supreme achievement of Irish Celtic art and one of the world’s
pre-eminent examples of illuminated codices, the BOOK OF KELLS is
a manuscript deluxe, written and richly adorned for use in the
conduct of public worship. In its taste and delicacy, in its originality,
and in its elaborations of coloring and design, the BOOK OF KELLS
must be placed among the wonders of the world.
At the end of the twelfth century, the Welsh historian Giraldus
Cambrensis referred to the lost book of Kildare in words that might
appropriately have been applied to the BOOK OF KELLS. "Fine
craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look
more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art.
You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and
compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid that
you might say that all this was the work of an angel and not of a
This famous manuscript contains the four Gospels, in a mixed old
Latin and Vulgate text, done in Irish majuscule script. In addition to
the Gospels, the BOOKS OF KELLS includes prefatory material,
chiefly concordance tables arranged in ten Canons, and some legal,
eleventh century documents that concern the abbey of Kells. The
present state consists of 339 leaves of thick, finely glazed vellum,
although it must have had about thirty more.
Although it was traditionally believed to have been the work of St.
Columba in the sixth century, most modern scholars agree that the
BOOK OF KELLS was composed in the late eighth or early ninth
century. Where it was written, however, remains an unsolved
mystery. It might have been completed by the Columban monks at
Iona before the Viking raid there in 806. The good friars fled
forthwith to Kells in County Meath, about forty miles northwest of
Dublin. Possibly the BOOK OF KELLS might have been composed
entirely at Kells or even begun at Iona and then completed at Kells.
Quite probably no one individual was entirely responsible for this
masterpiece. Indeed Francoise Henry has succeeded in detecting the
work of several artists for the principal pages: one for the formal
portrait of the evangelists, one for the dramatic scenes such as the
Temptation of Christ, and the third for the great ornamental pages.
For the extent of the tenth century, the Kells abbey continuously
struggled against the sacking and pillaging of Danes and domestic
forces. How this precious manuscript survived such a century of
violence and spoliation is impossible to say. However, we do know
that it was still at Kells in 1006 when, according to the Annals of
Ulster, both the book and its now vanished shrine ("its cover of gold
studded with precious stones") were stolen. The manuscript, in its
present incomplete state, was subsequently buried ("a sod covering
it") and recovered after two months and twenty days. The book
remained at Kells throughout the Middle Ages, being venerated as a
At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1639, the
establishment of Kells was surrendered to the Crown. About 1653
the Governor of Kells transferred the manuscript to Dublin,
presumably in the interests of its safety. In 1661, the BOOK OF
KELLS was presented to the Library of Trinity College, University of
Dublin, by the Bishop of Meath, Henry Jones. But the last and
greatest trauma to the Manuscript was inflicted by an ignorant and
mischievous bookbinder in 1821. He savagely and barbarously cut
about half an inch off the outer margins, thereby trimming out of
existence part of the decoration of the priceless illuminated pages.
Although it was rebound in 1895, the book had, by the mid-twentieth
century, become soiled, and the friction of opening and closing it had
caused pigment damage, particularly on frequently exhibited pages.
Finally in 1953, it was repaired and rebound by Roger Powell, the
leading conservation bookbinder of his day. He bound the manuscript
in four volumes, each corresponding to a Gospel.
A continuous chain of ornamentation runs all through the text. A
comparatively small number of motifs have been combined and
endlessly recombined in minute and dazzlingly elaborate webs of
ornament, geometry, whimsy, and an almost maniacal enthusiasm.
There are often surprisingly comic representations of animals, birds,
insects, and human figures peering from behind letters, lurking in the
corners of pages, floating between the lines or in the margins. The
capitals at the beginning of each paragraph (two, three, and four to a
page) are made of brightly colored entwinements of birds, snakes,
distorted men and animals fighting or performing all sorts of
acrobatic feats. Sometimes the figure of an angel or an Apostle peers
over the top of the initial letters and his fee jut out beneath. Yet
these decorations do not impinge on the clear bold script.
Now and then, throughout this great work, the artist suddenly erupts
from his textual confines and treats us to a full page of illuminations.
In these splendid illuminated pages the artist takes over with his
balanced mixture of invention and discipline. Such depictions
include the formal portraits of the evangelists, such figural scenes as
the Virgin and the Child, the Arrest of Christ and his Temptation and
such a monument to ornamental exuberance as the lovely Chi-Rho
page. Here detail is piled upon detail and one is left to marvel at how
the unaided eye and the unsupported hand could trace the intricate
designs. Tradition has it that such unerring lines must have been
traced by angels. In one space about a quarter inch square may be
counted, with a magnifying glass, 158 interlacements!
Special Collections Librarian
The faculty, staff and administration of the B. Davis Schwartz
Memorial Library are proud to have added to our collection the
recently published color facsimile edition of the BOOK OF KELLS.
Originally created by a group of monks at an Irish monastery about
the year 800, this reprint was published in 1990 by a Swiss firm
specializing in the reproduction of medieval manuscripts. Only 1480
copies of the 680 page manuscript will be published. Sophisticated
technological advances in photographic techniques have made
possible the production of this fine quality work of art.
In the 1950’s another facsimile was reproduced but only
ten percent of its pages were in color. This new full color version will
provide invaluable information to scholars, artists, writers, and
historians. The B. Davis Schwartz Memorial Library owes a great
debt of appreciation for this purchase to its most generous
benefactor, the late Mrs. Winthrop B. Palmer. Through the
establishment of the Carleton H. and Winthrop B. Palmer Memorial
Fund, she has enabled this library to become one of a limited group of
institutions to purchase this rare facsimile edition. An author and
poet herself, Mrs. Palmer expressed a keen interest in the fields of
drama, poetry and French and Irish literature. The Library Director,
Dr. Donald L. Ungarelli and the acquisitions librarians decided to
purchase the Fine Art Facsimile Edition of the BOOK OF KELLS as
the cornerstone of the Library’s commitment to her bequest.
This reproduction of the BOOK OF KELLS will be kept in a specially
designed case located in the Special Collections Department of the
Library in Room 345. This area is open to visitors on weekdays
between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Please call for an appointment at
516/299-2880. The fax is
Book of Kells: Ms. 58, Trinity College Library
Dublin: Commentary edited by Peter Fox
[Lucerne}: Faksimile Verlag Luzern, 1990.
Sullivan, Sir Edward. The Book of Kells.
London: Studio Publications, 1952.
Treasures of Early Irish Art, 1500 B. C. to 1500 A. D.
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.