Monday, March 31, 2014

The Book of Kells - The finest example of early Medieval Celtic Art

by Arthur Russell

Fierce is the wind tonight
It ploughs up the white hair of the sea
I have no fear that the Viking hosts
Will come over the water to me.
(Translated by F.N.Robinson from an old Gaelic poem; “The Viking Terror”)

These lines composed sometime during the 9th or 10th centuries by an Irish monk as he laboured over a manuscript in his monastery’s scriptorium, convey some idea of the terror that the threat of a Viking raid on the monastery held for the writer and his community on a daily basis. For them, a stormy night at sea offered some temporary relief from the ever present danger of attack from the fearsome raiders from Scandanavia; the most vicious terrorists of their day.

Compare those lines with the recorded account of the first Viking attack at Lindisfarne; which is considered to herald the beginning of the Viking Age.

In this year (793 AD) fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne”.

This first Viking attack on the British Isles actually occurred on June 6th 793 AD, against the monastery of Lindisfarne on the coast of the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. Over the following years, monastic settlements in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as Continental Western Europe; quickly became targets for marauding sea-bourne Vikings who saw the unprotected monasteries of Christendom as sources of easy plunder.

The attack on Lindisfarne ushered in a period of chaos that impacted Britain and Ireland as well as much of Western Europe; bringing an end to the relative peace that followed the aftermath of the (so called) Barbarian invasions and the assimilation of new peoples into evolving European society following the demise of the once dominant Roman Empire.

“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.

The Vikings in Ireland

Ireland’s first experience of Viking Terror was the raid on the monastery of Lambay Island on the east coast in 795 AD. This attack, a mere 2 years after the attack on Lindisfarne is a measure of the sheer speed and reach of the Viking attacks in North Western Europe. In truth, any location accessible to their longboats, were vulnerable to attack. This included not just coastal monasteries, but also inland foundations located on or near navigable rivers.

That peculiar Irish phenomenon, the round tower; dates from this period as many Irish monastic communities built massive stone round towers to protect their lives as well as their most precious objects from the Viking scourge.

The Viking attacks heralded the end, not just of the peace of both Britain and Ireland; but also effectively brought to an end further flowering of art and culture which the Celtic monasteries had created and developed over centuries. The art form, known as Insular; expressed itself not just in calligraphy but also in distinctive Celtic metal and stone work as seen in such objects as the Ardagh and Derrynaflan chalices, the Tara brooch and the many carved stone high crosses located on monastic sites all over Ireland. Other Insular works credited to Celtic monks in Ireland, Britain and Continental Europe of the period, include the Lindisfarne Gospel, The Book of Durrow, the Cathach of St Columba, the Ambrosiana Orosius, the Durham Gospels, the Lichfield Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the St Gall Gospel Book and the Book of Armagh.

The Book of Kells (Leabhair Cheannanais)

Illustrations of the Four Evangelists
Possibly the most famous examples of Insular calligraphic art is the Book of Kells, which is on permanent display in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin.

The Book is an illuminated manuscript containing the Four Gospels of the New Testament, along with prefaces of texts and tables, all written on high quality calf skin vellum, using the best writing materials, inks and dyes available at the time.

It is possible that the Book may have been started in the Columban monastery of Iona in Scotland, before it was brought to be completed by monks in the relative safety of the sister house in Kells. Iona was not attacked by Viking raiders until 808 AD; after which it is thought the unfinished manuscript was brought to Kells. It is also thought that the book had a number of authors, possibly from different Columban monasteries in Britain and Ireland (including Lindisfarne, which was also a Columban foundation).

The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration in its pages combines traditional Christian iconography along with ornate swirling motifs typical of Celtic art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages.

The manuscript in the safe keeping of Trinity College, Dublin; now comprises all 340 surviving pages. Since 1953 these have been bound in four volumes. The manuscript itself is made of highest quality calfskin vellum. The ornamentation is characteristically Celtic on ten full-page illustrations which include the Four Evangelists as well as the Mother and Child Jesus. These, along with the associated text pages are considered to represent the very peak of Insular art. The text itself appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is done in iron gall ink, with colours derived from a wide variety of substances, some of which had to be sourced from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

History of the Book of Kells

The Book recorded in the Annals of Ulster to be present in Kells Abbey in the year 1007 AD. Around this time, it had been stolen and went missing for some months.

First page St Mark's Gospel
"the great Gospel of Columkille, (Columba) the chief relic of the Western World, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Ceanannas (Kells) on account of its wrought shrine".

The manuscript was recovered a few months later, minus its golden and bejewelled cover "under a sod". It is almost certain that the "great Gospel of Columkille" referred to here is the Book of Kells. This indicates that the book was in Kells Abbey in 1007 and had been there long enough for thieves to learn of its presence. The force of ripping the manuscript free from its ornate and (probably) precious gem encrusted cover, may account for a number of pages missing from the beginning and end of the Book of Kells.

Writing in the late 12th century, the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis describes an illuminated Gospel Book he came across in an ecclesiastical building in Kildare (most likely this was the Book of Kells; as there is no record of a Book of Kildare, so it is assumed the manuscript from Kells was there on loan)

“This tome contains the concordance of the four Gospels according to St Jerome, with different designs on almost every page, all of them in a marvelous variety of colours. Here you can gaze upon the face of divine majesty, drawn with infinite grace. Here too are the mystical emblems of the Evangelists, now with six wings, now with four, and now two. Here you can find the Eagle, the Calf, the Man and the Lion, along with a host of other wonders. Look at them casually, with just a superficial eye, and you may think them rapid sketches, rather than the fruits of genuine labour. You may think them shallow, where all is subtlety. But if you take the time to examine them more closely, you may penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will see intricacies, so fine and subtle, so exact and yet so rich in detail, so full of knots and coils, with colours so bright and fresh, that you will not hesitate to declare that you have gazed upon the work, not of men but of angels".

The Book remained in Kells until 1654. In that year, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan cavalry was quartered in the church at Kells, causing the governor of the town to send the book to Dublin for safekeeping. In 1661, Henry Jones, who became Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath after the Restoration of King Charles II; gifted the manuscript to Trinity College in Dublin (where he had been educated). It has remained there ever since, except for brief loans to other libraries and museums. Since the 19th century, it has been and continues to be on display to the public in the Old Library of Trinity College.

Modern Reproductions of the Book of Kells

In recent decades there have been several excellent publications of the Book of Kells, reproducing all or a representative sample of pages – both text and illustrations. These have used the most advanced photographic technology available in an effort to convey the wonder and majesty of the work.

The most recent is the publication authored by Bernard Meehan, the custodian of the Book in Trinity College Library (Publisher Thames & Hudson). This presents high quality photographs of the entire manuscript, along with informed commentary and detail for any reader who wants to delve further into its mystery.

Trinity College has recently opened a website which allows digital access to each page, and is well worth a look. (‎)


Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland (1314), by the Scottish army under the leadership of Edward deBruce, considered to be the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history.

‘Morgallion’ has been recently awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.

More information available on website -

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