Closer than ever to the illuminations
A recent examination of the pigments, led by Susan Bioletti of Trinity’s conservation laboratory and discussed by Meehan, makes it clear that the materials were all essentially local: the blue used in the manuscript is derived from woad and not from exotic and very costly lapis lazuli. A white pigment is made not of lead but of gypsum, which is readily available to this day in south Ulster. It has been calculated that the hides of 185 young calves were used to make the book, slightly older calves producing the more robust vellum for the great painted pages.
The skins were the product of a large herd of cattle (or collected from several herds), and that alone indicates how ambitious and costly the project of the manuscript was.
Kells is not a particularly good text of the scriptures; there are numerous errors and duplications of passages. It is artistically, however, a profound meditation on the Gospels and a constant assertion of their unity – always a sensitive subject for early Christians. Meehan stresses these concepts in his reading of the symbolic ornament of lions (usually Christ, or the Evangelist Mark, and, occasionally, Satan), peacocks (immortality), snakes (rebirth, repentance and also evil), chalices, vines and olive trees (redemption, the Eucharist, Christ), which appear constantly in the decoration. The transposition of attributes of the evangelist symbols from one to another assert the unity of the four Gospels and could easily pass unnoticed on, for example, the canon table on folio 3v, plate 28, where the calf (Luke) has the lion’s claws and mane and the lion (Mark) has the calf’s cloven hoof. Smaller images that had often been taken as whimsies he relates closely to the text: the rooster and hens (plate 137) come at the point where the parable of the sower and the seed is recounted. He reads the formation of certain small capital letters as comments on the text or miniature narratives – there are examples on plates 74 and 75 (Luke’s account of the Passion), on plate 81 (the betrayal by Judas) and on plates 140 and 14 (Matthew’s account of that betrayal). The Cross is everywhere within letters and interlace and in the layout of pages.
The mimicry of metalwork effects is very pronounced on some of the great pages. In a couple of cases one may disagree with the author where interlaced animals are described as snakes but the lens reveals them to be quadrupeds, and the eagle, symbol of the evangelist John, on the famous folio 27v, plate 100, is not clutching his book but standing on an elegant four-footed plinth. These are quibbles: the care with which Meehan knits together the symbolic strands is consistent and compelling. He has an eye for brilliant but simple scribal flourishes, such as a letter (plate 114) that ends in a stylised fish, the ancient cipher for Christ.