Located almost center stage at the address of College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland on a 51 acre university campus housed in an old building you will find an older book. This book is surrounded with history, but history also surrounds this book. Am I tempting you to go visit? Some insist that The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript. This piece of history has not always called Trinity College home. It came here in 1661. Nevertheless, it won’t be leaving anytime soon.
Some insist that The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript.
Trinity College started in 1592 as a Bible college for the education of Protestant ministers by Queen Elizabeth I. She was under the constant fear that her Protestant Irish subjects would leave and seek higher education elsewhere. Now it is recognized internationally, and ranked as one of the top 100 colleges in the world, and 36th in Europe for top universities. Trinity currently is known for its Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; Engineering, Mathematics and Science; as well as Health Science degrees. The college is also known for educating some of history’s literary greats. One of these authors is Jonathon Swift best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, who received his B.A. in 1686 and Doctor of Divinity in 1702. As Maureen Mulvihill writes in her excellent essay, “Swift produced a dazzling body of work: essays, poetry, hoaxes, political writings, a famous novel, and impressive correspondence with statesmen, lords and ladies, men and women writers.” Another author worthy of mention, Abraham Stoker, was born in 1847, graduated Trinity College as Bram Stoker in 1870. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography is “best known as the author of Dracula, 1897, one of the most famous horror novels of all time.” At around the same time, Oscar Wilde also attended Trinity College. While attending in February 1874, Wilde won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. According to the Trinity website, this is a solid gold medal that was started in 1752 and bestowed “to candidates answering a special examination in part of the Greek course prescribed for the annual honor examination in either the Senior Freshman or the Junior Sophister years.” This is a big deal, and unfortunately later in life, he had to pawn it and rebuy it several times due to difficult financial situations. Wilde is the well-known playwright of The Importance of Being Earnest and wrote his one and only novel in 1892, The Picture of Doran Gray. When I visit the college, I’m planning on spending the whole day locked away exploring more of these books and discovering what else Trinity has to offer.
Since the establishment of Trinity College back in 1592 arranging to build a library was always a priority in their vision. Twice its contents were spared from destruction, once in 1641 when the central government collapsed, and again between 1689-1691 when the school was closed and the surrounding buildings were turned into Jacobite barracks. The Trinity College Library pamphlet tells us that today it is one of the world’s great research libraries, holding the largest collection of manuscripts and printed books. Under the British Parliament’s Library Act of 1801, the college is entitled to one copy of every book published in Britain and Ireland. In what is now called the Old Library, seven days a week and for a nominal fee, you can meander what is called the Long Room and try to comprehend the magnitude of history and cultures that are shelved here. The Long Room is 65 meters in length (that is 195 feet for us westerners) and houses around 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. A full level down, in what the College calls the treasure room, is where one will find what Ireland holds dear.
In a special gallery, which was designed for preservation and display, lies open The Book of Kells, a collection of the four New Testament Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ written in Latin. At any given time you can view 4 folios. “Pages are turned frequently,” claims the Keeper of Manuscripts and author Dr. Bernard Meehan. This book is not small it is approximately 10 by 13 inches, and the book itself was produced using vellum, a prepared calfskin. Meehan estimates that 185 calves were used in the 740 page book, now 680 page book, with 60 lost to time. Artists have tried to estimate the time it took to create such splendor, and it is estimated that 120 hours spread over 8 days (in a temperature controlled room) was needed to recreate just two of the decorated pages. It took thirty minutes to copy the twenty-five lines in folio 28. Sixty 6-hour days were needed just for the text, again assuming good weather. Most of the text pages were written in a brownish ink made from crushed oak apples and sulphate of iron, and the black is carbon ink from soot. This book also had organic and mineral pigments, imported from the Mediterranean region. These costly pigments were lapis lazuli, used for blue, and organic mauves, maroons, and purples from other plants. Oriental plants were used for indigo, and yellow was derived from orpiment.
Mystery surrounds the exact origin and year of The Book of Kells, however it is dated approximately year 800 AD, which I find hard to fathom.
Mystery surrounds the exact origin and year of The Book of Kells, however it is dated approximately year 800 AD, which I find hard to fathom. At the best guess of experts, it was created on the island of Iona in western Scotland in an Irish monastery. Monks that resided at the monastery are said to be the original authors. By no means is this the oldest book of its kind, but the illustrations and letters are what make it unique. Meehan goes on to say that “other surviving texts from this period have a uniformity of decorations. The Book of Kells, in contrast, with its hundreds of decorations, shows the rich palette of a wonderful life.”
Why was this book so important? According to Meehan, “for many in Ireland it symbolizes the power of learning, the impact of Christianity on the life of the country, and the spirit of artistic imagination.” Many have tried to describe the book but the words of the 12th Century writer Giraldus Cambrensis, The Gerald of Wales says it best:
“This book contains the concordance of the four gospels according to Saint Jerome, with almost as many drawing s as pages, and all of them in marvellous colours. Here you can look upon the face of the divine majesty drawn in a miraculous way; here too upon the mystical representations of the Evangelists, now having six, now four, and now tow, wings. Here you will see the eagle; here the calf. Here the face of a man; there that of a lion. And there are almost innumerable other drawings. If you look at them careless and casually and not too closely, you may judge them to be mere daubs rather than careful compositions. You will see nothing subtle where everything is subtle. But if you take the trouble to look very close, and penetrate with your eyes to the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so close together, and well-knitted, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colourings that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels.”
Monks lived in communities and devoted their time to the study of God’s word. These were shared primarily in gospel books. These creative and artistic monks, who produced these works of art, are honored today with the over 500,000 guests who seek out this book each year. Dr. Meehan explains that many of the drawings reflect important Christian symbolism. He goes on to say that what appeared to be decorative calligraphy is in fact a specific image – – the lion, the snake, and the peacock which are symbols of resurrection.
Sixty-eight monks lie dead in 806 AD when Iona was attacked by Vikings in a raid. The monks took refuge in a monastery in the Irish village of Kells. They most likely took the manuscript with them. Some say this is where the book was finished, which is why it holds the name Kells. Sometime in 1653, during the Cromwellian period, the governor of Kells sent The Book of Kells to Dublin to protect the book from being destroyed. With the help of the agency of Henry Jones, Bishop of Meath in 1661, The Book of Kells came to Trinity College.
Dr. Meehan says “preserving The Book of Kells over the years has been a challenge.” His predecessors didn’t always share the idea of perseveration and protection. Various librarians wrote on it, trimmed the pages, and whited out some images, while others did their best to help the cause of preserving. In one instance, when Queen Victoria visited in 1849 she asked to sign the book, a former librarian handed her a folio that looked like one from The Book of Kells and she signed that instead.
Protecting The Book of Kells is protecting a piece of cultural history, although not all of the pages will be understood or ever be able to be transcribed to modern thinking, we still want to hold onto this tangible documentation for future generations to also see and appreciate the work of art. I for one am intrigued enough, with the research I have done, to fly across the ocean to see firsthand what the ancient monks so meticulously produced and guarded with their lives to preserve. When I try to rationalize the journey the book took, from monastery to the university and every secret holder and hiding place in between, to secure the Word of God I can’t help but wonder about all the unanswered questions that might never be answered. So instead, I will gaze upon the details that were so painstakingly applied to make the beautiful book, and enjoy.
- Meehan, Bernard. “The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin.” Thames and Hudson, 1994.
- Hyde, H. Montgomery. “Oscar Wilde: A Biography.” Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975.
- Mulvihill, Maureen E. “Shaking hands with Jonathan Swift?” Irish Literary Supplement 34.2 (2015): 25+. http://ezproxy.rollins.edu:2048/login?url= http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=wint47629&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA407227292&it=r.
- “Stoker, Bram (1847-1912)”. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Gale, 1998. http://ezproxy.rollins.edu:2048/login?url= http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=wint47629&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA148425608&it=r.
- Jaschik, Scott. “Inside the Irish Imagination: The Medieval Book of Kells Seen through Modern eyes.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 43(25), 1. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.rollins.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/214723614?accountid=13584.
- Trinity College Dublin. Trinity College Dublin. https://www.tcd.ie/.