Bernard Meehan’s new history of the Book of Kells is a reminder of what an amazing creation it really is, writes Peter Murray
THE 500,000 visitors who file past the Book of Kells in Trinity College library each year, pausing to admire its elaborately decorated vellum pages, continue a tradition of veneration and respect that stretches back well over 1,000 years.
From the time it was first compiled, the Book of Kells has enjoyed extraordinary fame, while its ownership, involving both privileges and responsibilities, has often been contested.
Even before it was completed, around the beginning of the 9th century, this great manuscript had to be transferred from Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland, to the relative safety of Kells, in Co Kildare, to protect it from marauding Vikings.
Founded by St Columba (also known as St Colum Cille) the monastery at Iona was an Irish creation, and so the Book of Kells is correctly described as Irish, even though a good part of it was completed in what is now Scotland.
In AD806, Viking raiders attacked Iona and massacred its religious community. Interested only in valuable ivory, jewels or silver mountings, they would happily have consigned the Book of Kells to the flames.
Fortunately, it survived, and is still in relatively good condition, due in no small part to the librarians at Trinity College who have looked after it over the past 400 years.
In 1953 it was expertly restored and rebound in four volumes by Roger Powell, the leading bookbinder of his day. The present keeper of manuscripts, Bernard Meehan, who has overseen the complete conservation of the manuscript and has studied it over many years, has now written a detailed description and history of the Book of Kells.
Published in a fine hardback volume, with dustcover and slipcase, Meehan’s homage to the original is impressive. It runs to some 256 pages of superb colour reproductions and detailed texts that examine the making of the great manuscript, as well as explaining the meaning of many of the images and details employed by the scribes on Iona and at Kells.
The Thames & Hudson publication is divided into five main chapters detailing the historical background of the book, along with its contents, decoration, the scribes and artists who worked on it, and its physical features.
When it entered the library at Trinity, the Book of Kells was already 800 years old. Described as “Insular”, it reflects the realities of an age when the northern part of Ireland, controlled by the great O’Neill family, and a good deal of what is now Scotland, formed one political entity. Celtic Christianity played a key role in this world and when the kings of Northumbria wanted to improve life for their pagan tribes, they turned to Christianity, not least because its art, literature and ceremonies recalled the order and civilisation of ancient Rome.
Although British tribes had been sidelined in Roman times, England had enjoyed economic stability under the Caesars. During the turbulent centuries that followed the departure of the legions, many rulers looked back with nostalgia to those more prosperous times.
To this end, Irish monks were invited to found monasteries and to lead the conversion of the peoples of northern England and Scotland to Christianity. St Columba founded Iona, while off the coast of Northumbria, St Aidan founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne.
In the centuries leading up to its destruction by Vikings in 793, Lindisfarne, like Iona, was one of the great centres for the production of illuminated manuscripts.
Pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels are painted in a style so close to the Book of Kells that one could believe the same scribes were involved in both these great books. However, as the Lindisfarne Gospels are dated to almost a century earlier, what becomes clear is that the tradition of manuscript illumination was handed down, over centuries, from teacher to pupil.
Notwithstanding regular calls for it to be returned to the cathedral at Durham, the manuscript of the Lindisfarne Gospels is preserved today in the British Library in London. A facsimile copy is displayed in the Cathedral Treasury in Durham, and in like fashion, visitors to Kells in Co Meath have to be content to view a reproduction of the Book of Kells, rather than the real thing.
Arguments that it would be impossible for one of the four sections of the Book of Kells to be displayed in its home town have been undermined by the decision by the British Library to display its recently-acquired St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving European bound book, for equal periods both in London and in Durham. However, when compared with the St Cuthbert Gospel, the value of the Book of Kells is incalculable.
The former, with its original 7th century tooled leather binding, was acquired in April 2012 by the British Library, for £9m, from the Jesuit College at Stoneyhurst. It is a small volume, not much bigger than the palm of a hand, with an exquisitely written text, but with no illustrations.
The much larger Book of Kells, with four times as many pages, and a profusion of illumination and decoration, is literally priceless, and as Ireland’s greatest national art treasure, its safety and preservation is paramount.
Small pieces of paint became dislodged when one of the volumes was last loaned, to an exhibition at Australia’s National Gallery in 2000.
Like the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Gospels and the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells represents a visual blending together of Mediterranean forms with Celtic vitality. Revered as an example of art created by a self-confident Irish civilisation, prior to the Viking, Anglo-Norman and English invasions, it paradoxically also represents an Irish colonisation of Britain, albeit one carried out by peaceful missionaries, rather than ruthless warriors.
When the book was brought to Ireland, it is likely that the monks involved in its making also travelled to Kells, where they continued work on completing its 344 vellum pages. However, probably because of further Viking raids, it was never finished and some pages contain only the traced outline of the proposed decoration.
It must be admitted also in that some parts of the book, in particular the Canon Tables intended to detail the chapters of the Gospels, the scribes got a bit muddled. In the early 11th century, the book was stolen from the sacristy at Kells, and, torn from its jewelled and gold bindings or shrine, was later recovered in a field.
Around 40 pages were lost, probably as a result of this incident. In the 16th century, the book was in the possession of a Gerald Plunkett, probably a relative of Richard Plunkett, the last abbot of Kells. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the Plunkett family held on to the Book of Kells but Gerald’s high regard for the volume’s artistic qualities did not prevent him from scribbling notes, using his own pen, over several of the pages.
Plunkett was one of a number of old Anglo-Irish families who remained Catholic after the Reformation, vainly hoping for tolerance from the British crown.
In 1641, when an uprising took place against English rule, Kells was pillaged and plundered. Leading an infantry regiment, Charles Lambert, 1st Earl of Cavan, regained the town from the rebel Hugh McMulmore O’Reilly, and took the book into safe-keeping.
He then transferred it to Dublin, where Henry Jones, a former officer in Cromwell’s army and later vice-chancellor of Trinity College, presented it to the college. Jones was shortly afterwards to lead the collecting of Depositions relating to the rebellion of 1641, documents that provide an extraordinary insight into the turmoil in Ireland at that time.
In its new home, the Book of Kells became part of a wider mission to convert Irish Catholics to Protestantism. To this end, Jones followed William Bedell’s example of promoting the Irish language, and also did much to improve the college library and to add to its collection of manuscripts.
He was assisted in this by Archbishop James Ussher, also a keen collector of manuscripts, whose contribution to Irish learning has been often overlooked and who is, perhaps unfortunately, best remembered for a chronology he drafted, based on the Old Testament, that dated the creation of the world to October 4004BC.
With Trinity College becoming an important repository of Irish manuscripts, on the continent several Catholic colleges also embarked on a similar mission. Founded in 1593 by Thomas White, a Jesuit from Clonmel, the Irish College of Salamanca emerged as a centre for the preservation and copying of manuscripts.
The two main Christian denominations in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, began to compete for ‘ownership’ of the early Irish church. The Protestants argued that the early Celtic church, famous for maintaining an independence from Rome, was an antecedent of a more recent Christian church that had entirely rejected Roman rule.
However, such independence as was enjoyed by the early Irish church seems to have rested on hotly contested issues such as hairstyles and the date of Easter. On the Catholic side it was argued that while the early Irish church may have not been fully under the rule of Rome, it was clear from the lives of saints such as St Declan, and the pilgrimage trail that led through St Gall in Switzerland, that the early abbots looked to Rome for their authority.
A race began to transcribe and preserve old manuscripts and the lives of Irish saints. The college at Salamanca played a key role, and the Codex Salamanticensis, a collection of transcriptions from old Irish manuscripts, is now preserved in the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels.
The era when the Book of Kells had been created was seen as a golden age in Irish history, and not just physical but also cultural ‘ownership’ of these Gospels and Lives of the Saints became important.
The libraries of religious houses and monasteries in Switzerland, Italy and Germany were scoured for old Irish manuscripts, and a project was initiated at Louvain to systematically copy them.
However, in Ireland, the rebellion of 1641, followed by the depredations of Cromwell’s army a decade later, resulted in the destruction not only of property, but also of the possibility of understanding between scholars of the period paradoxically united in their love for the art of the early Irish Christian church. Given the conditions and troubles of those times, it is something of a miracle that the Book of Kells has survived, and that its magnificence can still be appreciated today.
The book itself combines pages covered with elaborate designs, with more or less undecorated pages containing the text of the four Gospels. Written in Latin, using the translation made by St Jerome in the 4th century, the Gospels are completed mainly in black or red ink, with decorative embellishments in yellow, green and blue.
Unlike other Insular manuscripts such as the Book of Lindisfarne, that were completed by one artist or scribe, not all of the artwork in the Book of Kells is of the same standard, and several artists and scribes were involved in its making. On the basis of a reference in the Annals of the Four Masters, art historian Francois Henry identified an abbot of Iona, a scribe named Connachtach, as working on the Book of Kells. Meehan is more cautious in attempting to identify the scribes but nonetheless his text is fascinating, as he describes how ‘Scribe B’ went over some of the work of an earlier writer, adding decorative embellishments.
Meehan explains the significance of motifs in the book, such as the frequently recurring lozenge shape that represents logos or the word of God, and the flowering chalices that refer to the vine as a symbol of Christ and the church. A motif appearing on several pages, of peacocks drinking wine from a chalice, is common in Early Christian and Byzantine art. There are visual puns also; the initial letter of the Nativity page is decorated with little circular multi-leafed crosses in the shape of the Star of Bethlehem flower, while communion hosts appear on many pages, as do crosses, fish and trumpet spirals.
Even a simple interlaced knot, such as that forming the ‘O’ of Orate, can be paralleled in a mosaic pavement in the Villa Massimo in Rome. Many of the decorative motifs in the book were common throughout the ancient classical world and survived in books and art through the centuries following.
Meehan also points out parallels between the decorative style in the Book of Kells and Irish metalwork from the eighth century such as the Tara Brooch.
The two pages, with small photographs, given over to ‘Preludes and Parallels’ are tantalisingly brief, although within the main text Meehan goes into far greater detail in drawing comparisons between motifs in the Book of Kells and other manuscripts and works of art from the ancient world.
While the decorative style used by the scribes of the Book of Kells is largely Celtic, the design of most pages is based on earlier manuscripts produced in and around the Mediterranean.
The most important centre for the production of these manuscripts was Byzantium, or Constantinople (now Istanbul), where Christianity continued after Rome had been overrun by pagan Germanic tribes. But there were also important centres in Italy, Greece and Armenia. St Catherine’s at Mount Sinai in Egypt was a key monastery, with its library of books in various languages. Books created in Coptic Egypt clearly influenced Irish monks in faraway Iona and Lindisfarne, even down to the way the volumes were bound with cord and their leather covers decorated with embossed patterns.
In the Nubian Museum in Aswan, an early Coptic prayer book with Celtic interlace shows how easily and widely decorative motifs were transmitted in the ancient world by pilgrims. It is likely that such books, copied and re-copied, were almost a form of currency, donated to monasteries by grateful pilgrims in return for accommodation and hospitality.
An exhibition on the art of the ancient Armenian city of Dvin, held recently at the Civic Museum in Rome, included one of the oldest surviving manuscript Bibles, a book dating from the 5th century.
Although created three centuries before the Book of Kells, the Armenian bible demonstrates that the Irish manuscript was part of a tradition that stretched across Europe and had strong links to the Arab world and the East.
Mediterranean influences can also be seen in the Canon Pages of the Book of Kells, where decorative designs of vertical columns, surmounted by arches, preserve a memory of the architecture of the Roman basilica, with its central nave and aisles — motifs that also appear in the Armenian bible, and were common in many Christian manuscripts even before St Jerome produced his famous translation of the Bible in the fourth century. However, the Book of Kells, of all the manuscripts of its time, stands out as being in no way derivative or secondhand in its inspiration.
Although some of the pages may be based on Byzantine originals, the scribes on Iona and at Kells display a breathtaking originality and creativity in their treatment of the illuminated pages. Meehan details how the intricate interlace decoration and spirals, sometimes a dominant feature in the decorated pages, sometimes almost microscopic, were drawn.
Debunking the myth that expensive lapis lazuli was used by the artists, he shows how they instead used blue indigo, as was also employed in the Lindisfarne Gospels. He draws parallels between many details in the Book of Kells and other manuscripts of the period, but he also points out that the books and manuscripts that have survived are but a fraction of the original number in circulation throughout Europe, the Mediterranean world and further afield, citing the chance discovery in 2006 of a late 8th century manuscript in a bog in Faddan More, Co Tipperary.
Probably hidden to save it during a Viking raid, after 1,000 years in the bog this manuscript was in a very sorry state and almost unrecognisable as a book.
Thames and Hudson are to be commended for this magnificent publication, although it is in many ways a repeat of a book they produced almost 40 years ago. The 1974 Book of Kells closely resembles the present publication, right down to its size, slipcase, and overall design.
It is to be hoped that T&H enjoy similar success with this volume, handsomely printed in China, and out in the bookshelves in good time for Christmas.
* Peter Murray is director of the Crawford Gallery in Cork
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