31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts · Celtic and Irish Art

The Book of Kells – Day One of Medieval Manuscripts

The Book of Kells folio 34r – the “Chi Rhi page”.

It only seems appropriate to start off 31 Days of Medieval Manuscripts with the Book of Kells, as it is arguably the world’s most iconic illuminated manuscript. The Book of Kells is a gospel book written and decorated by British or Irish monks in the first century AD (most likely c. 800 AD). It is named after the Abbey of Kells in Ireland but was not necessarily completed there. The manuscript now resides at Trinity College Library in Dublin; it has recently been digitized and is completely viewable online.

The Book of Kells folio 32v – Christ Enthroned. By Abbey of Kells [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A staple of any medieval art history survey, the Book of Kells is notable for its vibrant colors and intricate, detailed decoration. Among the manuscript’s most impressive features is its exquisite interlace – a twisting, turning, ribbon-like motif characteristic of the book’s Celtic milieu. In the Book of Kells, interlace can be found in the borders, inside large initials and illustrations, and within full-page decorations known as carpet pages. The first image in this post is a wonderful example of the Book of Kells’s prolific use of interlace and related decorative motifs. It is frequently termed the “Chi Rho page” because it displays highly-decorated versions of the Greek letters chi and rho, which begin the Greek form of the name Christ.  The manuscript also contains beautiful representations of the four evangelists’ symbols – the man or angel of St. Matthew, the lion of St. Mark, the ox of St. Luke, and the eagle of St. John. A single page containing all four symbols, surrounded by elaborate interlace borders, appears below.

The Book of Kells folio 27v – the four evangelists. By Dsmdgold at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
While working on this post, I spent some time browsing the Trinity College Library’s webpage for its permanent Book of Kells display. It is full of photographs of the exhibition, which includes several massive banners reproducing some of the book’s most famous pages on a scale that is hundreds of times larger than reality. I was suddenly struck by the incredible level of detail that the book has to contain in order to look so impressive even under such extreme magnification. In fact, it is easier to appreciate the subtleties of the manuscript’s decorations on a large scale than it is at normal size (though I unfortunately can’t pretend to have ever seen it in person). Art historians always try to be aware of the visual and psychological distortions that occur upon viewing works of art out of proportion on projection screens or under the heavy use of the zoom button, but there are still moments like this when that fact really hits me by surprise.

The Book of Kells folio 124 r. [via Wikimedia Commons]

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