By Frank Crowley
(While Frank has passed, his work on the Book of Kells lives on!)
The Book of Kells is one of a group of Gospel manuscripts scholars call Insular Style. They were produced from the sixth through early ninth centuries in monasteries throughout Ireland, Scotland, Northern England and in Continental monasteries with Irish or English origins. In addition, all the Insular Gospels contain similarities in artistic style, calligraphic and textual traditions and were mutually influential.
The typical organization of Insular Gospel books contains what are called etymologies.
They consist of:
1. A list of Hebrew names in the Gospels was compiled by Jerome in the fourth century. Only one page of his list survives in the BoK
Cannon Tables. A concordance of Gospel passages common to two or more of the evangelists was compiled by Eusebius of Caesera in the fourth century. These tables were included in a copy book all Insular Gospel scribes used for text and illuminations.The Kells’ scribes copied the numbered locations of the topics in the Canon Tables, but the corresponding numbers were not added in the text. So the Kells’ Canon is of no help in locating similar passages in the four Gospels.
Virgin and Child Portrait. The BoK has the oldest existing Virgin and Child portrait.
Breves Causae. Topic summaries of each Gospel.
Argumenta. Characterizations of each evangelist.
Symbols of the four evangelists. Four full illuminated pages of the symbols of the evangelists.
7. Each evangelist has a full page portrait. The Mark and Luke portraits are missing from the BoK.
8. A full page illumination of the first word or phrase of each Gospel.
Of the surviving 680 pages, 33 are full page illuminations and the remaining pages only two have no decoration at all. A few pages are not completed and some of the scribes’ decorative techniques can be seen.
The early dates in the history of Columcille (Latinized name is Columba) and the BoK, are from a mixture of legends and written entries of various Annals that were compiled at monasteries. The Annals are the closest thing we have to actual documentation. However, everything in legends is not necessarily fictitous and everything in an Annual may not be a fact.
Around 561, Columba led a group of monks to Dal Riata, an established Irish colony in Scotland. Around 574 he and his monks went to Iona.
From there more missions were established in Scotland and in England.
Columba died at Iona in 597.
The first recording of a Viking raid of Iona came in 795. In a second raid in 802 the church was burned. In 807 during another raid 68 monks were killed by the invaders. For safety, a group of monks left for the town of Cenannas, the site of an ancient hill fort in Co. Meath, Ireland, where the order had acquired land. The monks began building a new monastery and scriptorium which was completed in 814.
In my research I’ve found that “Cenannas” means “head fort.” Another similar Irish name used was Ceann Lios which was Anglicized to Knelis. In 1152 a Church group called for a meeting to address ecclesiastic matters. It was called the Synod of Kells was held in the town. Afterward the town name remained Kells.
In 878, the Annals of Ulster recorded that after more Viking raids, monks arrived from Iona with valuables and relics. The description in the Annals suggest that the Book was among their valuables.
By 1007 (modern calendar) the Vikings gradually found their way to Cenannas. Another entry in the Annals of Ulster for this year states,
“Great Gospel of Columcille,” (not yet called Book of Kells) “chief relic of the Western world, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Cenannas on account of its wrought Shrine.”
Sacred books were usually kept in boxes, called shrines, which were decorated with precious metals and Jewels.
It was found, the entry continues “two months and twenty days later under a sod.”
(To simplify things, I am using the word “page” throughout this column instead of using “folio” or “leaf.” If a bifolio is folded once it makes two folios. Each folio can be printed on both sides and each side numbered-1 verso or 2 recto. Each side alone can be called a “leaf.” Sometimes these terms are mixed up.
Scholars surmise the pages were ripped out and discarded because they were not considered valuable by the raiders. It is estimated that between 26 and 30 pages are lost. There are around 10 missing from the beginning of the book and 12 are missing from the end.
Other gaps in the Book account for a loss of possibly 6 pages.
As a result of local disputes during the 11th century, the Church at Kells was burned down as many as five times.
In 1017 a local king was killed in the church. Sometime later, Marched, King of Tara for only 3 days was killed in the bell tower.
For the next century or more, the control of Kells changed hands continuously. Whoever controlled the church also controlled its sizable landholdings.
At Kells, access to the Book was possible to a select group, mostly ecclesiastics who wanted to write comments, and not to the general public.
Twelfth century land charters regarding the Abby of Kells were copied on two blank pages, 6 verso (left page) and 7 recto (right page) of the Book.
A poem complaining about taxation on church land was written in the fifteenth century on a blank page 289v.
Bishop-elect of Meath James Ussher numbered each page in 1621. This is the same James Ussher who studied the Bible and other ancient texts and determined the world was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. He later became the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Oliver Cromwell’s army occupied the ruined church in Kells in1654 and stabled the army’s horses there. The governor of Kells, Charles Lambart, earl of Cavan, to the world’s everlasting thanks, sent the Book of Kells to Dublin for safekeeping. It was safe until 1661. That year, Henry Jones who later became Bishop of Meath, “presented” it to Trinity Collage Dublin.
During the next few hundred years, a number of efforts were made to repair and maintain the Book. In 1741 a folio was discovered to be folded the wrong way. It was corrected and reinserted. The original size of the Book was 14 1/2” by 10 1/4.” In 1821 the decision was made to crop the Book to 13” by 9 1/2, rebind it and gild the edges. Some of the images were damaged. New numbering of the pages was done by J. H. Todd, at that time the Librarian at Trinity College Dublin. Another rebinding was done in 1895, but did not last and more repairs were required. During the 1920s several of the pages were kept loose for display.
Queen Victoria and Albert visited Dublin and signed a page in the Book in 1821. It was a page inserted specially for them. In 1953 the Book was separated and rebound into four volumes. At that time, the signed page of Queen Victoria and Albert was removed. At present, The Book remains in four volumes.
In 1951, a mechanical reproduction of the Book was produced by Urs Graf-verlag of Bern Switzerland with black and white pages and 48 pages in color.
This made scholarly close reading and research possible anywhere. In 1974 a major study of the Book was published by Francoise Henry. In 1990 an exact facsimile of the entire Book was made by Facsimile Verlag Luzern using the latest technology and printing on a special vellum-like paper.
The Irish American Heritage Center has a copy in the museum for public viewing. Call me at the Center (773-282-7035 x10) for an appointment and we can meet for a tour.
- Font Size
- Reading Mode
By Frank Crowley