The Book of Kells

Reviewed by Ingrid Satelmajer


Published by Thames & Hudson, 2012   |   256 pages

The Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin is a stunning Medieval illuminated manuscript, a transcription in Latin of the four Gospels with accompanying preliminary materials. Held at the college since the mid-1600s, the book became available for public viewing in 1853, and it made headlines in August 2012 for receiving its ten millionth visitor. In-person access to the book is highly restricted; only a few of its complexly illustrated pages are on display at any given time.  Repeated attempts have been made to deliver the text to the greater public and scholarly communities, and Thames & Hudson’s Book of Kells, an introduction to the manuscript by Bernard Meehan, the official Keeper of the Book at the Library of Trinity College, is the most recent effort in this vein. Meehan suggests here that the manuscript’s “allure lies partly in what is hidden,” yet what he offers in this book is access and exemplary guidance to a text of significant historical and aesthetic importance.

Details of the manuscript’s origins are complex and uncertain, but Meehan points to an “uneasy consensus” that dates its composition to approximately 800 CE and situates it in a monastery of either Iona (Scotland), Kells (Ireland), or some combination of the two. Earlier missionary efforts by Colum Cille (Saint Columba) led to the founding of these monasteries, and the arrival of Christianity in the region created new demand for books of devotional, missionary, and celebratory purpose. The Book of Kells may have come close to destruction during a 9th century Viking attack at Iona, and the first certain historical reference to it records both its theft from and return to the Kells sacristy in 1007, an event that likely led to the loss of its original binding and outermost pages. Later, after the Irish rebellion of 1641 and the subsequent Eleven Years’ War, the text was sent from Kells to Dublin for safekeeping.

The Book of Kells reflects a variety of sources. The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are based on a variant of the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible started in the late 4th century, but the canon tables included among its preliminary matter derive from the pre-Vulgate Old Latin Bible. Meehan explicates how these Gospels were transcribed by four primary scribes, all of whom worked largely with what is known as Insular majuscule script, writing with quill on calfskin vellum with knife in reserve for corrections. Individual personalities emerge – the “conservative” work by A, the notable skill but “unnecessary repetition” of B, the “steady, practical … and measured skill” of C, and the “brilliant improvisation” of D. Given the enormous investment in preparing vellum, improvisation emerges as both necessary for making corrections, as well as a gesture of virtuosic bravado. The manuscript also contains material added in later years – 11th and 12th century land charters and a 15th century poem, as well as annotations written directly on its pages in the 16th century (by Gerald Plunket) and signatures on it from early examiners.

The text is profusely decorative, words often morphing into, and occasionally even being obscured by, imagery awash in vibrant detail and color. The first word in the Gospel of Luke, Meehan writes, “is almost hidden in a thicket of decoration,” and elaborate initials erupt with human heads or integrate peacocks, lions, or hares. The visual world Meehan elucidates is replete with symbolism – the representations of Matthew (man), Mark (lion), Luke (calf), and John (eagle); the insistent presence throughout of three dots referencing the trinity; the abundance of animals – panther, fish, peacock, stag – and heads and figures that depict and stand in for Christ. Discrete details, when highlighted in Meehan’s curatorial image details, are a revelation to the untutored eye: on the Chi Rho page, a full-page rendering of the opening letters of Christ’s name, one finds rats, cats, beard-tugging men all depicted in intricate detail, and, almost imperceptibly, two delicate moths holding onto a lozenge (a symbol for Christ). Indeterminacies abound, and the illustrations at times are densely layered and highly dependent on context. Snakes evoke the devil and Christ’s resurrection, goats are Christ and souls damned to hell.

But perhaps Meehan’s most significant contribution, especially among guides to the manuscript, is his break with textual fetishization. Though he demonstrates a profound appreciation and respect for the Book of Kells, he never descends into a posture of critical submission. Earlier commentary on the book’s many transcription errors and shortcomings as a functional text (e.g., its decorativeness to the point of textual illegibility in places) tended to class it more as an art object. Meehan summons the wealth of critical studies on the text to illuminate it from a variety of perspectives. He notes, for example, that minor imperfections – microscopic misplaced splatters of paint, or a “somewhat less than perfect” row of crosses  – would likely have been considered blemishes by the scribes who illuminated the manuscript. What Meehan ultimately accomplishes in this Book of Kells is the rigorous yet affectionate, even devoted, presentation of an icon — in all its imperfection, indeterminacy, and majesty — and its extraordinary, and wholly fallible, makers.

Ingrid Satelmajer has written for The Believern+1, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others, and she was one of the 639 participants in Women in Clothes (by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton). 

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