When people think of Ireland, the rolling green hills, Guinness beer, and twisted Celtic knots might be what comes to mind. The small island nation has a storied history of resistance to oppression and perseverance through famine, but the most iconic piece of Irish history dates to the early medieval period. The Book of Kells—held in the library of Trinity College Dublin—is a masterpiece of medieval illumination and manuscript craft. The legendary volume is now available in new high-resolution scans for free online browsing.
The Book of Kells is a 9th-century devotional text. It contains the four Gospels of the New Testament, but it was likely meant to be displayed rather than read. The text was copied onto calf vellum by trained scribes, probably on the Scottish island of Iona. The text is rather careless with omitted words and repeated passages. However, the surrounding illumination—or intricate illustrations—are some of the most magnificent of the period. Known as Insular or Hiberno-Saxon illumination, this style was produced by confluences of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon culture in the British Isles and Ireland during what is often called the Dark Ages. It is characterized by intricate patterns and colorful images.
Sometime around the year 806, the manuscript was relocated due to Viking raids that threatened its monastery of origin. The book found its home in the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, Ireland. It rested there for centuries until Oliver Cromwell—English revolutionary and prolific destroyer of historic items—arrived in Ireland. The Book of Kells was sent to Dublin for safety. After the Restoration of the English monarchy (which ruled Ireland at the time), the book was donated to Trinity College Dublin, where it has stayed ever since. Today, it is on view in the library among other priceless works of human history.
If a trip to Dublin is not in your budget, you are in luck. Transparencies of the 680 pages (340 folios, or leaves) have been rescanned in high resolution so you can zoom and scroll to your heart’s delight. If you would like to know more about the Book of Kells, check out this free online course from Trinity College Dublin on the Irish masterpiece.
The magnificent Book of Kells has been re-digitized and is available to explore free online.
The Book of Kells. Folio 32v: Matthew; Portrait of Christ (Photo: Public Domain)
The Book of Kells. Folio 7v: Virgin and Child (Photo: Public Domain)
Learn about some of its symbolism in the illuminating video below.