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A close-up shot of the text in the Book of Kells.

Intricately designed letters are abdundant in the 1,200-year-old Book of Kells.

Book of Kells fascinates and delights

The Medieval manuscript, an illustrated version of the four gospels, is a shining star of the University's rare books collection

By Deane Morrison

December 22, 2005

Splendor, thy name is Book of Kells.

The 1,200-year-old manuscript of the four gospels stands as the greatest example of medieval illumination, the art of illustrating texts with ornamental designs. Its origins are obscure, but it is thought to be the handiwork of Irish monks who lived in a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona during the late 8th and early 9th centuries. While the original resides under glass in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, the University owns one of 1480 facsimile copies that replicate the book right down to the water stains and holes carved out by beetles. The book is large, heavy, and cased in an unremarkable cover. But open it up, and a new world emerges. Written in its own distinctive Latin script, the book contains 340 leaves, almost all of them endowed with ornate capital letters and flowing, rich-hued designs of interplaited ribbons, coiling spirals, and fanciful people, dragons, fish, serpents, birds, horses, dogs, and other animals. Here a mouse runs off with a communion wafer under the nose of a cat. There a hound paws at a hare. In one design, a patient person may count 158 intertwinings of white, black-bordered ribbon in a single square inch. Every image is finely wrought, with detail so small that a magnifying glass is necessary to see it. All the more remarkable the achievement of the monks, who must have worked with unaided eyes to produce what modern eyes can barely discern. Moreover, scholars have examined each image and found not one single imperfection of line or color. The text, however, is much larger than texts in other medieval manuscripts. The book may have been designed not as a devotional book but to be put on a lectern and read publicly. "It's a window into Celtic Christianity," says rare books curator Tim Johnson, who watches over the treasure in the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis. "The Book of Kells attracts religious historians and textual scholars who look for alterations in the text and try to figure out, for example, if St. Jerome's Latin vulgate bible was the source. Scholars also look at the development of letter forms. A new letter form tradition is used here, compared to Italian or other monastic scribal traditions. It's like a new font."

The book is large, heavy, and cased in an unremarkable cover. But open it up, and a new world emerges...Here a mouse runs off with a communion wafer under the nose of a cat. There a hound paws at a hare.

Already two centuries old when the Normans invaded England and the immortal poems Beowulf and Song of Roland were put to paper, the Book of Kells had a rough childhood. Vikings raided the monastery on Iona in A.D. 806, and the book found itself shipped to Ireland for safekeeping sometime in the 9th century. Ensconced in a monastery in Kells, County Meath, it was stolen in A.D. 1007 and its golden, gem-encrusted cover ripped off. The book was recovered from a ditch, having sustained water damage but still in good shape. It remained in the monastery until 1541 and was given to Trinity College by the bishop of Meath in 1661.

In 1986 Urs Duggelin, a Swiss publisher, undertook to make a limited number of facsimile copies of the book. His firm, Fine Art Facsimile Publishers of Luzerne, had a sterling reputation but faced formidable obstacles. Trinity College would not allow the original book to leave Dublin, nor its fragile pages, made of pigskin or calfskin vellum, to be unbound for photographing. Most vexing, the pages could not be touched by any person or thing. So the firm had to invent a new machine to photograph the book without touching it. They did, and in 1990 the University bought the copy that now resides in Andersen Library. It is number 370 of the 1480 produced for sale. (Another 80, numbered in Roman rather than Arabic numerals, were produced but not destined for sale.) The book cost $15,000, a purchase made possible by the Gorman Art Fund, an endowment fund of University Libraries.

If you visit Andersen and ask to see the Book of Kells, you will be given a pair of gloves to wear while turning pages and, on request, a magnifying glass. Use it, or you'll miss the astonishing details. If you're short on time, ask a librarian to find the renowned Chi Rho (from the first two Greek letters in an abbreviation for Christ's name) page in the gospel of Matthew. It's regarded as the most breathtakingly elaborate page in the book, replete with cats, angels, and at least one butterfly, along with the book's gloriously intricate knotted ribbons. When you leave, you will be hard pressed to dispute the 13th-century scholar Giraldus Cambrensis' appraisal: " ... you might believe it the work of an angel, not a man."

For the library's location and visiting hours, see Elmer L. Andersen Library.