“Virtually every line is embellished with color or ornament.” CHRISTOPHER DE HAMEL
I previously wrote about my fascination with illuminated manuscripts, particularly Bibles. In 2018, I had the opportunity to see the most famous illuminated book in the world — the Book of Kells. Housed in its own museum at Trinity College in Dublin, the manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, a former monastery in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, 40 miles north of Dublin.
For the uninitiated, the Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript written in Latin and containing the four Gospels, together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created around AD 800 and is a masterwork of Western calligraphy. Rightfully so, it’s regarded as Ireland's greatest national treasure.
The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells combine traditional Christian iconography with ornate swirling motifs common to the British Isles at that time. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colors, enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism to emphasize the themes of the major illustrations.
The manuscript is 680 pages long and was bound into four volumes in 1953. The pages are high-quality calf vellum. The elaborate ornamentation that covers them include ten full-page illustrations and pages of text that are vibrant with decorated initials and miniatures. This remarkable manuscript, in its entirety, can be viewed on the Library's Digital Collections Repository.