Book of Kells: great Irish treasure

Trinity College Campanile and Library (Photo by Don Knebel.)

Trinity College Campanile and Library (Photo by Don Knebel.)

The library of Trinity College in Dublin houses thousands of rare and ancient books. Visitors from around the world queue for up to an hour to see just one of them. Two volumes of the famous Book of Kells, now separated into four volumes, are always displayed in the library’s Treasury room.

The Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s greatest treasures, is a lavishly illustrated edition of the four Gospels, scripted in Latin. The illustration style is known as insular, but the Book of Kells is in a league of its own, not only for the extraordinary quality of its many illustrations but for their originality and unexpected playfulness. One illustration shows a green-striped cat trying to stop a mouse from eating a communion wafer. Another shows a man wrestling a peacock, an ancient symbol of immortality. The letter beginning one passage is formed from a man strangling a bird. So unusual is the colorful imagery of the Book of Kells that Umberto Eco, an Italian historical novelist, wrote recently that it was the “product of a cold-blooded hallucination,” a fact proudly noted in the guidebook sold in the library’s gift shop.

Exactly when the Book of Kells was created is not known. It was likely produced in the late eighth century by Irish monks seeking to promote their Christian faith. A full-page illustration contains the West’s oldest surviving manuscript image of the Virgin Mary. Mary, like others depicted in the Book of Kells, has an oversized head and distinctive large eyes, looking straight ahead. So similar is this style to the art of early Egyptian Christians (Copts) that scholars have long theorized a connection between Irish and Coptic missionaries. That theory gained greater credence with the recent discovery in Ireland of a fragment of the Psalms written on papyrus, a material native to Egypt but unknown in Ireland.

The Book of Kells has made the library of Trinity College one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions, right up there with the Blarney Stone. Dublin provides the bonus of a beautiful city with a terrific zoo and a Guinness Storehouse offering free samples.