The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure and one of the world’s most famous medieval manuscripts. But it also holds a mystery that takes time and patience to decipher
At a conference dinner recently, I mentioned that one of my areas of research interest is the theology of the Book of Kells. My historian colleague, from Belgium, got very excited. “The Book of Kells! From when I first heard about it in school I have been fascinated by it. It is so beautiful.”
Undeniably, it is a thing of beauty; but it is so much more. It was produced by Irish monks around 800 C.E., probably on the island of Iona. It contains the texts of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – transcribed following mainly the Vulgate Latin text, and written in a beautiful style of calligraphy that became known as “the Irish Hand”. Today the 340 extant vellum leaves (folios) – we are missing about 30 – are on permanent display in the Trinity College Library, Dublin.
The very first folio in the extant manuscript comprises the final section of an etymological guide to Biblical proper names, chiefly Hebrew names, which was compiled by St Jerome in the fourth century. Then, before we get to the Gospel texts, we go through canon tables – concordances of gospel passages compiled in the fourth century by Eusebius of Caesarea – then the Breves Causae – lists of chapter contents – and finally the Argumenta, which are like gospel prefaces. All this tells us that the creators of this manuscript were well educated, literate in Latin and at least somewhat in Hebrew, and in touch with learning in the rest of the Christian world.