Book of Kells

Tucked away in a back corner of Trinity College Dublin’s campus is an old classroom building which has been retrofitted with all the modern bells and whistles. There’s climate control. There are heat sensors. There are relative humidity monitors. There are low-level soft lights. Alarms. State-of-the-art display cases. Proximity monitors. A gift shop.

All of it was put in to accommodate the Book of Kells.

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Back in the day, there was a guy called Columba. Later, Columba would be made a saint for his missionary work in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands and islands. But for a while there, he wasn’t all that popular. He left Ireland in the 560s (some say he was chased out), and made his way to Scotland. There, he founded several monasteries, including, according to tradition, one on the Scottish island of Iona.

The monastery on Iona was very important for several reasons, but the one that concerns us now is that it had a scriptorium. A scriptorium is essentially a book production center from the pre-Gutenberg days. Usually attached to monasteries, scriptoria usually consisted of a bunch of monks sitting around copying out whole books and illuminating them. In the days before the printing press, this was as close to mass-production as it got. Scriptoria attached to religious houses usually produced very beautiful books as well, and often worked on commission for royalty or other Church officials to make books which were not only functional, but also statement pieces.

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Life in the scriptoria was not easy, though, especially in the British Isles, because the Vikings. They had this nasty habit of raiding Scottish monasteries, stealing everything of worth, then sailing on their merry way. They would often steal books, because many books were bound in precious metals and encrusted with jewels. Not having any purpose for the book itself -regardless of how beautiful or literarily accomplished it was – the Vikings would rip the pages out, toss them in the ocean, and keep the bindings to sell later on.

In one particular raid, the story goes, the monks on Iona gathered up everything they could carry and paddled like hell until they got to Kells in Ireland, safe from the Viking marauders. According to this story, one of the precious things they grabbed was a tome that has come to be called the Book of Kells.

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Very little is known about the Book of Kells between that Viking raid in 806 and 1641, when Irish rebellion against the English ended in the monastery at Kells being reduced to a smoldering pile of rubble. The book was saved, but it doesn’t resurface until 1653, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. There, it sinks once again into an unrecorded existence until it was gifted to Trinity College Dublin. The exact date of the transfer is unknown, but the best guess is 1661. In the mid-19th century, Trinity College put the book on display, and, apart from a few world tours, it’s remained there ever since.

I’ve visited the Book of Kells twice, once in 2013 and again a few weeks ago. The first time, we were able to just walk up and into the exhibit without any problem. There weren’t even that many people there. This time, though, the place was absolutely slammed. I chalk this up to both increased attention paid to the book and the accident of about three different cruise ships having put in at Dublin that morning.

People are excited to see this book, I think, because they hear how beautiful it is. Maybe they have an idea of how important it is to Irish and religious cultures. But I don’t think most people appreciate what it actually is: a relic of high-quality book production from a bygone age. The actual text itself is not that impressive – entire chapters of the Gospels are missing, some are in there back to back, words are left out, etc. If you were going to sit down and read this book to learn about the Gospels, you’d be lost. But the artistry that went into creating that book was amazing. Someone – or four someones, as recent scholarship suggests – labored over every aspect of that book for months at the very least in order to produce the work on display in Dublin. Someone hand-drew each and every line on each and every page, applied the gilding, wrote out the script, and blocked out the illustrations. And then, somehow, it survived Vikings, a hasty sea voyage, daily use for hundreds of years, rebellion, fire, and neglect and still came out the other end with vibrant colors and intact.

The exhibit tells the story of the Book of Kells, as far as it can be pieced together. It also includes some good information about the nature of book production in the first millennium AD, and there are several examples around the exhibit of other books produced around the same time. The whole room is designed to bring you into the small room at the end, softly lit with a display case standing in the middle of it. In the display case is the book itself (the book was rebound in the 1950s, and separated into several volumes to reduce the amount of stress put on the pages at the spine – that’s why there are two books in the case, but both of them are the Book of Kells). After you stand around and take in the pages open to display, you can go from beautiful book to beautiful room, and head upstairs to the Old Library of Trinity College.

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Plan your visit to the Book of Kells exhibition here.


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