By Frank Crowley
(While our good friend Frank has passed, his work on the Book of Kells lives on!)

Beginning this month the Irish American News and the Irish American Heritage Center will present an exposition and discussion of Ireland’s greatest treasure--the Book of Kells; a magnificently illuminated eight-century manuscript of the four Gospels.

The richness of the Book (as I will refer to the Book of Kells) proves to be endlessly fascinating to scholars throughout the world who study the Book and its history.  Their research is presented at universities and regularly at seminars and in journals.

This survey is presented from the point of view of an art educator.  As a teacher of Celtic art and mythology at the IAHC, I have researched the history of the Book of Kells and studied the astoundingly detailed reproduction of the Book of Kells housed at the Center. I developed interesting insights into the production of the Book, and will expand the understanding of the work, as I imagine it, through the viewpoint of the scribes.

Throughout this series, we will follow the journey the Book has endured to its final location at Trinity College Library in Dublin.  Also, we will examine the damage and additions made during the tumultuous 1200+ year history of the Book.|

The Book and its history is very broad and deep.  To make the series manageable and to prevent going too far afield, I will suggest online links to historic references (usually Wikipedia.) For those readers without access to the Internet, please send a note through IAN and I will answer ASAP.

I have an extensive library on this subject and accumulated over 200 website bookmarks pertaining to the Book.  As you can imagine, websites are not always reliable regarding historical facts. I have read that errors are often included in research and are picked up so often that they become accepted as true. There are many speculations on the Internet and some are more likely to be true than others.  Therefore, a guiding principle I’ll use will be Occam’s Razor, i.e., when competing explanations each seem to be plausible answers, the one with the fewest new assumptions is the most likely.  This always leaves open a possible revision if new information is discovered.

The Book’s examination in this series is divided into the following historic and artistic topics.

1. Brief Introduction to the history of the Book of Kells

2. The general organization of Insular Gospels
3.  Comparison to other Insular Gospels
4.  Full page illuminations of BoK
5.  Themes and symbolisms
6.  Scribes: Styles; Errors; Later contributions
7.  Production Methods: Tools; Vellum; Pigments and Inks 

A Brief Introduction to the History of the Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is considered to be the finest surviving example of Gospel manuscripts in what scholars call Insular Style. They were produced from the 6th through the 9th centuries in monasteries in Ireland, Scotland, Northern England and in Continental monasteries with Irish or English origins. The manuscripts all had similarities in textual, artistic and calligraphic traditions and were mutually influential.

In 563 AD, the Irish monk Colum Kille, also known as St. Columba, led a group of his followers to the Island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland to establish a monastery and scriptorium.  Scholars believe the Book was begun some time later. After a long period of peace, Viking raids made life for the monks too dangerous and in 807, many of the monks left Iona for Kells (“Cenannas” at that time,) site of an ancient hill fort in Co. Meath, Ireland and built a new monastery and scriptorium.

The Annals of Ulster, a chronicle of medieval Ireland, recorded that in the year 878 another group of monks arrived from Iona with valuables and relics.  The description in the Annals suggests that the Book was among their valuables.

Medieval Era

6th to 14th Century
9th Century:  The Book (possibly, see above) at Kells Abby (not yet called Book of Kells)
1007: An entry in the Annals of Ulster described the Book of Kells as stolen and recovered. The “Great Gospel of Columkille (still not yet called the “Book of Kells”) was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy to the great stone church at Cenannas on account of its wrought shrine.”  It was found “two months and twenty days” later “under a sod.” Shrines often were decorated with gold or silver and gems and contained a bound book of great value.  Many Gospel books themselves were often covered with gems and precious metals.  Scholars surmise that both the shrine and the Book’s covers were taken and the folios were ripped out and discarded because they were not considered valuable.
Which could easily explain the estimated 10 folios (double pages) that are missing from the beginning and 12 folios that are lost from the end of the Book.  There are at least 28 folios—56 leaves (pages) of text and images that are missing. This estimate is determined by what sections are missing and what Insular Style Gospels usually included.

During the 12th century, land charters regarding the Abby of Kells were written on blank leaves of the Book: 6 verso (left side) and 7 recto (right side.) A permanent record that the Abby would need for this transaction was indeed safe in the Book.

Modern Era

15th Century to Present

The Early Modern Era brought additional alterations to the Book. In some cases the Book was merely defaced with notations while others irreparably damaged leaves.  However, everything that happened to the Book continues to be a source of historic interest and research. In the 15th century a poem by an unknown author complaining about taxation on church land was written on a blank leaf, 289v.   16th Century.  Gerald Plunkett of Dublin entered chapter numbers of the Gospels that were created in the 13th century by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Plunkett also made many other comments throughout the Book. 1621. Bishop-elect of Meath, James Ussher numbered all the leaves.  (This is the same Bishop Ussher who dated the time of the Creation, Saturday, October 22, 4004 BC, by counting backwards in the Bible.)

In the 17th century during the period of the Comwellian invasions and the Irish Uprising of 1641, the Church of Kells was badly damaged and remained unrepaired. The Governor of Kells, Charles Lambart, sent the Book for safe-keeping in 1653 to government commissioners in Dublin. Henry Jones, who later became Bishop of Meath, presented the Book to Trinity College Library in 1661. The Book continued to be under constant examination by scholars and Library officials at Trinity College. A folio was discovered to be folded the wrong way. It was corrected and reinserted in 1741.

The most egregious damage took place during 1821. Vellum leaves in hand-trimmed manuscripts are not exactly even, as they are in modern books with machine-cut paper pages.  Slight differences were accepted. I imagine a monk taking the Book and tapping it on each side to make it as even as he could.  The monk then carefully trimmed off about a half inch or so on each side, but he didn’t check inside- many leaves had the edges of their images trimmed. Subsequently, the dimensions are now 13” by 10” from the original 14½” by 10¼”. A blank flyleaf was inserted into the front of the Book and it then was rebound. The new edges were gilded.

During a visit 28 years later Queen Victoria and Albert visited Dublin.  At Trinity College Library they were shown many of Ireland’s treasured manuscripts, including the Book of Kells. Victoria and Albert signed that blank flyleaf from 1821 with the following inscription: “Victoria R” and “Albert” followed by the date, 7 August 1849.  A Dublin newspaper claimed at the time their autographs would be regarded with more interest than the Book itself!
Other English royals signed the same flyleaf in 1861 and 1902 during visits to Trinity College.  The flyleaf with the royal signatures was removed in 1953. J. H. Todd, Trinity College Librarian (1852-’69) added more folio numbers to the lower left corners. Another rebinding in 1895 was an opportunity for photographs to be taken for the Librarian. Soon after it became clear the binding was not going to last. In 1951 Urs Graf-verlag of Bern made a complete reproduction with most folios in black and white with 48 pages in color. Only 500 copies were printed

During the 1950s discussions for more repairs continued. For example, several of the leaves became loose and damaged from wear. It was clear that there needed to be immediate repairs but there was not agreement on how to proceed.  

Finally in 1953 Roger Powell, the leading conservation bookbinder of his day, rebound the Book creating four volumes, one for each Gospel.  Francoise Henry published a major study in 1974 with many color reproductions. Fine Art Publishers of Luzern, Switzerland in 1990 published a facsimile made with the latest technology that reproduced the smallest details.  The IAHC bought a copy and displays it in the Center’s Museum. St. Mark’s Gospel was sent to Australia for display in 2000.  During that trip some pigment was damaged.

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