifs, is known as Insular Art which reached its peak in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The Celtic cross is a premier example of this phenomenon. The traditional cross of the Celtics is that of an equidistant cross set amid a circle. The Christians lengthened the cross to resemble their own but retained the circle. In fact some of the earliest stone monuments of this style are situated in Iona and also at the Abbey of Kells where the book would later find its home.

KellsFol032vChristEnthronedThe Book of Kells aside from offering us a glimpse of the fusion of Celtic and Christian traditions also offers a peek into the lives and personalities of those who labored on it. Three to four scribes composed the words. Some were very conservative and solemn, while others wrote with flair and brightly colored inks. The artists and illuminators also provided their own perspective. One, known as the Goldsmith, composed the elaborate folio page. His work is characterized by remarkable detail and coded language and symbolism. Another decided on a more metaphorical approach, depicting the church as the literal body of Christ with the apostles acting as the foundation. Humorous images of animals and humans litter the pages, telling us that the lives of the monks despite their solemn and sparse way of life actually contained an unexpected amount of love and fun.

Unfortunately this way of life came to an end in the 9th century with the advent of Viking attacks. For that reason the Book of Kells was never completed. In 1006 the book was stolen but thankfully recovered with only its elaborate cover missing. Magnificent as that cover must have been, the heart and soul of the creators is found in the actual pages and so has awed and inspired humanity even to today.

Further Information

Trinity College – The Book of Kells

Insular Art

The Book of Kells: Work of Angels?

The Secret of Kells