The Book of Kells: ‘The most purely Irish thing we have’ – James Joyce

Brilliant pictorial compositions of great variety

The Book of Kells, housed in the Trinity College library, is a fascinating manuscript. It is first and foremost a Book of the Gospels. When you look at it from the angle of its theology, it turns out to be a very rich source.

The pattern of three dots appears on the famous Mother and Child page (folio 7v). The three dots are a symbol of the Trinity. Their presence on this page is a kind of quiet insistence on the presence of God expressed in the birth of this child.

You might say “Folio 7v? How on earth am I going to find that!”

It is actually very simple.

The Book of Kells in all its glory is now fully digitalised at ( The manuscript in its entirety can be studied by all.

The wonderful depictions of animals – snakes, peacocks, lions, hares, mice – the artistry and often great humour with which these were drawn are much appreciated. These animal figures also carry deeper meaning.

They themselves are part of the telling of a theological narrative, the story of human salvation.

The lion, for example, often appears issuing a many-coloured breath from his mouth. In the background are the contemporary Bestiaries, books of animal stories. There it is said that lion cubs are born dead. The male lion after three days returns, breathes upon them and life enters their limbs.

Christian story

This, of course, recalls the Christian story of resurrection – Jesus, the Son of God, resurrected from the dead after three days.

The snake has a double meaning. Usually thought of as representing evil in the world (remember the Garden of Eden), the fact that the snake sheds its skin and enters a new phase of life serves as a reminder of the resurrection for the illustrators of Kells.

Again and again in the illustrated pages, you come upon a simple-looking diamond shape. This the scholars call the “lozenge”. It is found on the Mother and Child page.

This innocuous-looking shape carries profound symbolic weight. It is a cosmic symbol.

Its points indicate the four corners of the Earth. It tells us that the story the Book of Kells narrates is itself a story about everything.

This cosmic symbol is simultaneously an indicator of Christ, whose story is told as being at the centre of the story of the universe.

Symbols of the four Evangelists are a prominent feature. The origin of this symbolism is traced back to the prophet Ezekiel. In a whirlwind, Ezekiel sees the divine presence surrounded by living creatures. These creatures come to symbolically stand for the Evangelists – the eagle for John, the calf for Luke, the lion for Mark, the man for Mathew.

Sacred text

In brilliant pictorial compositions of great variety, these symbols are held before our eyes in the book. They regularly reappear. The message is “the word of the Lord” – this is a sacred text. They are a visual reminder that we are in the midst of a liturgical reading.

The Book of Kells down the generations has been a classic book in that it has sparked off the creativity of other artists.

James Joyce said, "In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations."

Contemporary poet James Harpur has written poems inspired by his viewings of the book.

There are many excellent resources to help our enjoyment of The Book of Kells – DVDs, an iPad app, and the digitalised work on the web. Utilising all these there is now a course exploring the theology of the Book of Kells, currently offered by the Loyola Institute at Trinity College Dublin.

Perhaps these innovative resources can help a new generation to appreciate and be inspired in their own creativity by this great Irish resource.

Dr Cornelius J Casey and Dr Fáinche Ryan are lecturers on the undergraduate theology degree at the Loyola Institute, Trinity College. They offer a module entitled The Book of Kells: A Theological Reading