by Frank Crowley
(While our good friend Frank has passed, his work on the Book of Kells lives!)
The level of artistic skill and aesthetic vision of this folio is very similar to the five full page illuminations that begin each Book of Kells Gospel. That brings it to six full page folios that are the most magnificent and artistic of any medieval manuscript that exists today. (Remember, St. Matthew has two full page illuminations)
Commenters have suggested that this image has its origin in Hebrew apocalyticism and even earlier in pagan sources.
For a long time there has been a connection between the resurrection of Jesus on the day after the Sabbath-the seventh day-making it the eighth day. Does that mean that the Artist/Scribes were steeped in the esoteric levels of numerology? Not necessarily, but the legacy of the Resurrection contained the Christian sacred ideas of renewal and rebirth.
As Bernard Meehan writes in his book, The Book of Kells, Thames & Hudson 1994. ISBN-10 0-500-27790-7, “...the artist did not necessarily comprehend the full significance of all they were copying. Some details may have been half remembered, imperfectly understood, or inaccurately copied.”
For our purposes, that will suffice.
Similar carpet pages of cross designs predating Kells were in the Lindisfarn, Durrow, Lichfield and Durham Gospel books. The scribes for these books used other Insular books for copying and images were interpreted and changed by each of the scribes.
This brings us to Artist/Scribe A, whom I believe was the most distinctive artist of the Book of Kells. He was the scribe with the finest artistic imagination and skill and I believe designed and drew all five first page illuminations for each Gospel text.
Eight Circle Cross 33r
Every section of f33r is unique. Although each irregular banded section behind the double-armed cross contains an interlace design, each is a different pattern. Also, the interlacing is primarily made of peacocks and snakes. These animals are both symbols of Christ’s resurrection and renewal. Other sections appear to be interlaced dogs and in one section there are men entwined with the animals.
The eight circles of the cross are filled with over 400 yellow-gold colored spirals and discs. They are the kind of amazing artistic skills that are also in the other full page illuminations that A/S-A also produced. This is an example of astounding art that could induce in a medieval viewer a sense of shimmering gold and spinning spirals and discs--sacred text that lives!