By Dustin W. Benge
Throughout the centuries the Christian church has sought to honor the text of holy Scripture through the art of illumination. An illuminated manuscript is a text that is supplemented by the artistic addition of decorated initials, borders, and miniature illustration. The earliest surviving illuminated manuscript are from the period of AD 400 to 600, initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais) is one such illuminated manuscript that has been highlighted in recent months. Trinity College in Dublin, which houses the Book of Kells, has now made this beautiful work completely available online. The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript in Latin, containing the four Four Gospels of the New Testament with various prefatory texts and tables.
Trinity writes that the origin of the Book of Kells “is generally attributed to the scriptorium of the monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland.” The college writes that it “must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written, although there is no way of knowing if the book was produced wholly oat Iona or at Kells, or partially at each location.”
This beautifully decorated manuscript represents one of the pinnacle achievements of artistic illumination in the history of the church. You can view the book (actually, four separately bound books) in person in Dublin where only one page is displayed at a time. Or, you can view the book’s 600+ pages here. Even if you do not read Latin, you can still enjoy the talented artistry of the Celtic monks who composed this treasure.