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24
Fri, May

Book of Kells
Typography

by Frank Crowley

(While our good friend Frank has passed, his work on the Book of Kells lives on!)

This month I want to remind you of the comments that Gerald of Wales made in his 12th century book, Topographia Hibernica. Gerald describes a book he saw at the Abby of Kildare, where he was also told the story of how the book was written.  An angel appeared and instructed a scribe on how to complete the book with the aid of miraculous help. The result was so magnificent, Gerald further writes, “… you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man.”  He was most likely referring to the Book of Kildare (now lost), not the Book of Kells.  However, for a long period, scholars assumed he was really writing about the Book of Kells.  That was before mounting evidence indicated there probably was a gospel book at Kildare. Now, scholars think that both books at least were started at the Abby of Iona. Further, it was believed, miraculous involvement was part of how these gospel books were produced; not only at Kildare and Kells, but most, if not all, prayer and gospel books were though to have been produced with divine help. The books were held in great reverence and considered holy and blessed objects. Legends held the books to be able to cure people’s illnesses. In fact, there are reports that people went so far as to use the books to cure the health problems of livestock, including methods like dipping the books in the water used to pour on the animals. All of this suggests the attitude of the devout Abbots and scribes in the scriptoriums that produced these books.

I think the intention of the scribes, especially from Iona, Kells and Kildare, was to produce a book of unprecedented artistic radiance. One thousand years later, James Joyce-through Stephan Dedalus-would describes such work as “aesthetic arrest.”  That could be defined as the moment an image, for example Kells’ Chi Rho page, “is apprehended...by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony.” At that point one’s mind is receptive to a spiritual epiphany. Monasteries with scriptoriums traded “model books” that were examples of text and images to be copied.  This is one reason that a drawing of a lion, for example, by a scribe who has seen one, may be passed along to many scribes and ends up looking like a big dog, an animal the latest scribe has actually seen.

The basis of the Chi Rho page is based on the first three letters Xpi, for “Christ” in Greek, or often just “XP.” Its origin is on the military flag used by the emperor Constantine. A comparison of Chi Rho pages in Insular Gospel books made before and after the Kells’ book shows the magnificence the Kells’ Chi Rho page is.  The Lindisfarn Gospel comes close to Kells, but developments in size of letters, designs and details do not fully explain Kells’ difference. The outstanding artistic talent of the scribe I call Scribe/Artist A makes it unique. At the first glance at the Chi Rho page, we see a full-length letter that seems to be a “P” but actually is an “X” with curved and unequal ascenders and descenders.  Below that part of the monogram is the “I” and “P.”  At the end of the “P”s curve is
the head of a beardless man.  The next thing that catches our eye is approximately 300 gold colored individual spirals and groups of spirals in roundels that appear to be spinning.  Imagine the wonder that would produce in people that never saw this anything like these moving and twirling shapes in a book!
A closer examination reveals creatures of the air: birds and moths; of the sea: fish and otters; of the land: cats and mice or perhaps it is of cats and kittens-that’s not clear.  Also there are humans and angels.
Within the drawn borders, areas not filled in with the spirals, samples of living creatures and the letters of the monogram are knots and interlacing.  Some of this knotwork is so astonishing minute that for most people a magnifying glass is needed to see the details clearly.  Could scribes have used a glass globe filled with water or a gemstone to magnify his work?  Perhaps they were nearsighted and could see clearly if they brought their eyes very close to the vellum.

At the first glance at the Chi Rho page, we see a full-length letter that seems to be a “P” but actually is an “X” with curved and unequal ascenders and descenders.  Below that part of the monogram is the “I” and “P.”  At the end of the “P”s curve is
the head of a beardless man.  The next thing that catches our eye is approximately 300 gold colored individual spirals and groups of spirals in roundels that appear to be spinning.  Imagine the wonder that would produce in people that never saw this anything like these moving and twirling shapes in a book!
A closer examination reveals creatures of the air: birds and moths; of the sea: fish and otters; of the land: cats and mice or perhaps it is of cats and kittens-that’s not clear.  Also there are humans and angels.
Within the drawn borders, areas not filled in with the spirals, samples of living creatures and the letters of the monogram are knots and interlacing.  Some of this knotwork is so astonishing minute that for most people a magnifying glass is needed to see the details clearly.  Could scribes have used a glass globe filled with water or a gemstone to magnify his work?  Perhaps they were nearsighted and could see clearly if they brought their eyes very close to the vellum.

For a long time Scholars have debated the meaning of the inclusion of the angels, men and creatures of the land, air and sky.  These kinds of images, and more, are found throughout the Book.  They usually have no special connection to the surrounding text, or each image has a very important meaning, adding to the message of the Gospels.  For example, on the left lower descender of “X” there are three angels.  Two are holding books and a third is holding two plant stalks.  At the top, above  the crossing of the “X” is a triangular shape with a face at the apex.  That may be another angel in the “Osiris” pose (i.e., arms crossed against chest and holding a stalk in each hand.)   This is another case speculating the intention of the artist.  There was not enough room to draw the arms and wings, but the head is like the other angels and spirals on stalks where the shoulders would be as there are on the other angels.  That could imply that the head of the beardless man that is part of the “P” is an image of Christ who is always accompanied by four angels.  That is, except 114r, the folio depicting the arrest of Christ.

The cats and mice/kittens image is another example.  Are the cats and mice showing the peacefulness of the world with the acceptance of the Word and of partaking of the Eucharist, which the mice appear to be doing.  Or is it a peaceful cat family scene doing the same thing?

More on Scribe/Artist A next month.

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