Except for a brief foray to Manchester, our quest to trace the history of the Christian faith in twenty-five objects, twenty-five historical relics that survive for us to see and even touch today, has kept us in Italy, in the heart of the ancient Roman Empire. But today we depart from Italy and move west until we have touched down in Dublin, Ireland. In the heart of Dublin City is Trinity College and housed in its library we find Ireland’s national treasure: The Book of Kells.
The Book of Kells is a lavish illuminated manuscript that contains the four gospels in Latin along with a collection of texts and tables. Its 340 folios are of the finest vellum and its text is an expert example of the script known as insular majuscule. But what most stands out are the extravagant illustrations with their brilliant colors and elaborate ornamentation. The Book of Kells is not only a Bible, but also a stunning work of art. Some have called it an Irish equivalent to the Sistine Chapel and this is by no means an outrageous comparison.
While the Book of Kells survives largely intact, its origins and history are difficult to trace. Most historians believe that it was produced in the scriptorium of a monastery on the Isle of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, and that it was prepared in honor of St. Colum Cille, or St. Columba. It dates from around 800 A.D. or perhaps slightly earlier. In 806, after a Viking raid that left 68 of the island’s residents dead, the Columban monks fled to the Abbey of Kells in Ireland’s County Meath. Whether the book was produced at Iona or Kells or partially at each is a matter of much debate.
That the book has survived at all is nearly miraculous. Edward Sullivan describes some of its challenges:
In 899 the Abbey was sacked and pillaged. In 918 the Danes plundered Kells, and laid the church level with the ground. Rebuilt, it was again spoiled and pillaged by the Danes in 946. Three years later, Godfrey, son of Sitric, plundered the Abbey. In 967 the town and Abbey were pillaged by the King of Leinster’s son, supported by the Danes; but the allied forces were assailed and defeated by Domnald O’Neill, King of Ireland. Only a year later the Abbey and town were despoiled by a united force of Danes and Leinster people; while in 996 the Danes of Dublin made yet another pillaging raid on both the town and Abbey.
There is more. Not long after that final raid the book was stolen and before it could be recovered it suffered significant water damage. The gold and jewel-encrusted cover had been torn off and as the cover was removed, so too were some of its pages. Neither the cover nor these missing pages have ever been recovered. In modern times it has been poorly rebound and the leaves harshly cropped. And still The Book of Kells has survived largely intact and still stunning in its beauty.