Have you ever wondered whether the Book of Kells is an actual book? (It is - sorta.) Ever wondered if it was actually written in Kells, Ireland or someplace else? (Truthfully, nobody knows for sure.) How about whether it's actually Irish? (Read on!)
Some think of the Book as some boring old medieval manuscript. It’s true that it’s old, and it is a manuscript, but it’s far from boring!
Instead, it’s a religious work that also happens to be one of history’s greatest works of art. And it’s Irish!
The Book was created around 800 A.D., during the deepest, darkest part of the Dark Ages. A bit of background might help you appreciate its remarkable, uniquely Irish nature.
First of all, there’s a reason historians call this time period in Ireland - and throughout Europe - “the Dark Ages.” Hardly anyone at this time – except clergy and nobility – knew how to read and write.
Learning was at an all-time low and concentrated at the monasteries that dotted the landscape. Because so many couldn’t understand the written word, art became a critical means of self-expression, particularly in Ireland.
Art was used to explain various ideas, but especially events and lessons from the Bible. As a result, the Dark Ages became the heyday of Celtic art, and Irish art in particular.
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Irish monks at the monastery at Kells (in County Meath) and/or the island of Iona drew upon their learning and their exceptional artistic skills to create the extraordinary work we now call the Book of Kells.
For years, these Irish monks labored from dawn to dusk in the monastery’s scriptorium (“place of writing”), hunched over their benches, day-in, day-out. Whether the manuscript was created by monks at Iona, Kells Ireland or both is a detail now lost in the mists of time.
But, no matter where it was created, the work is is remarkable, a Celtic book of light born from the bleak landscape of the Dark Ages.
Now displayed with great pride in Dublin’s vast and aptly-named Old Library (completed in 1732), the Book of Kells is a hand-written, hand-illustrated copy of the four Gospels of the Bible. Some of the craftsmanship is so intricate that seeing the details requires a magnifier.
Because Irish monks used durable vellum (specially-prepared calfskin) instead of parchment or paper, we can still see the glorious riot of colors and gold leaf (a technique called “illumination”) they used to illustrate the gospels and their teachings.
The Book is remarkable because of its unparalleled, hand-wrought beauty. And, it’s remarkable because it somehow managed to survive in all its glory for more than 1,200 years. Now, it serves as a strong source of Irish national pride as well as religious inspiration.
And one more thing: The Book is 680 pages long - but it’s incomplete! Two pages are known to be unfinished, although no one knows why the monks never completed them.
Even so, it’s the finest medieval
religious manuscript surviving today. And, it’s a wonderful,
inspirational expression of Irish art.