University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Book of Kells

Volume VII · Winter 1952 · Number 2
The Book of Kells

An important recent addition to the Treasure Room collection of Rush Rhees Library is the facsimile edition of the Book of Kells published by the Urs Graf-Verlag of Bern, Switzerland. This magnificent publication is the generous gift to the University of Mrs. Edwin Allen Stebbins, who has presented it in memory of her father, Rufus Adams Sibley. Visitors to the Library now have at hand for study and enjoyment -- in as fine a reproduction as modern graphic techniques permit -- one of the jealously protected treasures of Irish art, available in the original but to a selected few.

Exigencies of size and weight necessitated the issuing of the facsimile edition in two volumes. They include the reproduction in full color of forty-eight pages -- most of the great Canon Table pages, all of the great picture and initial pages, and a well chosen selection from the extraordinary "ordinary" leaves. A third volume accompanies these, containing a general introduction by Dr. Ernest Henry Alton, notes on the art and ornament by Dr. Peter Meyer, a collation of the text with the Vulgate and a summary description by Dr. George Otto Simms. It is from the introduction, as well as the writings about Irish art and the Book of Kells by Françoise Henry, Albert Mathias Friend, Jr., and Charles Rufus Morey, that the following notes have, in general, been compiled.

The Book of Kells, now preserved as Ms.A.1.6 in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, has long been recognized and acclaimed as one of the greatest masterpieces of early Irish illuminated manuscripts. Although scholarly opinion has varied on the questions of provenance, date, iconographical sources, and interpretation, it is the fairly general concensus that the manuscript dates from about 800 A.D. In all probability it is partly the product of the scriptorium of the monastery of Iona. This monastery, on an island off the coast of Scotland, was founded by St. Columba in 565, and until its destruction by the Vikings in 802 remained the center of the Irish monastic system. Probably unfinished when the monks fled the island, the book was completed soon afterwards at the new monastic establishment at Kells.

There is certainly no disagreement concerning its greatness as a work of art. The unsurpassed vitality of design and pictorial ingenuity of its illumination and picture pages have aroused universal admiration. Indeed, the Book of Kells stands as the supreme monument of that sophistication of Celtic art in the service of the Church which reached its climax in the eighth and early ninth centuries.

The manuscript follows generally the usual form of early Gospel books. The main textual content consists of the four canonical Gospels in the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. To these are added, as customary prefatory material:

  1. Glossaries, or lists of interpretations of Hebrew names. These now exist in but fragmentary state, some having been lost.
  2. Breves Causae, or lists of subject headings.
  3. Argumenta, or summaries of each Gospel, with commentary.
  4. Canon Tables following the system of Eusebius-a concordance of the four Gospels in a series of ten Canons.

It is probable that the Epistle of Jerome to Pope Damasus introducing the Canon Tables of Eusebius was included originally, but it has since disappeared. Also missing, unfortunately, is the colophon which might once have given the important information of date and place of origin. As it exists, however, the manuscript is in astonishingly fine condition for a book that almost certainly saw long liturgical use, was once stolen and rediscovered buried in the ground, that went through at least three private ownerships and a bookbinder's overzealous trimming before passing in 1661, with the library of James Ussher, into Trinity College Library.

As now constituted, the book numbers 340 folios of glazed vellum, with page measurements of 13 x 9 1/2 inches. The Latin text, written in ink in Irish majuscule script, runs normally seventeen lines to a page.

Despite the interest which the text holds for palaeographers, most perusers of the book will be primarily concerned with its brilliant ornament and picture pages. The structure of the book called for three highly decorated pages preceding each gospel:

  1. A great-cross page with the symbols of the four Evangelists. These symbols are the winged beasts of the Apocalypse, whose distribution to the Evangelists here follows the system popularized in the West by Jerome, i.e., the man or angel for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the bull or calf for Luke, and the eagle for John.
  2. Portrait of the Evangelist seated. The portraits of Mark and Luke are now missing.
  3. Great ornamented initial page.

Matthew is unique in having a richer introduction. The symbols of the Evangelists, portrait of Matthew, and a great initial page precede Chap. 1; 1-18, dealing with the genealogy of Christ. A portrait of Christ, a great eight-circled cross, and a second great initial page then precede the Gospel proper.

In addition to this scheme and continuing the emphasis placed upon the four Evangelists, the first eight pages of the Canon Tables are treated with extraordinarily rich decorative enframement, including the beast symbols as above. Elsewhere occur occasional full-page text illustrations such as the Virgin and Child, Temptation of Christ, Arrest of Christ. The text itself contains scarcely a page where the written word has not been embellished by the decorative intrusion of interlace, spiral, and lacertine work.

To the modern age, which has in part found its artistic expression in the various forms of abstract art, the work of the Kells artists should particularly appeal. And yet the very complexity and intricacy of its abstract design, the world of ornament into which the forms of nature are incorporated to be transformed into the stylistic and symbolic idiom of dynamic pattern, of fluid line endlessly writhing, turning, interweaving, still remain a source of wonder. Insofar as this art can be "explained" one turns naturally to the early history of Ireland itself. Control of the island passed to migrating continental Celts in the third and second centuries B.C., who brought with them their traditional art forms of a basically abstract, decorative, partly perhaps magical, animal style. An art which existed on and outside the periphery of the Roman Empire, this barbarian work differed in kind from the Graeco-Roman in that it was not based on man, but was instead an extremely imaginative, abstract style stressing the exuberant patterning of spirals, rope designs, whorls, interlaces, and lacertine work. With the rapid Christianization of Ireland in the fifth century, these old Celtic forms and traditions were not swept away but adapted to the needs and service of the new faith. As Ireland was never conquered and occupied by the Romans, the old forms continued to exist and to be elaborated as the Irish monastic system expanded in relative isolation, separated from a Europe torn by conflict. As Françoise Henry says, "Secluded from these conflicts and catastrophes, hardly conscious of them, the Irish developed slowly to their last consequences the possibilities of a culture extinct everywhere else in Europe. It was and remained a typical north-European culture, foreign to Mediterranean concepts and to the Latin discipline." Although there is ample evidence that Irish artists knew and, in fact, at times worked from models of the Latin West and Christian Egypt, the translation into the Celtic stylistic mode is almost always complete. The human figure, animal forms, illustrative religious scenes themselves are almost magically transformed into this ornamental and symbolic style.

As one leafs through this superb edition of the Book of Kells, no doubt remains as to the greatness of the work. The exuberance of design and ornament, the inventive and knowing summing up of the Celtic tradition in the production of an outstanding Gospel book, the care and joy with which the written word is preserved and embellished, the imposing example of a native barbarian style here triumphing over the Graeco-Roman tradition -- all these may, in part, suggest why the Book of Kells remains one of the most treasured of early medieval manuscripts.

It is itself symbolic, perhaps, that this book, one of the outstanding recent publications in the art world, has been given to the University in memory of Rufus Adams Sibley. A cofounder of Sibley, Lindsay and Curr, and President of that firm from 1868 to 1924, he was through his counsel, leadership, and numerous civic activities one of the positive factors in the growth of the Rochester business community. He had a keen interest, as well, in the field of education, and was especially concerned with the development of the University of Rochester. He served as a member of the Executive Committee, Treasurer, and President of the Board of Trustees, later continuing his service to the University as Trustee Emeritus. During his lifetime he saw the progressive growth of the small college into a University of eminence, and aided in this growth by his own generous gifts. At a time when the University and the city are once more engaged upon a long-range program of qualitative expansion, it is fitting gratefully to recall and extend the memory of Rufus Adams Sibley and that close and understanding cooperation between town and gown which his life so richly exemplified.