Manuscript Monday: The Book of Kells

The 1007 Annals of Ulster described the Book of Kells as “the most precious object in the western world” and, once you take a quick look at the book, you can understand why this statement makes sense. Possibly produced at Iona Abbey around 800AD, Kells is a Latin Gospel Book (based off the Vulgate), as indicated by the above illustration of the symbols of the Four Evangelists: the angel for Matthew; the winged lion for Mark; the winged ox for Luke; and the eagle for John. The manuscript, unfortunately, was never completed.

A lot of research has been done on Kells; it’s one of the most well-known manuscripts in the world, and it’s attracted over 10 million visitors to its resting place at Trinity College Dublin.

This image is actually from Kells. Look at his little winky, flopping all over the place!

While the book’s insular majuscule script is impressive, it’s Kells’ illustrations that make it so awesome. Look at how detailed the interlace in the picture above is. Look at the skillful use of colour. Look at the detail; it’s said that the illustrations are drawn in such great detail that one needs a magnifying glass to see some of their tiny flourishes. Some people go so far as to say that Kells is so amazing that it couldn’t possibly have produced by the hands of men. I find this hard to believe, though, because there are numerous hints to the humanity behind the book’s production. For example, it turns out that people have always found penises to be funny, and many penises make their way into the margins of this particular book.

The pigments used for the book’s colours include ultramarine (which was super flipping expensive), indigo, red lead, verdigris, carbon and iron gall, and gypsum, and it should be noted that some of these pigments were not readily available anywhere on the British Isles. This is important because it means that whoever made the book had access to trade networks, probably with the Middle East. And, of course, there’s that distinctive yellow colour. Contrary to what a lot of people think, this yellow is not gold leaf. The only gold used for Kells was for its cover – may it rest in pieces. The bright yellow you see in the picture above is actually orpiment, and the less bright yellow is ochre. Both of these materials were commonly used in medieval art, although it turns out that orpiment is highly toxic and was also commonly used to poison arrows. The more you know!

If you can’t make it out to Ireland, the fine people at Trinity College have made Kells available for online viewing here.

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