A day to celebrate Ireland is a good time to take a closer look at one of Ireland’s treasures, the Book of Kells. This richly decorated and illuminated medieval manuscript contains the four gospels in Latin using Celtic script. It is believed to have been the work of monks from Iona, who fled to Kells in AD 806 following a raid by Vikings. (The monastery at Kells in County Meath, Ireland, was set up by St. Columba in the 6th Century.) The book was moved to Trinity College in Dublin in the 17th Century, where it is on permanent display at Trinity College Library. It is considered to be a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of “Insular illumination”. [The term derives from insula, the Latin term for “island”; insular art was that produced in this period in Great Britain and Ireland rather than in the rest of Europe. Most Insular art originates from the Irish monasticism of Celtic Christianity.]
The most famous page of the book (since 1953, bound in four volumes) is the Chi-Rho Monogram Page, shown below, which contains the first three words of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (Matthew 18:1). (This first word, “XRI” is an abbreviation of “Christi.”)
You don’t even have to travel to Ireland anymore to see the book (although that would, of course, be optimal). Trinity College Library Dublin has put the entire Book of Kells online, free, in a digitized version using state of the art imaging technology. You can see it here. The Library also has a wonderful website, with news alerts about interesting scholarly books.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!