Book of Kells

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KELLS, BOOK OF

The Book of Kells is a vellum Gospel book profusely and brilliantly decorated, one of the greatest achievements of European decorative art, produced in the Columban mission field, perhaps at Iona, 775800. It is now at Trinity College, Dublin. The decoration builds on the earlier tradition of the books of durrow and lindisfarne, but belongs to a later, more elaborate, sophisticated, and baroque phase. In addition to the pages representing the Evangelist symbols, it has pages of fantastic ornament with spreads of minute and intricate color work and pen drawing; great ornamental monogram pages; heavily ornate canon tables; and illustrative pages depicting the arrest of Christ, the Virgin and Child, the temptation of Christ, and other subjects. A brilliant series of inhabited or zoomorphic initials, all different, runs through the text. The ornamental text passages in capitals have become almost illegible. The human figure, foliate motifs, and marginal genre subjcts, such as the otter and salmon or cat and mice, appear.

At least four, perhaps five, different artists can be distinguished, and their work varies in style and quality but the palette is consistently rich. In the elaborate canon tables the symbols of the Evangelists replace their names over the columns. The book appears to have been regarded primarily as a medium of unrestricted artistic creation. The text is mixed, and it is poorly set out and full of mistakes, though in an ornamental halfuncial hand of great beauty.

Bibliography: Codex Cenannensis, ed. e. h. alton and p. meyer, 3 v. (New York 195051). s. f. h. robinson, Celtic Illuminative Art in the Gospel Books of Durrow, Lindisfarne and Kells (Dublin 1908). e. sullivan, The Book of Kells (New York 1955). f. o'mahony, ed., The Book of Kells: Proceedings of a Conference at Trinity College Dublin, 69 September 1992 (Aldershot, Eng.1994). g. henderson, From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospelbooks, 650800 (New York 1987). c. farr, The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience (London 1997).

[r. l. s. brucemitford]

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Book of Kells Illuminated manuscript of the four gospels in Latin. Probably begun in the late 8th century at the Irish monastery of Iona, which later migrated to Kells, County Meath, Ireland, its intricate illumination and superb penmanship have earned it the epithet of ‘the most beautiful book in the world’. After its collation in 1621 by James Usher, it was presented to Trinity College, Dublin, where it has remained.

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Kells, Book of. A Latin copy of the four Gospels and some preliminaries, possibly late 8th cent., but first recorded at the monastery at Kells (Co. Meath) in 1007 after its theft and loss of covers. The unrestrained decoration and unusually large size suggest that it was an altar-book, for liturgical reading and ceremonial pomp; full-page illuminations and lavish embellishment render distinction amongst similar ‘insular’ manuscripts. In 1654 the town governor sent it to Dublin for safety from Cromwellian iconoclasm, following which it was presented to Trinity College by Henry Jones, post-Restoration bishop of Meath.

A. S. Hargreaves

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Book of Kells: see Ceanannus Mór.