Assess the artistic and religious purpose and significance of the book of Kells

Topics: ArtSymbolism


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Last updated: April 7, 2019

The Book of Kells is an ancient Irish manuscript that contains elaborately decorated versions of the four gospels.

The book has a deep significance and as well as being a crowning glory of the Celtic Art form1 many deem it to be one of the most beautiful religious manuscripts in the world. It is evident that when the book was created it would have been viewed as a consecrated object and one that paid tribute to the word of God through its lavish and elaborate decorations. The book also helps convey to convey the fundamental message of Christianity, as well as symbolically portraying Christ by various different artistic techniques.Yet, despite the books reputation, surprisingly little can be said conclusively about its history.

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Although tradition states that the book is the work of St Columba, an Irish saint who died at the end of the sixth century, this is seen as rather unlikely by modern day scholars, who do not believe the book to have been written any earlier than the end of the seventh century due to its style of wording and decorations.Due to these beliefs, the book would have been more commonly referred to as the ‘Book of Columba’ and such a reference can be found in the ‘Annals of Ulster’ in 1007. Here, it is documented how the book was stolen from the Great Stone Church of Kells and was recovered ‘after two months and twenty nights’.2 The book is also referred to as ‘primh-mind iarthair domain’ which is translated as ‘the most precious object in the Western world’.

However, due to the fact that we are working mainly on assumptions, it is not clear as to whether this is a direct reference to the book itself or rather its ornamental shrine which was also stolen at the time.3These inextricable links to St. Columcille were still present even in relatively modern times and indeed the book was famously introduced to Queen Victoria in 1849 as ‘St. Columba’s book’.4 Also, in 1655 Samuel O Neale writes how the people of Kells believed the book to be ‘written as they say, by Columbkilles own hand, but is of such a character that none of this age can read it’.

Clearly such strong links are difficult to disestablish and it is easy to see that it would be a romantic notion to believe that just one saint wrote the book, a saint that was well loved by the Irish people themselves.It soon becomes apparent when studying this book that there is no one general consensus with regards to who created the work. Whereas some scholars such as Henry prefer to single out specific artists and even give them particular titles, others see the book as a creation of the work of a rich and diverse community that had many great scribes and artists along with an established library.5 It is also important to note that at times it is difficult to specifically attribute pages to explicit artists, as at several points throughout the book it is clear that more than one artists work is present.Despite this rather obscure and perceptibly difficult task, Francoise Henry have famously singled out three main artists who she believes are chiefly responsible for the work. She primarily identifies the ‘Goldsmith’, who she believed to be the first and greatest artist.

Indeed, she chooses this designation due to the fact that the artist frequently makes use of the colours yellow and silvery blue hence forging a link to metal work. Next she refers to the ‘Illustrator’ and finally the ‘Portrait Painter’. She has also boldly named the figure Connacttach as the first figure to work on the manuscript on Iona before it was moved to Kells. We are able to find references to this figure within the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’ that identify him as an Abbot and Scribe on the island of Iona until his death in 802AD, making him a suitable candidate.Although scholars such as William O’ Sullivan agree with some aspects of Henry’s work they see the final two artists as being synonymous and do not therefore forge a separate link between them. Yet, others such as Alexander have expressed even more diverse opinions and divide the book into being the work of two major artists, the first responsible for notably 32v,33r, 34r and perhaps 130r and the other for 7v-8r, 28v, 29r, 114r, 291v- 292r.Similarly to the problem of authorship, the origins of the book are also suitably difficult to be specific about.

Scholars tend to link the book to two main places; Kells in County Meath, Ireland and the Monastery of Iona, placed on an island off Mull, in Western Scotland. It seems that these two monasteries came to be ruled as a single community as the result of Viking raids that forced the people of the ministry of Iona to form a refuge at Kells, taking the book with them. The fact that the book appears to be incomplete with some ornaments only appearing in the outline advocates this theory, suggesting that the book may have been moved both unexpectedly and hurriedly. Scholars have thus attempted to date the book to either Iona before the raid in A.D. 795 or after the migration from Iona to Kells from A.

D 814 onwards.Yet we know that the book left Kells in 1653 after it was sent to Dublin by Charles Lambert, the governor of Kells, for safety reasons, due to the general disruptions of the Cromwellian period.6 It was sent to Trinity College with the help of Henry Jones and was presented by Archbishop Ussher. This has been its home up until the present day and it is kept within a darkened room lit by conservation light only and merely four pages from two volumes are displayed at once.7The question as to why the book was actually created is also extremely relevant and some scholars have suggested that it may have been done so to celebrate a special occasion. Others even propose that it was made for one particular event in itself, indeed Henry suggests that the making can be traced back to the bicentenary of the death of Columcille that took place in A.

D. 797. However, this is difficult to establish as it remains unclear as to whether such anniversaries were celebrated at this point in time. Others, have made a connection between the production of the book and the move of St Columcille’s relics to a new shrine in the middle of the eight century, however, many scholars dismiss this particular suggestion8 due to the fact that it appears to be too early on the timeline.The manner in which the book was used is paramount to discerning its religious purpose. There is a current debate as to whether this book was used principally for show and simply as a piece of altar furniture, or whether the book was used frequently with daily readings being made.

However, many scholars do point out that through careful study of the early medieval Gospel manuscripts it appears that both plain and elaborately decorated manuscripts were used regularly within monastic practices.Hence it is certain, that even the visual presence of such a large scale luxury book would have provided support to the congregation adding authority to the Gospels as the word of God.Indeed many scholars cite Alcuin whose 9th century poetry found in Carolingian bibles informs us that luxury manuscripts were used both as ornaments within the church and also for reading aloud in the church community. Whether this book actually was or not is of course deeply significant as if the book were read aloud then it would have formed an extremely important part of the liturgy of the mass.

It would have been viewed as an object of contemplation and study9 and due to this many would have examined it in search of levels of hidden meaning.However, many scholars suggest that due to its rather mixed up prefatory material, the fact that the Eusebian sections are not numbered, the complex heading scripts, the intricate interlace and puzzle like arrangement of the letters, it is infact more likely that the book was used solely for show as it would have been near impossible for the priests to read. They also point out that the book was believed to have once possessed a magnificent jewelled cover that was lost forever when only the book was recovered suggesting that its fundamental purpose would have been aesthetic. Indeed O Carragain believes that the book would have been rarely read from in public or indeed even private contexts, but sees it as a sacred object and that its visual images resonate with the texts and rituals of the liturgy.10Yet, to counter this, it has been suggested that although some of the passages may indeed be illegible the priests would have had to have known key passages by heart and that certain extracts do seem to correspond with actual events, such as the Chi – Rho passage which is representative of the first short reading for the mass on Christmas Eve.Despite the fact we do not know precisely how the book was used, it is clear that it was designed with an apparent religious purpose in mind, and its very creation would have been seen as an act of religious devotion that paid tribute to the Word of God. Indeed, the book helps to demonstrate Christ’s glory through reflecting his life and message in its decorations and some have even suggested that the complexity and ambiguity of the decoration, in places, is reflective of the complexity of the biblical passage to which it refers.

Undeniably, certain aspects of the life of Jesus are emphasised more strongly through reoccurring images such as that of the birth, the resurrection and the Eucharist, indeed it is possible to declare that such a work was a medium through which the most basic messages of Christianity were conveyed11 to the general population.An image that is frequently employed throughout the book is that of the cross and countless images can be found. This is of course due to the great significance of this symbol to early Christians as it would have been resonate with the resurrection and hence a symbol of the most principle message of the religion. Indeed figures of crosses even occur within individual letters12 and are especially prevalent within the passion scene portrayed in the Gospel of Luke.The book also has a significant artistic purpose as it endeavours to symbolically portray Christ in a variety of ways.

An example of a rather unique presentation of Christ and one that is not particularly prevalent within our society can be found on folio 129v. On this page we find four symbols that not only represent the four individual evangelists but also the life of Christ. Here, he is portrayed as a man at birth, a calf at death, a lion at resurrection and an eagle ascending to heaven.

13 The beauty of these images is that they work on many different levels and that they not only symbolise Christ’s life but also stress the unity of the Gospels themselves, despite the fact that there were often explicit differences within the writers intentions, styles and approaches. These symbols can be found in various other places within the book itself, such as most notably folio 201v where we see the calf of Luke the folio’s of 174v, 273v and 212v where the symbol of the eagle of John is present.There is also clear Eucharistic symbolism and imagery to be found within the book itself, symbolism that has been primarily studied by Suzanne Lewis. Whilst her arguments are not completely conclusive, her suggestions that within folio 34r the discs in the mouths of the two mice are Eucharistic bread in the form of a host14 and that the fish in the mouth of an otter is symbolic of Christ15 are generally accepted. However, these drawings may simply reflect other concerns prevalent at the time such as the worries over care for the communion bread due to the sheer number of rodents present, as with several other images within the book, interpretation plays a key role.Lewis is not alone within this field and Dr.

O Reilly has undertaken more recent work and has attempted to find Eucharistic imagery that is rather more subtle. One of her findings, for example, is the reference found in the text of folio 113v where it states ‘hoc est enim corpus meum…hic est enim sanguis meus noui testamenti’, Latin for ‘this is my body.

..this is the blood of the New Testament’. She suggests that the page directly facing this is primarily a depiction of the phrase itself. Its Eucharistic symbolism she argues can be demonstrated with the prevalence of the vessels emanating from the head of Christ16 and the use of the winding plants.There is of course far more symbolism to be found within the book and the figure of Christ is an extremely widespread symbol and is often inextricably linked to a variety of other symbols such as the fish, the lion, the snake and finally the peacock.

The fish itself is particularly common as it would have been linked by early Christians to the Eucharist and was a sign of their solidarity. Wherever Christ appears in the book a fish is normally to be found as a suprascript abbreviation bar.17 This clearly demonstrates the extent to which Christ and the symbol of the fish were inextricably linked.

The snake can also be found throughout the book and is synonymous with the resurrection of Christ, due to the fact that it can shed its skin and is therefore linked to the concepts of rebirth and regeneration. Yet it does have a double meaning and is equally symbolic of the fall of man and therefore evil. Although snakes are also common they often appear more abstractly, sometimes with the heads of ducks or tails of fish.There is also more symbolism to be found of the resurrection and the lion is employed mainly due to the common belief at the time that lion cubs were actually born dead and were only revived three days after their birth by their father either roaring or breathing on their faces. Such beliefs originated from Greek texts such as Physiologus and it is easy to see the link that early Christians would have forged.Also prevalent, is the symbol of the peacock, this can be traced back to the ancient belief that the flesh of this bird was so hard that it would not putrefy. Early Christians would have linked this to Christ as he too could not be defeated. Indeed this symbol is particularly important and the only major page from which it is actually missing is folio 114v.

Despite the profound religious and artistic role that the Book of Kells has, its general significance in the secular community is also imperative. The actual beauty of the decorations is known throughout the world and it is estimated that it took over 30 years to complete and the fact that no one symbol is duplicated exactly in the book is certainly admirable. Indeed many suggest that it is not particularly the copies of the Gospels that the book is so well known for, but rather the highly structured artistic work that we find on the calfskin pages. The work is in fact so detailed that it has been counted that in one particular square inch there are no less than 158 interlacings of white ribbon with a black border to be found on either side.18 Indeed Umberto Eco referred to the work as a ‘the product of a cold blooded hallucination’.

The use of calligraphy and penmanship within the book enables us to better comprehend work of this nature within the time period in Ireland. The artistic style that the work uses is known as insular and the book is written in a script known as ‘insular majestic’ The text itself seems to be based on the vulgate translation of the bible which had been composed by Jerome in 384AD, however it is also possible to see strong elements of the preceding version of the bible19 within the text also. What’s more, it is apparent that due to the mixture of styles that are found in the book archaic traditions were clearly influential. Other sources were also used as unique characteristics are present that had not featured amongst other Gospel books of the time. This enables us to witness various different styles of the time and hence understand more of this point in Irelands history.

In conclusion, it is evident that the Book Of Kells has a definitive artistic and religious function that works on many different levels and is open to many different interpretations. Although questions with regards to its authorship and dating remain largely inconclusive it is only a sign of how powerful the art is that its popularity has remained so strong. The significance and perhaps the very power of the book itself is that it works on both a secular and religious level and even if one ignores the religious aspect all together, they are still left with the lavish beauty of the decorations that undoubtedly took many years and much effort to complete.

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