Closer than ever to the illuminations
The Book of Kells, By Bernard Meehan, Thames & Hudson, 256pp. €75
Bernard Meehan has been custodian and student of the Book of Kells for many years, and his knowledge of the manuscript is unrivalled. His writings on it are noteworthy for incisive judgments on the symbolic meaning of its decoration, in which the painters and painter-calligraphers of the book portrayed, and commented on, the Christian message of redemption. This lavishly illustrated book makes the imagery of Kells accessible and taps into a generation of new scholarship about text and image in the manuscript: its rich, full-page illustrations and details are superbly captioned and there are five chapters on the history of the manuscript, the traditional preliminaries and the gospel text, the decoration, the identification of the scribes and artists – not alas by name but by style – and the structure of the book. Read it with a magnifying glass close at hand.
The text of the manuscript is a mixture of the Old Latin version and of the Vulgate translation of St Jerome. This variant text belongs to an Irish tradition and is closely related to that of the Book of Durrow. The illuminated canon tables, portraits, carpet pages and narrative scenes of Kells are individually among the glories of early medieval insular art; collectively they are beyond compare.
First mentioned when the Annals of Ulster recorded its theft and recovery in 1007, it was described as the “Great Gospel-book of Colmcille” and as the “Chief Treasure of the Western World”. Iona was the principal foundation of St Colmcille (Columba) and the base from which the saint and his successors evangelised much of northern Britain and incidentally contributed to the birth of a new art style that combined “Celtic”, Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean influences to brilliant effect in metalwork, manuscripts and sculpture, of which Kells is generally accepted as the supreme expression.
From Iona to Kells
Following Viking raids on Iona at the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries, Iona was abandoned for a time; the Columban family divided into Scottish and Irish branches, and Kells became its leading house in Ireland. At what date the manuscript came to Kells or whether it was created there are unknown, but it was preserved there until the mid 17th century, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping.
The manuscript was later presented by Henry Jones, bishop of Meath, together with the Book of Durrow, to Trinity College Dublin, where it has been ever since. It was re-bound several times, notably in the 1820s by George Mullen, who trimmed the edges of the pages, cutting away some of the decoration. It was finally re-bound in 1953 in four parts by Roger Powell, who also carefully flattened pages that had become cockled.