Monday, May 10, 2010

The Book of Kells

One of my English thimbles inspired me to fathom a mystery of the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells - that is the name of my thimble made by Wedgwood manufacture.

In 1150 Giraldus Cambrensis said about the Book of Kells: might believe it was the work of an angel...

The Book of Kells (the picture from Joyce Images)

The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais) is also known as the Evangeliary of Kells or the Book of Columba. The book is a manuscript illuminated by Celtic monks, written around 800 A.D. The illumination - according to Polish dictionairy - is a hand-made, artistic, colourful illustration of a hand-written text. It is characteristic especially for the Middle Ages.

The subtle manuscript of the Book of Kells is known as one of the most important relics of Irish Christianity and Saxon-Irish art. Most likely it was created in a monastery founded by St. Columban on the Iona Island.

The Book of Kells was written down in Latin. It contains four Gospels, enriched with initial notes, summaries and comments. The Book contains 680 cards - 340 pages so called 'folio' (vellum cards). According to a definition from Polish dictionairy, vellum paper is a luxury printing paper, smooth, thin, without stripes, water marks, etc. It is made of paper mass containing a large amount of rag mass. In the past it was made by hands. The Book of Kell's text is written down in black, violet, red and yellow. Researcher, Françoise Henry claims that at least three people were working on the manuscript. She signed them as: 'Hand A' (folios from 1 to 19v), 'Hand B' (folios from 276 to 289) and 'Hand C' (folios from 307 to end). Françoise Henry described also a characteristic style of each copyist. The Book of Kells's cards are richly decorated with Celtic floral and figural motives and initials as well.

The Book of Kells, the manuscript made by 'Hand B' (the picture from Answers)

The Book of Kells took its name from the abbey in the Irish county Meath. Most likely it is the place where the manuscript was kept in the Middle Ages. In the VI century St. Columba founded a monastery on the Iona Island. However, the majority of monks moved to Kells after the Vikings' invasions has started.

The matter in dispute is time and a place where the manuscript came into being. The thesis that the manuscript came into being in the monastery on the Iona Island and that may be even St. Columba wrote it down is still  being undermined. It is recognized that a style of lettering in the manuscript corresponds with times long after St. Columba's death.

At least five theories concerning the rise of the Book of Kells exist. But, it seems that the closest to truth is the one which tells about creating the manuscript in Kells and on the Iona. Nevertheless, the fact that it was created by monks related to a Columban monastery on the Island is undoubted.

The Book of Kells' card (the picture from Emmedici)

The Book of Kells has been kept in the Kells monastery till 1654 when the manuscript - for security reasons - was sent by a governor of the city to Dublin. In 1661 the manuscript was passed to the Trinity College and it has been leaving this place very seldom (only for temporary exhibitions). Since the XIX century the Book of Kells is exposed in the Old Library of the university.
The manuscript has been binded few times. It is well known that the aim of such 'operation' is to protect a piece of art from destruction. Yet, in XVII century some careless bookbinder or just a layman, to put the manuscript into a cover, has decided to cut its cards, at the same moment destroying some of unique ornaments. In 1953 Roger Powell binded the works of art. He gently straightened out pages and gathered the manuscript into four volumes.

The Book of Kells left the university only four times. In 2000 - in mysterious circumstances, during a transport of a part of the manuscript for an Australian exhibition - cards from St. Mark's Gospel were destroyed. It is suspected that the reason for manuscript pigment's damages were vibrations of airplane's motors.

Two reproductions of the Book of Kells exist:
  • facsimile made in 1951 by the Swiss publishing house Urs Graf-Verlag Bern (48 pages in colour, the rest is black and white);
  • facsimile made in 1986 by Éditions Facsimilé Lucerne; this publishing house has been applying for preapring a reproduction since 1979, but it got an approval after seven years when a suction method - which allowed to straighten copied cards without touching - has been discovered.
The Book of Kells' card (the picture from Uniwersytet Pedagogiczny)

The Book of Kells most likely was used for liturgical purposes. But, there is also a suspicion that a priest recited the Gospel words from memory and the book seems to perform an aesthetic function. Even a construction of the manuscript does not allow to use it comfortably. Chapters are not numbered, so compiling canonical tables and a proper text is impossible. The numeration of chapters probably did not appear with regard for the care about aesthetic virtues of the book or, simply, because of the fact that the work was not finished and authors were going to mark chapters at the end. But, the most important in manuscript were illuminations, not text, because this one was pushed aside. For example, long verses not always were dividing to next line, but they were written down in a free spaces (above or below a verse).

The Book of Kells' card (the picture from Contra Punctus)

As I have written before, the Book of Kells most likely has a liturgical use and its aesthetic values displaced a functionality entirely. The fact that there were no numbers of pages and that text was spreaded on cards almost repeatedly can show a care about beautiful look of cards, but - first of all - about illuminations.

Looking for information about the manuscript, I have found the Book of Kells on the Internet auction. A slogan precisely reads as follows: Color your own Book of Kells! As you can see, the book is still popular.

In the picture above my first (now I have two) loot from Wedgwood manufacture stylized for the Book of Kells' illuminations (porcelain thimble Book of Kells, Wedgwood - England).

Writing this article I used information found at The Ireland Funds, Polish Wikipedia, English Wikipedia and The Book of Kells site.

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