Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Today I write not of a person but of a thing - The Book of Kells. Monks and manuscripts were a pivotal part of the Middle Ages.
The Book of Kells contains all four gospels in a mixed old Latin and Vulgate text and is done in an Irish majuscule script (I guess nowadays we would call it a font!). It also contains a preface which includes concordance tables arranged in ten canons and some legal 11th century documents that concern the Abbey of Kells. Today there are 339 leaves of thick, finely glazed vellum, although it is thought that there were originally at least 30 more.
Tradition said that the book was the work St. Columba in the sixth century but most of modern scholarship now places it in the late eighth or early ninth century. Where it was written and by whom remains a mystery. Most likely it is the work of several monks. It may have been Columban monks on the Scottish island of Iona before the Viking raids in 806.The friars then fled to Kells in County Meath, Ireland. On the other hand it may have been composed at Kells.
The tenth century was one of pillaging and sacking in Ireland. The abbey struggled to survive against the Danes and others. Somehow the Book of Kells survived. In 1006 it was stolen and buried in the ground. After 2 months it was recovered and remained at the abbey throughout the Middle Ages, venerated as a relic of St. Columba.
1639 saw the dissolution of the monastaries and Kells was handed over to the control of the British Crown. In 1653 the manuscript was brought to Dublin for safekeeping. And in 1661 it was presented to the Library of Trinity College.
Damage was done to the manuscript in 1821 when it was sent to a bookbinder for rebinding. This bookbinder decided to cut a half an inch off the outer margins, which had been beautifully decorated. It was rebound in 1895 but the book was showing wear and tear.
In 1953 the manuscript was repaired and rebound by Robert Powell,a leading conservation bookbinder. He separated the manuscript into four volumes, one for each Gospel.
For more on the Book of Kells go to my art blog artworktoday.blogspot.com