Illuminated Manuscript Origins: the Book of Kells

Published: 2021-09-11 14:00:12
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Of all the extravagant works of illuminated text, the Book of Kells is one of the most impressive and famous due to the extent of its decoration and incredibly detailed craftsmanship. The authors and location of the Book of Kells are unknown, but there are many theories about its origins because it contains many similarities to Insular manuscripts. 1. History of Illuminated Manuscripts The time period of 1066-1485 AD is classified as the Middle Ages. During this time, all books were written by hand and usually the hands of monks.
The first illuminated manuscripts were filled with religious text from the Bible. Later, other important books of literature, politics, and hunting were illuminated at the request of wealthy patrons. During the Medieval time period, the transition between artisans and artists was not yet made. Monks painted to glorify God rather than to gain individual recognition. The subject matter was the main focus of the artwork, not the artist. This mindset in creating work greatly affected the quality of illuminated manuscripts; artists specialized in one specific field and became experts in their craftsmanship.
For example, in the creation of illuminated manuscripts, a monk’s work would be dedicated to being an artist or a scribe. Each page would have to be carefully planned out in order to design space for text and images. Because there are so many occasions where text and image are so intertwined, the “identity between scribe and artist is among the key unanswered questions about the manuscript. ” (Trinity) Many theories believe multiple artists and scribes were involved in the creation of the Book of Kells. Others say that some artists were also scribes. Artists, historians, and even government officials have debated these theories.
They all include overlapping elements and each argument contains sufficient data to support the theory. The true origin of the Book of Kells will be difficult to discover. 2. Namesake and Theories of Origins While the place of origin and date of completion are unknown, there are many factors in this book that relate to other illuminated manuscripts. The Book of Kells is strongly believed to have been written by Irish monks. “At least three scribes and three illustrators (who may or may not have been the scribes themselves) have been identified at the work. . . (256, Megaw) One theory of origins holds that the book was completed and preserved in the town of Kells, Country Meath in Ireland during the Viking invasions in the early ninth century. Other theories believe that the book was started in Iona and then transported to Kells to be finished in safety. Because of the many theories that involve Kells, this town became the most well known namesake of this manuscript. But the Book of Kells is also known as the Book of Columba and the Gospel of Columba. This title originated from an Irish monk named Columcille, who founded over two dozen monestaries.
No matter where or how it happened, Colum Cille became an important leader in the creation of the Book of Kells. To avoid war and politics, he fled from Ireland to Iona with other monks. In 561 AD, he founded another monastery in Iona that “became the principle house of a large monastic confederation. ” (Trinity). In many theories of origins, this monastery is believed to have been the place of completion of the Book of Kells. The Gospels of the Book of Kells are written in the old Latin, which was used by the Irish Catholic Church.
Colum Cille belonged to this church and represented it in his missionary work across Europe. These are just a few of the dots that connect on the map that shows the history of his manuscript. 4. Irish Gospels The introductions of illuminated manuscripts typically contain intricate sets of interlaced geometric patterns known as ‘carpet pages’. In the case of illuminated Gospels, a cross was the central design of these decorative patterns. The main text of the Book of Kells is recognized as a mixed Irish version of the gospels because of the similarities in use of designs.
Its preface is similar to the book of Durrow and Armach in the style of the page’s layout. Each gospel is introduced by an entire page design that represents the evangelists’ symbols. For example, the book of Durrow introduces the Gospel of John with a detailed, Celtic-style lion. The famous Chi-Rho page in the Book of Kells is the introduction of Christ’s geneaology. While the detail in the Chi-Rho page surpasses that of the lion, both designs contain similar uses of spirals, knots, and interlacing designs.
Also, the color range of the book of Kells is akin to the Irish Lindisfarne and Lichfield gospels and it agrees with the whole group of insular manuscripts in the general trend of its decoration. (213, Henry) For example, one of the oldest Insular designs is a spiral. Other Irish manuscripts use grids or simple curves to decorate the spiral while the book of Kells uses elaborate patterns of animals and people. Other Insular designs include interlacing, angular patterns, and complex knots. 5. Multiple Artists
While the Book of Kells may be confidently distinguished as an Insular manuscript, the number of authors is still elusive. “Within the group of manuscripts produced from insular traditions, there has always been difficulty distinguishing Irish manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxton manuscripts. ” (74, Brown) The authors of the Book of Kells could have been from different backgrounds and used different text sources. When comparing the Book of Durrow to the Book of Kells, there is evidence that suggests the Kells’ Gospels are based on more than one manuscript text. 80, Brown) This could suggest that multiple artists worked on the manuscript. The original text could have been lost over the dozens of years it took to complete the Book of Kells. 6. Fact from Fiction Regardless of where the Book of Kells originated or who was involved in its creation, it can validly be identified as a manuscript Insular origins written and illuminated by artistans of the Irish monastaries. The strong similarities to other Irish illuminated gospels and the style of decoration supports this theory. Works Cited

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