The Medieval Masterpiece, the Book of Kells, Has Been Digitized & Put Online

If you know noth­ing else about medieval Euro­pean illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts, you sure­ly know the Book of Kells. “One of Ireland’s great­est cul­tur­al trea­sures” com­ments, “it is set apart from oth­er man­u­scripts of the same peri­od by the qual­i­ty of its art­work and the sheer num­ber of illus­tra­tions that run through­out the 680 pages of the book.” The work not only attracts schol­ars, but almost a mil­lion vis­i­tors to Dublin every year. “You sim­ply can’t trav­el to the cap­i­tal of Ire­land,” writes Book Riot’s Eri­ka Har­litz-Kern, “with­out the Book of Kells being men­tioned. And right­ful­ly so.”

The ancient mas­ter­piece is a stun­ning exam­ple of Hiber­no-Sax­on style, thought to have been com­posed on the Scot­tish island of Iona in 806, then trans­ferred to the monastery of Kells in Coun­ty Meath after a Viking raid (a sto­ry told in the mar­velous ani­mat­ed film The Secret of Kells). Con­sist­ing main­ly of copies of the four gospels, as well as index­es called “canon tables,” the man­u­script is believed to have been made pri­mar­i­ly for dis­play, not read­ing aloud, which is why “the images are elab­o­rate and detailed while the text is care­less­ly copied with entire words miss­ing or long pas­sages being repeat­ed.”

Its exquis­ite illu­mi­na­tions mark it as a cer­e­mo­ni­al object, and its “intri­ca­cies,” argue Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin pro­fes­sors Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan, “lead the mind along path­ways of the imag­i­na­tion…. You haven’t been to Ire­land unless you’ve seen the Book of Kells.” This may be so, but thank­ful­ly, in our dig­i­tal age, you need not go to Dublin to see this fab­u­lous his­tor­i­cal arti­fact, or a dig­i­ti­za­tion of it at least, entire­ly view­able at the online col­lec­tions of the Trin­i­ty Col­lege Library. The pages, orig­i­nal­ly cap­tured in 1990, “have recent­ly been res­canned,” Trin­i­ty Col­lege Library writes, using state of the art imag­ing tech­nol­o­gy. These new dig­i­tal images offer the most accu­rate high res­o­lu­tion images to date, pro­vid­ing an expe­ri­ence sec­ond only to view­ing the book in per­son.”

What makes the Book of Kells so spe­cial, repro­duced “in such var­ied places as Irish nation­al coinage and tat­toos?” ask Pro­fes­sors Moss and Ryan. “There is no one answer to these ques­tions.” In their free online course on the man­u­script, these two schol­ars of art his­to­ry and the­ol­o­gy, respec­tive­ly, do not attempt to “pro­vide defin­i­tive answers to the many ques­tions that sur­round it.” Instead, they illu­mi­nate its his­to­ry and many mean­ings to dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple, includ­ing, of course, the peo­ple of Ire­land. “For Irish peo­ple,” they explain in the course trail­er above, “it rep­re­sents a sense of pride, a tan­gi­ble link to a pos­i­tive time in Ireland’s past, reflect­ed through its unique art.”

But while the Book of Kells is still a mod­ern “sym­bol of Irish­ness,” it was made with mate­ri­als and tech­niques that fell out of use sev­er­al hun­dred years ago, and that were once spread far and wide across Europe, the Mid­dle East, and North Africa. In the video above, Trin­i­ty Col­lege Library con­ser­va­tor John Gillis shows us how the man­u­script was made using meth­ods that date back to the “devel­op­ment of the codex, or the book form.” This includes the use of parch­ment, in this case calf skin, a mate­r­i­al that remem­bers the anatom­i­cal fea­tures of the ani­mals from which it came, with mark­ings where tails, spines, and legs used to be.

The Book of Kells has weath­ered the cen­turies fair­ly well, thanks to care­ful preser­va­tion, but it’s also had per­haps five rebind­ings in its life­time. “In its orig­i­nal form,” notes Har­litz-Kern, the man­u­script “was both thick­er and larg­er. Thir­ty folios of the orig­i­nal man­u­script have been lost through the cen­turies and the edges of the exist­ing man­u­script were severe­ly trimmed dur­ing a rebind­ing in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.” It remains, nonethe­less, one of the most impres­sive arti­facts to come from the age of the illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script, “described by some,” says Moss and Ryan, “as the most famous man­u­script in the world.” Find out why by see­ing it (vir­tu­al­ly) for your­self and learn­ing about it from the experts above.

For any­one inter­est­ed in get­ting a copy of The Book of Kells in a nice print for­mat, see The Book of Kells: Repro­duc­tions from the man­u­script in Trin­i­ty Col­lege, Dublin.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the Beau­ti­ful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketch­book: A Win­dow Into How Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made (1494)

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

How Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beau­ti­ful, Cen­turies-Old Craft

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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