Countless leaves and images of extraordinary sophistication from the Book of Kells defy even the most capricious explications, and led the 13th-century historian Giraldus Cambrensis to famously pronounce the manuscript "the work, not of men, but of angels."
It may have been conceived to celebrate the second centenary of the saint's death on Iona, and left unfinished when the tranquil island suffered a series of attacks by Vikings. After a particularly brutal assault in 806 left 68 of their community dead, many monks took refuge in Ireland at Kells. As recorded in the Annals of Ulster, the shrine of Columbanus and some of his relics, including, perhaps, the cherished codex, also found protection there, where work on it may have continued. It was probably the artifact described as "the most precious object in the Western world" that was "wickedly stolen" from the church sacristy in 1007 and retrieved soon after, stripped of its gold ornaments.
The manuscript was definitively at Kells in the late 11th century, when its blank leaves were used to record local property transactions. In the mid-17th century, when Oliver Cromwell's invading troops threatened, the Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safekeeping and soon after acquired by Trinity College, where it remains today. The celebrated status it enjoyed in an age and monastic culture renowned for artfully embellished books has never faded.
This large-format codex of the New Testament gospels, intended for display on an altar, was largely based on the Vulgate, the Latin Bible transcribed by St. Jerome in the late fourth century from older Latin translations. It includes sumptuous concordances, summaries of gospel narratives, etymologies of Hebrew names, and prefaces to the four evangelists. Even more than the sacred text painstakingly copied in an insular, majuscule script, the manuscript's exquisite decoration attests to the faith and visionary creative genius of the medieval Irish monks, who believed that one could discover in such endlessly imaginative amalgams of enigmatic earthly and heavenly images entwined with the written word not only the power of the art of the book but the mystery and magnificence of the Divinity.
On closer inspection, the monogram's spiraling, interlaced designs, akin to those found in pagan Pictish (ancient Scottish) carvings and medieval Irish high crosses, yield a maze of tiny figures and beasts. Curving filaments at the center of the upright Rho terminate in a beautifully-drawn, blond human head positioned sideways. Two men in the small Iota, visible when the page is inverted, pull each other's beard (a favored Kells motif). A dense labyrinth of men and peacocks surround the Chi's central lozenge, and three flaxen-haired angels grace its left-most vertical edge. Beneath a yellow Greek cross a black otter clutches a fish in its mouth, whimsical mice tug on a host while cats look on, and above, butterflies and chrysalises flutter. Long thought to represent fanciful flights of the monks' imagination, these animals from land, sea and sky, as witnessed by earthly and heavenly observers, are in fact, as Suzanne Lewis has conclusively argued, metaphors for the incarnate or resurrected Christ and underscore the special Eucharistic and liturgical significance of the manuscript by giving tangible form to the most intangible tenets of Christian faith.
Apart from its brilliantly allusive artistry, the Book of Kells offers a telling window into the context of the monastic scriptorium, and even the personae of the medieval monks.
Bernard Meehan, Trinity's Keeper of Manuscripts, has aptly described how the community that produced the 340-page codex on costly vellum (prepared calfskin) in pigments applied with quill pens or the finest brushes fashioned from the prized fur of martens must have been wealthy, stable and in possession of an established library, a description that fits either late eighth-century Iona or Kells shortly afterward. Although the famed Iona abbot Connachtach (d. 802) has been linked to its production, scholars have separated the hands of the manuscript's nameless scribes and artists largely on the character of their contributions: the conservative Scribe A, whose sober script eschewed embellishments in the Book of John; the more "extroverted" Scribe B, who exhibited a penchant for color and distinctive flourishes; or the gifted "goldsmith," one of a handful of decorative artists and so named because his intricate, luminous work, including the Chi Ro folio, is suggestive of decorated metalwork.
Yet centuries of scholarly research fail to explain the wide range of influences the Book of Kells seems to reflect despite its outlying, insular origins. The seventh-century pilgrim Arculf, whose storm-tossed ship landed him in Iona on his way home from the Holy Lands, has been credited with introducing animals from Egyptian Coptic art that could have shaped their fanciful counterparts here. Coptic models may have also inspired the full-page folio of the Madonna and Child that would count James Joyce among its many admirers. Arculf, or perhaps other travelers, may have even contributed a plan of the Holy Sepulchre's rotunda in Jerusalem, which seems inscribed in the halo of the evangelist John's portrait.
But how to account for the fineness of detail in the Chi Rho, for example, in an age predating sophisticated magnifying tools? Countless other leaves and images of extraordinary sophistication defy even the most capricious explications, and led the 13th-century historian Giraldus Cambrensis to famously pronounce the manuscript "the work, not of men, but of angels." Such are the mysteries and the miracles the Book of Kells has kept intact.
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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