In a time when the British Isles were bombarded by raids from the ferocious Vikings of the Scandinavian Peninsula, many works great works of art were destroyed. Often, beautiful works were buried underground for safety. However, many were never uncovered. One amazing work that managed to survive through these tumultuous times was The Book of Kells. This sacred book has a rich history in Ireland, which does not begin with the Viking raids, but centuries earlier.
In fourth century Ireland, Christianity was seen as a religion of the lower classes and slaves. The majority of the population, including the aristocracy, was pagans. It was not until the sixth century that Christianity became prevalent among the aristocracy. This rise of Christianity in Ireland is partly due to one of the patron saints of Ireland, Colum Cille, who later became St. Columba of the Catholic Church.
Colum Cille was born in the year 521, and was destined to be the heir to the throne of Ireland, for he was blood related to the leaders of the country. But, he realized that he did not want to be part of the political scene of Ireland. Instead, he wanted to devote his life to Jesus Christ. Therefore, he fled to the island of Iona off the western coast of England.
On Iona, there were a few settlements of Irish, and Colum Cille established a monastery, which became known as the Columban order. His monastery would send missionaries to the rest of the Isles and to the continent, spreading the word of Christ to the pagan tribes. It is mostly due to the missionary work of Colum Cille’s monastery that Christianity became so prevalent in the British Isles. But, in the ninth century, the island of Iona came under the attacks of the violent Norsemen, and the monastery was abandoned. Many of the monks were killed and the settlements plundered. The remaining monks fled back to the mainland and established a monastery at Kells, in the County of Meath, which eventually inherited the prestige that Iona had as the center of the Columban order. It was here that they sought refuge from the Vikings threats.
Finally, in 878, the abbot of Iona, who was always referred to as “the successor of Colum Cille”, went back to the monastery on Iona to retrieve the shrine and other valuable items that remained there. Some think that the book of Kells was one of these “precious objects of Colum Cille” that were brought back to Kells. Over the next 120 years, Kells fell under the attacks of the Vikings. The church of the Kells was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times over this period. How any of the great works that were retrieved from Iona survived these sackings is still unknown.
The first mention of The Book Of Kells in history was in the monastery records in 1006, when it was stolen from the Church of Colum Cille in Kells. It was not referred to as The Book of Kells, though. Instead it was called the great gospel of Colum Cille, and was considered the most important relic of the western world. It was also entered in the records that the book was found two months later, but it had been buried and stripped of its of its gold, jewel studded cover. After this entry, it is almost as if The Book of Kells had been forgotten about until 1539, when the monastery was dissoluted.
Upon the dissolution of the monastery, Richard Plunket, the final abbot of the monastery in Kells, gained ownership of The Book of Kells. Then, it is believed that The Book of Kells fell into the hands of Geralde Plunket, most likely a relative of the last abbot. On certain pages, there is writing that is initialed “GP” and it gives the number of pages that were present, upon his receiving of The Book of Kells. But, a lot of information is not known about Geralde Plunket, and his ownership of The Book of Kells sometimes contested. Originally, art historians and paleographers thought that James Ussher, one of the earliest students of Trinity College and eventual Vice Chancellor of the University of Dublin, Bishop of Meath, and Archbishop of Armagh, had The Book of Kells in his possession, and passed it on to the Trinity College Library, when he died. But, further evidence proved that James Ussher never had The Book of Kells in his possession. Finally, William O’Sullivan, the keeper of the manuscripts in the Trinity College Library, solved the mystery of how The Book of Kells ended up at the Trinity College Library. His clues were from the letters of Henry Jones, the donator of The Book of Durrow, and William Pallister, a great benefactor to the library. From these letters, O’Sullivan was able to determine that, like The Book of Durrow, Henry Jones donated The Book of Kells.
The place and date of creation of The Book of Kells is something that is still under debate, today. This is due to the fact that The Book of Kells is missing its colophon. If this colophon or final page was present it may have answered a lot of the questions that are being debating. It may have included a date or clue as to when the work was considered complete, a list of authors, and possibly a list of artists.
Françoise Henry, an art scholar who has done extensive studies on The Book of Kells, gives five possible explanations of the history of The Book of Kells that art historians have been debating for years. Her first explanation states that the monks of Iona wrote the text, and then brought the incomplete work to Kells, where the artwork was worked on, but never actually completed. The second possibility is that the work was begun in Iona and then completed in Kells. The next possible explanation is that the work was done completely in Kells. Her fourth possibility is that The Book of Kells was written in Northern England (possibly Lindisfairne) and then brought to Iona and then Kells or even went straight to Kells. The final possibility that Henry gives is that The Book of Kells was a product of a Scottish monastery and somehow found its way to Kells over the years. Henry seems to believe that one of the Iona to Kells hypotheses fits best based on the on the features of the book. She says that the decoration of the book is very similar to a lot of the metal work that was found in these areas. She dates the end of work on The Book of Kells somewhere between the end of the eighth century to the early ninth century, but monks could have begun working on it one or two centuries beforehand.
Sir Edward Sullivan, another scholar of The Book of Kells, disagrees with Henry’s ideas on the date of The Book of Kells. He feels that work on The Book of Kells most likely ended somewhere towards the end of the ninth century. At the beginning of the tenth century, the great Celtic art that existed deteriorated quickly. Many works dated around this time are unfinished. Sullivan believes that they were left unfinished because the owners of the book did not want an inferior artist to finish the decoration that had been started by the amazing artists who had come before them. He also states that paleographers, which have studied the text of The Book of Kells, have come to a similar conclusion. Based on the method of contraction of some of the words that are found throughout the text compared to contractions found in literary works that have definitively dated, they strongly suggest a late ninth century for the date of the end of work on The Book of Kells.
For many centuries, the people of Ireland and the rest of the world believed that The Book of Kells was the work of St. Columba, himself. But, later evidence proved that this theory was untrue. The scribes of The Book of Kells are unknown, but it is assumed to be monks of the Columban order during the eighth and ninth centuries. Also, the names of the artists who did the marvelous decoration of The Book of Kells are unknown, but there is some speculation as to who the artists were. First of all, it must be said that the artists and scribes were not the same people. Most likely, artists did the artwork after the manuscript had been written.
Many scholars believe that there were most likely two main artists who decorated The Book of Kells. It is thought that the artists were experts in many types of art such as book illustration, metal work, stone carving, and possibly even mural painting. One artist was possibly responsible for works such as the Chi-Rho monogram, the eight circled cross, and the portrait of Mark. The other artist was responsible much of the other illuminations of the manuscript such as the portraits of the other gospel writers. Many believe that cultures that are located much further east than the British Isles, for example the Egyptian and Carolingian influenced these artists. But, how would the artists know about the styles and iconography of these other cultures? It is suggested that the artists possibly visited the European continent and traveled as far as Egypt, from where they would have gotten the cross-armed Osiris (Egyptian god of the dead) pose which is seen in some illustrations of Christ.
The Book of Kells originally contained 370 folios, which is 740 individual pages. Over the years, most likely due to the Viking raids and its theft from the stone church of Kells in 1006, many pages have been lost. Today, as it is displayed in the Trinity College Library, it contains 340 folios or 680 pages. Its original dimensions were most likely 37 cm X 26 cm on glazed calf vellum. Today, it only measures 33 cm X 24 cm. It has been rebound many times over the centuries, and in the nineteenth century, a bookbinder trimmed some the pages almost an inch on each side, losing some of the artwork forever. In 1953, it was rebound, hopefully for the last time, into four volumes, which roughly correspond to four Gospels. Many scholars believe that one of the reasons it survived through the centuries is that it was not meant for everyday use or study, but as a piece of sacred art that could appear on the altar for special occasions.
Many art scholars have called The Book of Kells the greatest of Celtic manuscript illumination and possibly the greatest piece of Celtic art. Historians have said that the marvel of The Book of Kells lies in the several motifs that are indicative of Celtic art coming together in such quantity and complexity to create one large masterpiece. The motifs that The Book of Kells contains are geometrical designs, and natural forms designs, for example animals and humans. These motifs appear in other Insular Manuscripts such as Lindisfairne Gospels and The Book of Durrow, but not even close to the extent of The Book of Kells. There is no better example from The Book of Kells that portrays these words of art historians better than the Chi-Rho monogram page.
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, following the Book of Generation, which gives the genealogy of Jesus Christ, there is a highly decorated which contains a large X, a smaller P, and a smaller I. This page has become known as the Chi-Rho monogram page. The letters XPI are the Greek abbreviation for the word “Christi” or Christ. This page occurs in many other Insular Manuscripts, but they cannot compare to the intricate decoration of The Book of Kells.
Throughout The Book of Kells, there are very few names that are abbreviated. Only, extremely sacred names are abbreviated and it is thought that this was a method for emphasizing the sacredness of these people. Also, said to be the second beginning in the Gospel of Matthew. The first beginning is the genealogy of Jesus Christ. This monogram page serves as the second beginning, which is the birth of Jesus Christ. Purple outlines the XPI, and is also a major color in the rest of the designs found on the page. This color refers to the royalty of Jesus Christ as king of the Heaven. Purple has been a sign of royalty, since the days of the Roman Empire, when only the emperor could wear or afford purple clothing. On the inside of the letters, there are very intricate lacertine patterns, which are either humans or animals involved in a complex pattern of knots, and interlace patterns, which are much like lacertine except they are only geometric and do not contain humans or animals. In the center of the X, where it creates a rhombic shape, there is some of the most masterful lacertine of the whole page. There is an intense maze of knots, and intertwined in the knots are four men. Otto-Karl Werckmeister has interpreted these figures to represent the mundus tetragonus, in which four men are placed at each corner of the Earth. Therefore, by placing the mundus tetragonus inside the X, it symbolizes Christ as being the creator of the world. Also, in the center of the X, there are four groups of sixteen small diamonds. In each diamond, there is a picture of a key possibly symbolizing the key to salvation is Jesus Christ.
The background of the page contains a multitude of trumpet, spiral, lacertine, and interlace patterns. The spirals consist of small and large; some connected by peltas, and of course, the triskeles that are so prevalent in Celtic Art. All of the spirals remain in close contact with the letters in an extremely tight coiling. The larger spirals have four spiral lines between the outlines, while the smaller ones have two or three lines in between the outlines. Compared to the other Insular Manuscripts, the Chi-Rho page has a large variety of sizes of spirals, which all seem to be measured and placed perfectly in a strategic manner. Not only does the background of the page contain some of the most complex spiral patterns of all Celtic Art, but it also contains animal and human forms whose meanings have been interpreted by many art historians.
In the lower section of the page, there are two pictures, which contain animals. Also, on the left of the X, there are three figures, which have been identified as angels, and above them are two moths. The animals must have had some significance because they were placed on such a prestigious page. Most likely, the representations were very significant to the original viewers but the meanings were lost over time, and now, the only thing that anyone is able to do is speculate. Some of the simpler interpretations that have been given are the animals being all of God’s creatures, or all of the animals giving praise to the creator. But, many other art historians, including Françoise Henry, Sir Edward Sullivan, and Otto-Karl Werckmeister have their own interpretations of these representations. Some art historians see these representations as having separate meanings, while others see these representations all coming together to create a bigger picture.
Two of the angels that are on the left side of the X are configured so that they are facing each other. They are both holding both holding books in one hand and scepters that seem to blossom at the end. Only one wing is present on each angel but it is in an undulating wave pattern, which makes it very decorative. The two angels face each other as if they are floating much like two angels that are depicted in an earlier page of the manuscript holding a medallion. The third angel is holding two trefoil scepters and is not as close together as the other two. The scepters are masterfully woven through the wings of the angel. It seems as though there is a significance of the number three in this part of the work. The viewer sees three angels and one of the angels is holding two scepters, which come to three points. The most likely conclusion to which one would come is that it represents the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But, I assume that it is still somewhat early in the Christian history and the trinity has not yet been established.
Towards the bottom of the page, two large cats are seen along with four smaller animals, two of which are holding a white disc in their mouths. G.O. Simms interprets this as cats watching four mice nibble on the Eucharist. He states that this scene was perhaps an incident that occurred at some point in the monastery where the artwork was done. Sullivan has interprets this picture similar to Simms, but he gives it some deeper Christological meaning. Like Simms, he states that the figures were rats eating some kind of bread, most likely the Eucharist. He adds to this interpretation the possible allusion to unworthy receivers of the Eucharist (mice), and the fate that awaits them (cats). Finally, Sally Mussetter, another art historian, sees the cats as the devil, who is waiting for the human sinners (mice), but the communion is redeeming the mice.
Under the P and I, there is a small black animal with a fish in its mouth. This animal has been identified as an otter. The symbol of the otter is very old in Irish myth. It began with the story of the recluse monk who used to receive a fish a day from a friendly otter. Most believe that the significance of the otter lies in that story. Also, in the top left swirl of the X, two moths are situated head-to-head, with a diamond shape in their mouths.
Otto-Karl Werckmeister uses all these animal figures to support his mundus tetragonus hypothesis. He sees these animals representing the three elements of the world of which Jesus Christ is the creator. Air is represented by the moths; earth by the cats; and, water by the otter.
Suzanne Lewis sees the bread that the animals are nibbling as the Eucharist. Also, she interprets the fish that is in the otter’s mouth as the sign of Christ, which has been so since the dawn of Christianity. Finally, she states that the moths are representative of death and resurrection. Therefore, the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, which contains the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the entire Christ event is present on this on page.
Henry uses these images to create a bigger picture but also, she refutes the interpretation of many art historians who have come before her. Like Sir Edward Sullivan, many other historians give the interpretation that the cats are watching mice nibbling on the host or Eucharist. But, Henry says that the smaller figures are not mice but kittens. She draws this conclusion based on the fact that the larger cats are holding the smaller ones by the tails, much like a mother cat would hold and keep track of her kittens. Also, she calls the diamond shape in the mouths of the moths a lozenge. This lozenge is a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and she is actually depicted wearing a lozenge shaped brooch earlier in the manuscript. Finally, like Suzanne Lewis, she interprets the fish in the mouth of the otter to be a symbol for Christ. With all symbols coming together on this page, she interprets them as faithful Christians partaking in the Eucharist.
As one can clearly see The Book of Kells is truly a masterpiece. It combines some of the greatest Celtic art of the period, with one of the greatest pieces of literature in the whole world. As mentioned earlier, it combines all the typical motifs of the Celtic art and bring them all together in one work, and in the case of the Chi-Rho monogram page, all these motifs are scene on one page. But, it is not just the fact that all these motifs appear together, but the quality, complexity, and quantity in which they appear. I will leave you with a quote from Sir Edward Sullivan, which I hope will convey the concept of how mind-blowing the artwork of The Book of Kells is. ” The finest draftsmen of the entire world have tried to recreate the Chi-Rho page, and have failed.” It takes an indescribable artist working in the middle ages to create something that some one in today’s modern world could not recreate.
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