Closer than ever to the illuminations

The Book of Kells, By Bernard Meehan, Thames & Hudson, 256pp. €75

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.

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.

Metalwork effects

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.

The text pages were laid out by prick marks and drypoint ruling. The painted pages were created on single leaves, which may account for the loss of several that probably originally existed. Text on the reverse of the paintings was sometimes overallowed for. When the scribes came to write the necessary lines they had too much space, and this reveals something of how the work on the book was distributed (plates 169-171). Copying manuscripts was prone to error: line skipping and misreading of words (plates 172-178) are fairly common. The text pages may have been completed rapidly: in good conditions, a rate of about 180 words an hour was possible, but the elaborate decorated pages would have taken much longer.

Meehan sees discontinuity in the creation of the book (it is also unfinished), and some ornament is poorly done; some of the canon table entries are botched, and there is a complete change in their style of presentation to something like that in the Book of Durrow, also a Columban manuscript. The book is often said to have been created around 800, but we really do not know when it was begun and finished; it was probably within the eighth- to earlier-ninth- century range. Claims that it was started in Iona and completed at Kells after the community fled there are conjecture.

The richness of the manuscript must have vividly contrasted with the simplicity of the small Irish churches of the time, but who, apart from scribes and celebrants and privileged dignitaries, got to contemplate the detail of the ornament is a question not easily answered. This new book is a pleasure to read and to hold: it will bring you closer to the art of Kells than most of the people who witnessed the book being used in the liturgy in ancient times.

Reader offer A private viewing of the Book of Kells

The Irish Times and Trinity College Dublin are teaming up to host a Book of Kells readers' event on Monday, December 3rd. The evening will include an illustrated talk by Dr Bernard Meehan in the Neill/Hoey Lecture Theatre of the Long Room Hub building at 5pm, followed by a private viewing of the Book of Kells exhibition in the Old Library. This is a free event, but there are only 98 places, to be given on a first-come-first-served basis. To book a place email