April 19th, 2012
Recently, the Jen Library made a big decision to purchase a beautiful facsimile copy of The Book of Kells. A copy had become available in Ireland at a very good price and we thought it would be an excellent addition to our collection.
The edition we purchased was published by Faksimile Verlag Luzern, 1990 and came with a commentary, which, unfortunately for us, is in German. It took 10 years to make this facsimile to the exacting specifications. There is a great article about making the facsimile in the New York Times. It was created in a limited edition of 1,480 copies.
The Book of Kells was compiled on the Scottish island of Iona around the end of the 8th century. The Irish monks were dedicated to spreading Christianity throughout Europe. Monasteries became important spiritual centers of Europe. Iona was attacked in 806 by Vikings and it is thought that the monks fled with the manuscript to Ireland.
The manuscript was written on vellum, which is made of calfskin. Vellum is expensive and time-consuming to prepare, but provides a durable and smooth writing surface. The book consists of the Four Gospels, with additions of canonical tables and some property deeds for the Kells monastery. The book is thought to have originally had a jeweled cover, but the book was stolen in the 11th century. The cover was ripped from the book and has never been found, but 680 individual pages survived. The book is lavishly illustrated only two pages that lack any artistic ornamentation. There are a number of pages that are entirely decorated with very little text, including the portrait pages and the “carpet” pages.
The book was buried for almost 3 months to protect it from thieves and invaders, but was dug up and resided at Kells monastery until it was taken to Dublin during the reign of Cromwell when monasteries were closed. In 1661, it was donated by the Bishop of Meath to Trinity College, where it still resides today.
If you want to see a beautifully animated film on the making of the Book of Kells after it arrived from Iona, see the Secret of Kells. It is in our library collection, but also available online for free. The 12th century priest, Gerald of Wales, called the Book of Kells “the work of an angel, and not of a man”. It is onsidered one of the most important medieval illuminated manuscripts; few other books express such symbolic and magical power.