10 Facts About the Book of Kells | History Hit

10 Facts About the Book of Kells

One of the more intricate illustrations in the Book of Kells.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The Book of Kells is one of Ireland’s greatest treasures: an illuminated manuscript containing the four Gospels created around the year 800, it resides in Trinity College Dublin’s famous library, where it is visited by over a million people every year.

Produced at great expense and intricately decorated, the Book of Kells is also remarkably well preserved, having survived over a millennia of turmoil, upheaval, invasion and bloodshed in the British Isles. Here are 10 facts about the spectacular manuscript.

1. Exactly where it was produced is a mystery

Whilst its name suggests it was produced in Kells, it is widely believed that the book was actually produced in a monastery on the west coast of Scotland, possibly in Iona, sometime in the late 8th or early 9th centuries.

The abbey at Iona and the Abbey of Kells were closely linked, leading many to hypothesise the book was started in Iona and perhaps finished in Kells. Either way, it was produced by a group of Columban monks, which is evident from the style and script used.

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2. It contains the four New Testament gospels

The book was one of a series of illuminated manuscripts produced between the late 6th and early 9th centuries containing the four New Testament gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Most of the text was copied from a copy of the Bible known as the Vulgate, which was produced in the 4th century, although some passages mirror earlier versions of the Bible more closely. It’s thought there was some more preliminary material in the text, including possibly copies of religious letters, but these pages have not survived.

3. No expense was spared in the book’s production

The book is made from vellum (fine calfskin) and uses expensive pigments and gold to decorate letters and title pages, as well as to illustrate passages. The blue used in the book, lapis lazuli, was only found in the Middle East, and was exorbitantly expensive as a result.

Copying out the text, not to mention the intricate decoration, would have taken hours to complete, even by learned scholars, scribes and artists. As a large, lavish book, it would have been used not for education or reading, but as part of Mass for sacramental purposes.

4. It spent several centuries in the Abbey of Kells, where it got its name

It is unclear when the book arrived at Kells Abbey, in the east of Ireland, but its first recorded mention at Kells is in 1007, when it was stolen briefly. However, some have theorised that the book must have been there for a significant period of time already if thieves knew of its location and were able to steal it.

The Abbey at Kells was dissolved in the 12th century, but the book remained at the newly formed parish church. As was common practice, contemporary land charters were copied into the blank pages of the book, giving hard evidence of its location at certain periods.

The ruins of the Abbey of Kells, photographed in 2007.

Image Credit: Patrickneil / CC

5. The book was sent to Dublin for safekeeping when Cromwell arrived in Ireland

The book remained at Kells up until the 17th century, when Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army arrived in Ireland. Viciously anti-Catholic and known for their brutality, Cromwell’s troops laid waste and pillaged much of the east of Ireland.

In 1654, Cromwell’s cavalry was garrisoned at Kells, and the governor of the town sent the book down to Dublin for safekeeping, believing that even a treasure like this was in danger whilst Cromwell’s troops remained so close by.

6. It is closely associated with St Columba

St Columba is one of the most important and revered figures in early Hiberno-Scottish Christianity. Born in Ireland in 521, Columba studied under leading Irish church figures and founded monasteries in Ireland, before crossing the Irish Sea around 563. He subsequently founded an abbey in Iona, on the west coast of Scotland.

The Book of Kells was created centuries after Columba had died. In a recorded mention of the book in 1007, it is referred to as “the great Gospel of Columkille, (Columba)”.

7. It is a masterpiece of the Insular artistic style

Insular art was a post-Roman style of art that was found across the British Isles, although predominantly in Ireland and Scotland. A form of interlace decoration was its hallmark, and it was known for its intricacy. Stone crosses and illustrated manuscripts make up the largest surviving body of work.

The Book of Kells is widely believed to be the finest example of Insular art that has survived: the arrival of the Vikings in Scotland and Ireland in the late 8th century disrupted the monastic centres which were the main producers of these pieces of art.

A image of Christ Enthroned in the Book of Kells.

8. It has been on display at Trinity since the 19th century

The book was given to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1661, and went on public display there in the 19th century. It became increasingly famous throughout the 19th century: Queen Victoria and Prince Albert signed the book in 1849 on a royal visit.

Due to the book’s age and fragility, it has only travelled outside of Ireland 4 times in its history. Its last trip, to Canberra in 2000, saw some of the pigments damaged by vibrations during the long flight.

9. Only a few pages are ever on display at any one time

The book has been rebound several times throughout its history, most recently in the mid 20th century, when it was broken up into 4 volumes. Only 2 of these volumes are normally on display, each open to show a double page: normally, one volume displays a major decorated page, and the other shows text with smaller decorations.

The other 2 volumes are kept in a secure location in stable conditions to ensure the book’s longevity and preservation.

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10. The book was one of the earliest manuscripts to be digitised

The Book of Kells is one of Dublin’s most popular tourist attractions, drawing in over one million visitors a year: however, its fragile nature means visitors see very little of the book itself.

A digital copy of the book was first produced in 2006, and it is now widely available online for interested parties to study or browse.

Sarah Roller

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