The Book of Kells: A Sacred Mystery in Medieval Art
Survey of Western Art 100-12
Dr. Lesa Mason
November 6, 2012
Fig. 1. Book of Kells, Incarnation Chi-Rho page.
The Book of Kells, originated in the waning years of the eight century in a monastery founded by the Irish missionary Colum Cille on the remote island Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in history. The books name is derived from the Irish monastery of Kells where the manuscript was kept from the late ninth century until the seventeenth century. Its many pages reflect a wide variety of influences from the Mediterranean to the English Channel. The Book of Kells offers a window into the monstatic scriptorium and the medieval monks.
It remained at Kells in the late 11th century until Oliver Cromwell’s invading troops threatened the area; it was then sent to Dublin for safekeeping where it remains today. It was described as “the most precious object in the Western world that was ‘wickedly stolen’ from the church sacristy in 1007 and retrieved soon after stripped of its gold ornaments”.
It was believed that The Book of Kells was made to celebrate the second centenary of the saint’s death on Iona; however, it was left unfinished as the island suffered a massive attack from the Vikings. The monks took refuge in Ireland at Kells after the brutal attack in 806. Other cherished relics also found protection here, and work on The Book of Kells may have continued. Some of the ornaments are only outlines, and other portions of the manuscript have been lost. Otherwise, it is in a very good condition.
The large book illuminates the New Testament gospels and was intended for display on the altar. It includes summaries of the gospel, narratives, etymologies of Hebrew names, and prefaces to the four evangelists. The book also contains a concordant system known as the Eusebian canon tables. This is a system of...