The Book of Kells has secrets. Many of the secrets are subtle and scholarly: “What is the importance of the mouse on this page, is it merely decoration or does it carry religious meaning?” Some are technical such as determining the composition of the various paints used.
The greatest mysteries concerning the Book of Kells are when and where it was created. The current wisdom holds, because of complex stylistic evidence, that the book was created during the late eighth or very early ninth century at a well-known monastery and scriptorium on the isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland. Starting in 795, Vikings began raiding the island. More raids occurred in 802, 806, and 825. If the book had been created at Iona during this period, it is doubtful that the production of such an elaborate book could have continued during the stress and danger of the Viking raids. Some scholars argue that changes in the quality of illumination and the book’s unfinished state are evidence that its production was disrupted, most likely by the raids. Some believe that the book, as well as other precious artifacts, and many monks of course, were evacuated to Kells, a remote, newly-constructed, and relatively secure, monastery in the interior of Ireland. The evacuation of the book may have taken place as early as 806, when work on the monastery at Kells was initiated or as late as 878 when a group of relics from Iona was evacuated. Although this is an attractive argument, there is no evidence for it and recently scholars have begun to attack it.
The earliest reference to the book, also called the Gospel of Colum-Cille (the founder of the Iona monastery), occurs in 1006 when it was stolen. The book was found two months later, stripped of its ornamental cover and buried in sod. Besides losing its cover, the book also lost a number of pages in the front and back. Upon its return to Kells, it remained there until the seventeenth century.
Another early reference concerns a “miraculous” book dictated by an “angel,” seen by the Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis at Kildaire in 1185. Scholars originally thought that this description of an incredibly elaborate gospel book had to be referring to the Book of Kells, simply because they doubted another book with such lavish decoration could have been produced. They thought that Cambrensis had simply made an error concerning its location. Many scholars now take the description at face value and dispute that the 1185 description of the "miraculous" gospel book at Kildaire is the Book of Kells.
By the mid-1600s, the monastery at Kells had fallen on hard times. The Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safekeeping and then transferred to the Library of Trinity College sometime between 1661 and 1682.
Since then the Book of Kells has been stored at the library; it has apparently been on exhibit since the mid-nineteenth century. Access to the library was originally restricted to faculty and students of the college and invited guests. A visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1849 brought attention to the library’s collection and public access was slowly and carefully granted.
The book has suffered physical damage over the centuries. There are 340 leaves (pages) out of approximately 370. Leaves are missing from both the front and back of the book. Some of this damage probably occurred when the book was stolen in 1006. The leaves were cropped (cut) in 1821 during a misguided rebinding, damaging a few illuminations in the process.
The original was rebound again in 1953. In order to compensate for previous damage and avoid any reduction in the amount of original vellum, the text was broken up into four separate bindings, one for each of the Gospels. The facsimile has reassembled the four gospels into one volume.
The book is currently exhibited in a high security climate-controlled case. One volume has traveled the world as part of the Treasures of Early Irish Art exhibition of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
While the current location of the book is known and secure, many questions about it are still hotly debated. Some aspects of the history, production, and style of the book are worth mentioning.
The Book of Kells has antecedents and some influences in Irish book production. It is probably the descendant of the Book of Durrow, a late seventh century Gospel book, but it was not directly copied. It was most likely copied from other intermediaries, now lost, since the Book of Kells has corrected some subtle errors found in the Book of Durrow but has other mistakes not present in its predecessor.
The Latin used in the Book of Kells is an Irish version of St. Jerome's 5th century "Vulgate" with many "Old Latin" elements incorporated. This kind of mixing is not unusual in early manuscripts. And, as with other early Gospels, there are many "typos" in The Book of Kells. Misspellings and incorrect words, are common. Whether caused by scribe error, or by copying from an incorrect text, the mistakes were perpetuated throughout the centuries. But the relatively low quality of the text becomes irrelevant. The Book of Kells was not created to be read. It was most likely created to be displayed during Mass and on other sacred occasions where the impact of the lavish illustrations would overwhelm the observer with the glory of God.
The leaves are calfskin parchment, also known as vellum. The small holes in many of the pages are likely caused by bacterial damage to the calfskin during putrefaction. Putrefaction was a necessary stage in the preparation of vellum from the raw skin, but if it occurs too quickly and at too high a temperature, bacterial damage would cause pin-holes.
No one knows what the original binding looked like. Images of bindings within the Book of Kells (folio 32v) suggest an orange vermilion colored cover that might have been the natural color of some leathers or of a dyed sheepskin or goatskin. Although the represented binding does not show any decoration, scholars speculate that the binding probably had some tooled design, but probably not any applied decorative metalwork. The book might have been stored in a more elaborately decorated box.
The scribes wrote with a quill pen and the artists used an assortment of brushes with a variety of organic and inorganic pigments. The scribes wrote in a style of script now called Insular Majuscule. Insular means that it was produced in England or Ireland and majuscule refers to letters that are of essentially the same height. (Majuscule is opposed to minuscule which refers to letters which have more pronounced projections above and below the body of the letters). It is a round script with origins in late Roman writing.
A lined page is desirable to keep the script even. Generally, the scribe would make a series of tiny pin-pricks in the folded leaves at both the inner and outer margins in order to align the text properly through the book. Next he would lightly trace lines across each page by connecting the pin pricks, using a wood or bone instrument. He would then, using a quill, write the text between two sets of these lines, just as anyone does using lined paper today.
Book of Kells scholars have engaged in considerable debate over how many scribes wrote the book. Some believe that one scribe wrote the text but used different styles for different sections. Other scholars claim to detect two and even three different hands at work, albeit all highly-trained at the same scriptorium. Current wisdom holds that more than one scribe wrote the text, but that in the Book of Kells it is unusually difficult to discriminate between the different hands. One scholar, at least, proposes a fourth hand at work and raises the possibility of more. Trying to discern how much of the illumination (as opposed to the text) was done by the scribes and how much by artists is a final complicating factor.
Analysis of the illustrations or illuminations is even more challenging than analysis of the script. Since the date and location of creation remains uncertain, it is difficult for scholars to confidently compare the Book of Kells’ artwork with contemporary work. Furthermore, the art of the Book of Kells is quite different than much other manuscript art. The Book of Kells tends towards extreme imagery and not to the regular repetition of familiar images often used to teach and reinforce Christian teachings that are found in medieval art.
The illuminations are often based on earlier examples from other manuscripts and artworks, albeit usually in a more elaborate form. However, in one case, the Temptation of Christ (folio 202v), it appears that the example in the Book of Kells is the earliest surviving representation of this scene in medieval art. Furthermore, both the Temptation and the Arrest of Christ (folio 114r) are illustrated with idiosyncratic imagery and neither of them are scenes from Christ’s life that are commonly depicted in medieval art.
One prominent Book of Kells scholar, Francoise Henry, holds that three main illuminators created the art. Henry also believes that there were three main scribes and that some, if not all, of the scribes were also illuminators. As one might expect, there is scholarly disagreement about these issues. Consequently, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to decide how many hands produced the Book of Kells.
While the mysteries surrounding the creation and interpretation of the Book of Kells will remain hotly debated for some time, the profound beauty of the book is beyond question.