The Robed man looked up from his work and out the narrow opening in the rock wall at the darkening sky. He thought of the message that had brought news of the deaths of more of his Christian brothers. He imagined the sea outside with a flood of dragon-ships, spewing forth hordes of godless, wrathful barbarians. They quickly breached the feeble defenses of his monastery, slaughtering and destroying as they advanced. Soon the door to his cell would crash open, and then.… The monk shuddered with fear, but not for his own life. He looked lovingly down at the page upon which he was preserving the Word of God. The lone letter he had almost completed today filled half the parchment. Pride was a sin, he knew, but he found it was one he could not avoid as he admired the brilliant colors and intricate details he had painstakingly woven into this one joyous cipher. Surely, God would protect His Word and not allow it to be defiled by the savages, nor would it be buried deep in the bog, safe but perhaps never to be seen by the eye of man.

No, he refused to fear. He wrote in the margin in small, fine letters, “The wind is rough tonight, tossing the white hair of the ocean; I do not fear the fierce Vikings, coursing the Irish Sea.”

No one knows if this particular monk was justified in his faith. The tenth-century manuscript was completed and now is safe in the St. Gaul Library of Switzerland, but whether the Vikings eventually destroyed the monastery is uncertain.

The Viking onslaught marked the end of a most glorious artistic period in Ireland, its “Golden Age.” Among the silver and gold chalices, the jeweled brooches, the shining, twisted torcs, and the elaborate shrines, some of the most striking examples of Irish art are the manuscripts, the recording of the Gospels, the Psalms, and other religious works.

Produced by medieval monks around A.D. 800, the Book of Kells is so named after the monastery at Kells, northwest of Dublin. Its origin, however, is unknown. Although it could have been produced there, scholars think that the mother of northern Irish monasteries on the island of Iona gave it birth. It is also possible that the monks at Lindisfarne or some other religious center produced what James Joyce called “the most purely Irish thing we have.”

The book contains, as did most manuscripts of that time, the four Gospels, Hebrew name lists, introductions, and summaries. It was originally bound in one huge volume of about 370 folios, or 740 pages. At the beginning of the eleventh century, thieves stole the book from the monastery at Kells, ripped from it the wrought-gold binding and covers, and tossed it aside in a bog. When it was recovered several months later, only 340 folios remained. It was returned to Kells where it was rebound, and remained for nearly 650 years. Monks sent it to Dublin to protect it from Cromwell’s cavalry. Shortly thereafter it was moved to Trinity College where in 1953 it was bound into four separate Gospels.

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The Book of Kells follows traditional early illuminated manuscripts. But it possesses an overwhelming richness of embellishment. The scribes set down the letters of the text, and the artists did all illuminations and full-page illustrations. But these scribes were more concerned with graceful lettering appearance than with accuracy. The Book of Kells contains a considerable number of errors. Occasionally scribes intentionally omitted a letter, providing an excuse for placing it above the word with additional intricate designs.

Even the ends of the lines were not left undecorated. Often a stylized animal directs the reader’s eyes to the beginning of the next line. Small clusters and spirals dance between words, accent marks seem to be growing grain, and individual letters are filled in with color, or surrounded by dots, or entwined by some strange, sinuous beast. The initial letter of each sentence is frequently formed of fanciful figures or animals. Always there is color, brilliant even after centuries. Black vellum held no interest for these scribes.

As beautiful and enchanting as the pages of text are, the most cherished and glorious parts of the book are the full-page illustrations, masterpieces of artistry. Kenneth Clark calls them “almost the richest and most complicated pieces of abstract decoration ever produced, more sophisticated and refined than anything in Islamic art.”

These pages seem to be the artists’ attempts to demonstrate all their skills, techniques, and styles in one place. The book was first used on solemn occasions; the monks who saw it considered it magical. It still has the same effect. Confronted with the dazzling display of colorful, detailed designs, we find it difficult to comprehend how the unaided eye and hand of an eighth-century monk could have created such wonder. In many areas the designs are so fine and complex that they can only be appreciated fully by viewing them through a magnifying glass. Yet the artist had no such glass.

Three artists seem to have done the full-page illustrations. One of them completed the formal portraits of Christ and the four evangelists, one worked on such important scenes as the arrest of Christ, and one created the purely ornamental pages.

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Known also as the Monogram page, the Chi-Rho page appears in the Gospel of Matthew. It contains only two words in normal script: “Christi autem,” which begin the story of the birth of Christ (Matt. 1:18). The rest of the page is dedicated to the first two letters in the Greek form of Christ’s name, chi and rho. The page is imagination run wild. The article filled every available space with interlocking serpents, strange beasts, odd birds, a few humans, and three angels. There are circles within spirals within circles within swirls of intricately woven strips of gold, red, and blue. The arms of the letter chi sweep off to the corners of the page to twirl around themselves and capture endless profusions of symbols and designs.

Many of the designs that appear throughout the text and within the full-page illustrations are widely recognized symbols of Christianity: fish and peacocks to represent Christ, snakes to represent the resurrection, and fruit-eating creatures to represent the Eucharist. Others, however, seem to be totally frivolous, placed for the sake of sheer decoration. Some seem pagan, some humorous. But the sheer joy of the work and the word shows in every page of this remarkable book.

David L. McKown, graduate of University of Pittsburgh and of Carnegie-Mellon University, is a registered professional engineer (Pennsylvania) who works for Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

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