Sunday, March 21, 2010

Book of Kells at Trinity College Library

The Book of Kells is a beautiful manuscript containing the Four Gospels in Latin. It is Ireland's most precious medieval artifact, and is generally considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe.

The Book of Kells was likely produced in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, to honor Saint Columba in the early 8th century. After a Viking raid the book was moved to the Abbey of Kells, Ireland, sometime in the 9th century. It was stolen in the 11th century, at which time its cover was torn off and it was thrown into a ditch. The cover, which most likely included gold and gems, has never been found, and the book suffered some water damage; but otherwise it is extraordinarily well-preserved.

In 1541, at the height of the English Reformation, the book was taken by the Roman Catholic Church for safekeeping. It was returned to Ireland in the 17th century, and Archbishop James Ussher gave it to Trinity College, Dublin, where it is on permanent display today in the Long Room of the college library.

Visitors to Dublin’s historic Trinity College marvel at the vaulted ceilings of the Old Library Building’s Long Room, under which is housed the Book of Kells and a rare first edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. The library serves as the primary place of study and research for the more than 15,000 students who attend Ireland’s oldest university.

The Book of Kells is usually displayed two volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. The folios are bound in four separate volumes. As many as ten different colors were used in the artistic embellishments to the texts (illuminations), some of them rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be seen clearly with a magnifying glass.

Above is the famous Chi-Rho page (folio 34r) which introduces St. Matthew's account of the nativity.

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