"The Work of an Angel"
The Book of Kells contains the four gospels in Latin and is Ireland’s finest national treasure. Its decorations are so intricate that they can best be seen only with a magnifying glass—which had not been invented when the book was created in AD 800.
In the twelfth century Gerald of Wales gave this description: “For almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colors. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn; here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists. . . . Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”
An extravagantly fantastic page at the beginning of the gospel of Matthew contains a decorated “Chi-Rho,” a monogram developed from the Greek letters “Chi” and “Rho”—the first two letter in the word Christ in Greek. In addition to designs, the Chi-Rho page contains otters, cats, mice, butterflies, and angels.
This detail from the top of the Chi-Rho page between the two right arms of Chi shows the intricacies of the art.
The Book of Kells was probably begun by monks in a monastery on the island of Iona, which lies off the western coast of Scotland. Vikings raided the island, and the monks fled to Ireland’s Abbey at Kells. The book was completed there, stolen
for two months in 1006 when it lost some pages and its cover, and in 1661 was presented to the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, where it is still on display.
More than 500,000 visitors a year travel to the library to see the Book of Kells.