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Definition: Book of Kells from Philip's Encyclopedia

Illuminated manuscript of the four gospels in Latin. Probably begun in the late 8th century at the Irish monastery of Iona, which later migrated to Kells, County Meath, Ireland, its intricate illumination and superb penmanship have earned it the epithet of 'the most beautiful book in the world'. After its collation in 1621 by James Usher, it was presented to Trinity College, Dublin, where it has remained.


Summary Article: Book of Kells from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

The Book of Kells is an ornately illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels with several historic records and a limited glossary of Hebrew names. The book was translated from Jerome's Latin Bible and named after the Columban monastery of Kells in County Meath, Ireland. Tradition holds that the work was begun on Iona, Scotland, to honor Columba (d. 597). After a violent Viking raid in 802, the Celtic monks fled to Kells and took the manuscript with them, where it was completed.

The script is one of the finest examples of Irish handwriting in existence and the creation of several artisans. It has 340 pages, each 13 by 9.5 inches of glazed parchment, with many of the letters adorned with a variety of colors. For instance, the first two words, “Liber generationis,” were so decorated and fill a whole page. Lavish creativity exudes in the interlacing of humans, animals, birds, and fanciful beings coiled in geometric patterns. Emblems of vines, dragons, fish, serpents, and the cross are combined exquisitely in the most delicate manner without any irregularity or repetition. Archivists have counted over 158 interlacings of “white ribbon with a black border on either side” in the space of one square inch. In contrast, several pages have portraits that are primitive and stylized, such as the Gospel writers, the Virgin Mary, and the temptation of Christ.

Various historic mentions of the book occur, as in the Annals of Ulster for 1066 which described the manuscript as “the chief treasure of the Western world” and recorded that it was stolen from the stone church of Columcille at Kells, robbed of the gold from the ornate cover and buried in the ground. For eight centuries it was fairly well preserved and in 1661 Henry Jones, Scoutmaster-General to Oliver Cromwell's army in Ireland, presented it to the library of Trinity College in Dublin, where it is on permanent display.

SEE ALSO: Celtic Christianity; Columba, Saint; Gregory the Illuminator, Saint; Lindisfarne Gospels

Suggested Readings
  • Calkins, R. G. (1983). Illuminated books of the Middle Ages. Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY.
  • Henderson, G. (1987). From Durrow to Kells: The insular Gospel-books, 650-800. Thames & Hudson New York.
  • Robert L. Gallagher
    Wiley ©2012

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