Feb 8, 2010

The Book of Kells

©Cindy Thomson

photo via creative commons
by Michael 1952
Many of the Celtic designs you see on merchandise today were inspired by the artwork in the Book of Kells. Sometimes I forget that not everyone knows what the Book of Kells is. It's an 8th century illuminated manuscript (vivid illustrations that seem to glow) created by Irish monks. Its name in Irish is An Leabhar Cheanannais. It is written in Latin and contains the four Gospel books of the New Testament along with some indexes and other texts. As I said, it's lavishly illustrated, and it's those illustrations that have mesmerized people for hundreds of years.

The four apostles are illustrated along with symbolism. Below is John the Evangelist.
photo via creative commons by Larry Koester

In the 12th century Gerald of Wales wrote about what many believe was the Book of Kells. He viewed the book at Kildare, so some wonder if he was talking about another book now lost. Maybe, but these books were passed around from monastery to monastery. Scholars believe it is the work of more than one monk--probably several. The scribes were probably not the illustrators. Gerald of Wales's description of the book he saw matches the Book of Kells. Part of what he wrote:

"You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man."
photo via creative commons by Patrick Lordan
So delicate, so subtle.... These illustrations do merit careful observation and contemplation. Just what do those symbols mean? Why are certain animals depicted?

One of the best sources of information I've found on the Book of Kells is a video.

I saw a replica book at a library once. The photo of the open book above is from that exhibit.

It's amazing to think about the craftsmanship and dedication to perfection that the men who created this book put forth. They were monks who lived in service to God, so surely they could do nothing but their best. I hope I can put forth half the effort they did when I write.

I'm going to continue talking about Ireland's national treasure this week.

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