The Book of Kells (Book Review)

Last summer my family visited Ireland.  We stayed in two castles, ate a lot of great food, soaked of the local culture, and did some typical touristy things.  On our last day in Dublin we had tickets to see the famous Trinity College library (Harry Potter fans will remember the Long Room) where Irish cultural artifacts and very old books are on display.  But nothing in the collection is as old or as historically important as their most precious piece: The Book of Kells.  It’s fair to say that the Book of Kells is the main attraction, and the configuration of the tour and museum testifies to this.  So a few of us were salivating to set our eyes on such a quirky, mysterious, and beautiful work of art.  I don’t know if it was the time of day (11:00 am), or the day (Friday), or the time of year (early summer when the weather is typically grand), but the tour was WAAY oversold and somewhat of a disappointment.  Simply put, there were far too many people allowed in at one time to allow anyone (all paying customers) more than a glance at the ancient tome.

Half-way through the line outside just to get to the line inside

This is how our tour went down.  After entering the gate, the tour path leads you through a couple rooms of museum information displays to prepare for what you are about to see.  But I didn’t see more than a handful of folks loitering or reading in that section.  Nearly everyone bee-lined for the Book of Kells where a glass case table stood in the middle of a dimly yellow-lit room.  A circle of people three layers around in circumference formed a mob around the book, which was actually two volumes opened to the page of the day (the curator turns the page daily).  Some museum attendant was pleading with the crowd to continue moving around the circle (no stopping) and to let others get a change to look.  Some complied, others didn’t.  Lots of nudging and even a little pushing.  Many people, including some in our own party—especially the kids—didn’t even get one glimpse.  Sad.

I’m staring down the crowd behind the camera. Wait one sec!

Next on the tour path was the Long Room which was amazing but also overcrowded.  Lots of people taking selfies.  And there was a sense that you had to keep moving because the crowds swelled continuously from behind.  Finally, the tour dumped everyone into the back of a gift shop.  Typical.  At least the quality was high and the prices were fair.

In the gift shop I purchased Bernard Meehan’s illustrated introduction to the Book of Kells (hereafter BOK) manuscript.  It’s definitely the best affordable guide available today for learning about and appreciating the art and history of the Book of Kells.  With 117 illustrations and 110 of those in high-gloss color, Meehan’s book is a feast for the eyes.  The text is authoritative since Meehan is the current supervising curator of the Book of Kells.  So he’s something of an expert on the book.  Although he’s not the first to write a book on this famous bound manuscript, he stands on the scholarship that preceded him, which gives BOK a cumulative-information feel.  Meehan lays out BOK like a good tour guide:

  1. The Book and its background
  2. Decorative influences and parallels
  3. The scheme of decoration
  4. The purpose of the decoration
  5. Decorative themes
  6. The book of the cross
    1. Angels
    2. The evangelists and their symbols
    3. Eucharistic symbolism
    4. Christ and his symbols: fish, snake and lion
    5. The peacock and the dove
    6. Illustrative features in the minor decoration
    7. Human figures and activities
    8. Minor animal decoration
    9. Scribes and artists
  7. How long did it take to produce?
  8. Vellum
  9. Writing materials and pigments
  10. Conclusion: “The secrets of the artistry”
  11. Appendix I: Historical Background
  12. Appendix II: Losses, Additions, and Marginalia
  13. Endnotes

So many aspects of the Book of Kells are striking.  Thankfully BOK highlights these features with multiple examples, often showing magnified details so the reader can gain a bit of appreciation for the exquisite precision contained in the book.  The pages in BOK are not much bigger than the individual folios in the Book of Kells—lending an element realism to the reader.  Thus photos of whole folios are close to real-size.

No one is sure how old the Book of Kells is, but there is a conservative consensus that it was probably written in the 800s at two monastic communities in Kells in Ireland.  Such a dating places the Book of Kells in the middle of the medieval period.  Therefore it represents the heights of art, writing, and scholarship that Christian Europe reached in the Middle Ages.

BOK doesn’t take long to read.  At only 92 pages—many of which are photos of folios—it’s written as an introduction so the novice history buff won’t get weighed down in details.  There is plenty more to learn about the Book of Kells from other books and resources found online (see the links below), but Meehan’s book is the perfect place to start because it’s a book (!), its author is a widely recognized as the living subject-matter expert on the Book of Kells, and its photographic beauty makes for a great coffee-table decoration.

For the bookstore or coffee-table browser, here is what you will find leafing through BOK.  First, appreciation of medieval Irish art.  With characteristic interlocking vines, geometric patterns, and bizarre renditions of humans and animals, an artist (or even a doodler) can get lost paying attention.  I lost count of the many times I held the book up near my nose, turning it upside down, up and around, just trying to get a closer to the fine design.  Also, the colors employed to illumine and decorate the text—especially the full-pages devoted to art—are brighter than expected after more than a millennium of age and decay.  Some of the hues come from super-expensive and rare dyes.  Where did remote Irish monks get such paints?  Turns out there was a lot more trade with the Orient way back then than most people realize.

Second, the script of the gospels is also meant to be artistic.  Letters and margins are decorated to adorn holy writ.  Obviously the Book of Kells was designed for liturgical church use.  And these decorations are not just artistic doodles.  They are planned and drawn to match the theme of the text they surround.  Some of the folios contain incomplete artwork, revealing the careful proportionality sketched out including notes on color schemes to be used.

Third, the artistic realism that ancient classical artists were able to accomplish in the Greco-Roman period was not the style or strength of medieval art.  Rather, the sum of the artistic part in the Book of Kells is greater than the individual pieces.  This kind of work is difficult and complex in itself—sort of like a mosaic.  Where they lacked skill in drawing realistically, the medieval artist made up for in complexity and micro-design.

Oh I wish I had a private audience with the Book of Kells at Trinity College Dublin.  Maybe someday I’ll get my wish.  But until then Meehan’s BOK can whet my appetite for more.

Resources

A 2009 award-winning animated movie about the Book of Kells: The Secret of Kells

Five-part documentary on the Book of Kells

Trinity College Dublin Book of Kells Exhibit

Manuscripts at Trinity: Blogs on the Book of Kells

Bernard Meehan: Trinity College’s keeper of the Book of Kells

The Book of Kells: Medieval Europe’s Greatest Treasure?

How the Book of Kells Works: a podcast and transcript by Stuff You Missed in History Class

10 Things You Should Know About the Book of Kells

A history of the Book of Kells: Illuminations of Irish Illuminated Gospel Manuscript

Ireland of the Welcomes

Irish Treasures: The Book of Kells, by Clannagh Design

Wikipedia article on the Book of Kells

Wikimedia Commons page images from the Book of Kells

Google Images of the Book of Kells

Pinterest Best of Images of the Book of Kells

Reviews

Amazon

Goodreads

The Guardian

A collection of book reviews on Meehan’s introduction to the Book of Kells

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