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Book of Kells

The Book of Kells (aka The Book of Columba) was copied by hand by Celtic monks somewhere around the year 800 A.D. and is one of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts in world history.

Some traditions suggest that the book was created much earlier, in the time of Columba, and was possibly even the work of his hands. These days, it is generally accepted that this tradition is false based on the style of the artwork itself and the apparent age of the manuscript. Most believe that the book is the work of at least two scribes, neither of which is known to us by name.

The book was most likely started on the island of Iona, although its name is derived from the Abbey of Kells[?], in County Meath[?], where it was kept from at least the 9th century to 1541. One theory is that portions of the book were made at Kells, after Viking raids on Iona forced the monastery to retreat to the more isolated location.

The Book of Kells contains the four gospels of the Christian scriptures written in black, red, purple and yellow ink in a Latin insular majuscule script, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and concordances of gospel passages, written on vellum. The text is accompanied by incredibly intricate full pages of artwork, with smaller painted decorations appearing throughout the text itself. Some small portions at the beginning and end of the manuscript have been lost, but otherwise, it is still in remarkably good condition. The book was apparently left unfinished, because some of the artwork appears only in outline.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the book are the colorful representations of men, animals, birds, horses, dogs, and disturbing, gargoyle-like human beings, twisted and linked together in intricate designs. The other stand out characteristic of the book is the complex decorations of ribbons, crosses, vines and serpents woven together or tied in knots, creating beautiful, intricate designs. No two decorations in the book are identical. Even upon close examination, flaws are impossible to find in the work of the artists. In one decoration, which takes up a single one inch square piece of a page, it is possible to count as many as 158 complex interlacings of white ribbon with a black border on either side.

The Book of Kells left the Abbey of Kells[?] and was given to Trinity College in Dublin in the 17th century. In 1953, the book was bound in four volumes. It has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity since the 19th century. Two volumes can be seen, one opened to display a full page of artwork, and a second one opened to show two pages of text.



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