The beautiful Book of Kells


The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais) (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I. (58), sometimes known as the Book of Columba) is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created by Celtic monks ca. 800 or slightly earlier. The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is also widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure.

The  “Leabhar Cheanannais” – Book of Kells – is one of the most beautiful medieval books in the world, a peace of Early Medieval Europe. And it’s the most spectacular of a group of manuscripts created in Ireland and northern Britain between the seventh and tenth centuries, a period when Irish monasticism was in the vanguard of Christian culture. It still owns the enduring fascination of Ireland’s monastic masterpiece.

Book of Kelt, Folio34r

Book of Kells, Folio 34r: Face of Christ at the top.

The most famous of the pages in the Book of Kells is known as Folio 34R. It’s based on the verse from Matthew 1:18 that in English in the 1611 version begins “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” This passage is often referred to as the second beginning of Matthew. The Latin text, the one used most often in medieval manuscripts, begins “XPI autem generatio . . .”  Folio 34R is referred to as the Chi Rho page because it features the Greek letters Chi, Rho and Iota. The letters that look like XPI that form the primary page elements are respectively, the Chi, the Rho, and the Iota. These three letters are used as the abbreviated form of Christ’s name in Greek, and open that passage from Matthew in Latin. If you look closely at the image, you’ll see some of the “hidden” images that Kells is so famous for. There’s a cat with rats that seems to be playing with (or eating) a mass wafer. There are moths (symbols of rebirth and rejuvenation) and several winged figures. My favorite is the otter holding a fish (the otter is lying on his back; look for the fish he holds). If you look at the image of F. 34R, you can see the generatio at the bottom right.

The name Book of Kells is derived from the Abbey of Kells in Kells, County Meath, which was its home for much of the medieval period. The manuscript’s date and place of production have been the subject of considerable debate. Traditionally, the book was thought to have been created in the time of Columba, possibly even as the work of his own hands. This tradition has long been discredited on paleographic and stylistic grounds: most evidence points to a composition date ca. 800, long after St. Columba’s death in 597. The proposed dating in the 9th century coincides with Viking raids on Iona, an island just of the West coast of Scotland, which began in 794 and eventually dispersed the monks and their holy relics into Ireland and Scotland. There is another tradition, with some traction among Irish scholars, that suggests the manuscript was created for the 200th anniversary of the saint’s death.

The general scholarly consensus is that The Book of Kells was the work of the scriptorium of the monastery of Iona. The monastery was founded in 561, by Saint Colum Cille, and was known for its scriptorium and piety. In 806 there was a devastating Viking raid on Iona, (neither the first or the last), but after the raid the monks fled, and many of them arrived at Kells. The monastery at Kells in Meath, Ireland was relatively new, and not yet well established. The assumption is that the monks brought The Book of Kells with them when they fled, perhaps in a partially unfinished condition. There’s an entry in the year 1006 in The Annals of Ulster that reads: “The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was wickedly stolen by night from the western sacristy in the great stone church of Cenannas. It was the most precious object of the western world on account of the human ornamentation(?). This Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold having been taken off it and with a sod over it.”

Dr. Bernard Meehan, the Keeper of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books in Trinity College, who is the actual guardian of the book, explores the creation, make-up and intriguing mysteries of the book for the modern reader (The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin). His text is the result of 30 years of personal study and makes available in a most accessible, but still richly authoritative way, the results of 160 years of research and speculation about this book. It provides a scholarly analysis of these exuberant inventions, the artists, the text and the writing, and a full account of the historical background to the miraculous world of the Book of Kells. He unlocks many mysteries, but also leaves many more for future investigators. Some years ago the same publishers issued a facsimile edition of the Book of Kells, which had a great success. This new book is something different, a structured guide to the making and nature of the book.


As for the manuscript, the Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript created by monastics in the ninth century, and presently resides in Trinity College Library, in Dublin. It’s a beautifully illuminated version of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) with the customary additions like the canon tables to allow a reader to find equivalent passages in the four Gospels.

Queen visit book of kells

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh pictured viewing a facsimile of the Book of Kells with the Provost of Trinity College Dublin Dr. John Hegarty, Librarian Robin Adams, and Chancellor of the University Dr. Mary Robinson at Trinity College Dublin on their State Visit to Ireland in May 2011.


Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin

A masterpiece of medieval art – a brilliantly decorated copy of the four Gospels with full-page illustrations of Christ, the Virgin and Child and the Evangelists, and a wealth of smaller decorative painting that does not always relate to the sacred text. The strange imagination displayed in the pages, the impeccable technique and the very fine state of its preservation make it an object of endless fascination.


This edition includes the most important of the fully decorated pages plus a series of enlargements showing the almost unbelievable minuteness of the detail – spiral and interlace patterns, human and animal ornament – a combination of high seriousness and humor.

Trinity College Dublin MS 58 (the Book of Kells) f. 33r

Trinity College Dublin MS 58 (the Book of Kells) f. 33r: The carpet page of the Book of Kells is set within a 4 x 3 rectangle. The proportions of this form, according to sacred geometry and Christian number theory, have their own significance beyond that of the squared circle. If a right-angle triangle is formed by diagonally bisecting a rectangle of these dimensions, then the hypotenuse of the triangle will necessarily have the measurement of five. The triangle created therefore contains the numbers three, four and five, all of which were important to the early Church writers. Three, according to Horn and Born, was regarded by the early Church as ‘the holiest of all holy numbers’. Its relation to the Trinity is obvious. It also symbolises the ‘passage between the transcendent [spiritual] and manifest [physical] realms’, that is, God’s preparations to send his Son physically to earth. Four is the number that represents that actual manifestation. It is also a number of order and perfection, and is well represented within the Bible. The four gospels, the basis of Christian belief, and their authors are represented by the four symbols of the Tetramorph, described in Ezekial 1: 10. The cross on which Christ was crucified and his body form four parts, ‘the four extremities of the cross’, so that four is a number strongly associated with the Crucifixion. That it is also the number of Christ’s physical manifestation sets up an important link between the two events, his incarnation and his death. The number four features in Revelation, notably in the image of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse who will destroy the four comers of the world because, in a world returned to God, and therefore to the Circle, these corners will no longer be needed to define order. (Megan M. Hitchens)


Folio 27v of the Book of Kells depicts the symbols for the four evangelists: Matthew the Winged Man, Mark the Lion, Luke the Calf (or Bull), and John the Eagle, derived from the vision of Ezekiel.


Thanks to the lovely film The Secret of Kells, large numbers of people who have never taken an art history class or studied paleography now know about The Book Of Kells. For those who haven’t seen the film, don’t miss to watch it! It’s really enchanting.




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