The Book of Kells

6 Dec

A popular tourist destination in Dublin is the Book of Kells, which is housed in Trinity College. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript, written in Latin and containing the Four Gospels of the New Testament.  An illuminated manuscript is “a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and miniature illustrations” The manuscript is also written on vellum, which lasts much longer than papyrus, or paper. Written by Celtic monks around the year 800, it is widely regarded as one of Ireland’s most important national treasures. Its name comes from where it was kept for much of the medieval period, The Abbey of Kells in County Meath. It was kept there until 1654, when Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry was housed in the church and it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. It was then presented to Trinity College in 1661, where it has remained since, except for brief loans to other museums and libraries.


In order to create the Book of Kells, multiple steps had to be followed. Illumination was a time-consuming and costly process, so it was saved only for highly regarded texts, such as an altar bible. The text would have been the first thing written in the BoK. A scribe would go to work on the vellum with a quill and ink pot. Next silverpoint drawings of the illustrations would have been done. Silverpoint drawings are done by “dragging a silver rod or wire across a surface”, much like using graphite. Then, burnished gold dots would be applied to the borders of certain pages. Finally, color would be added to the manuscript using a variety paints. Medieval paints mostly came from different plants and insects, creating a broad spectrum that can be seen in The Book of Kells.


I have visited the Book of Kells before, two years ago, when I came to Ireland on vacation. I had not heard of it before coming, so I did not know what to expect. Understandably, it is kept in low light conditions, so as not to damage it in anyway, and flash photography is not permitted. Of course, thick glass separates the viewers from the book, but it is still a sight so see. The detailed artwork and text really stand out, and seem nearly impossible to reproduce. I hope to visit the exhibition again while I am here. 


-Sachin Mehta



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