The Magnificent Book of Kells

"Look closely at it and you will penetrate the innermost secrets of art; you will find embellishments of such intricacy, such a wealth of knots and interlacing links that you might believe it was the work of an angel rather than a human being."

-Giraldus Cambrensis
13th century scholar

Archives and Special Collections
Harriet Irving Library
P.O. Box 7500
University of New Brunswick
Fredericton, N.B.
E3B 5H5

The facsimile edition of the Book of Kells is the culmination of a ten year project between the Fine Art Facsimile Publisher of Switzerland and Trinity College, Dublin. Faksimile-Verlag Luzern has produced the first colour reproduction of the manuscript in its entirety. The publishing of 1480 such copies will finally give the world a closer look at this eighth century treasure.

The Book of Kells, a product of Irish monasticism, contains a Latin version of the Gospels in the New Testament. Scholars date the book to approximately 800 A.D. Although Iona and Northumbria are still discussed as possible "birth" places for the manuscript, its final residence was Kells, located thirty miles north west of Dublin. It is with this monastery that the book is associated.

Richly decorated, the work has no contemporary rival for its artistic design and lavish calligraphy. Only two pages of the 680 page text remain exempt from illustrations which are so generously displayed on the others. A masterpiece of Celtic Art, the work exemplifies the ecclesiastical, mystical and artistic imagination of this early culture. Ian Finaly in his work Celtic Art: An Introduction writes: "it [the Book of Kells] is a revelation of the marriage of pagan superstition and Christian belief, quite as spiritually significant as Michelangelo's great manifestation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel." (p.146) Byzantine, Arabic, Oriental and other foreign influences combine with Irish tradition to produce a work of magnificent intricacy and detail.

Human figures, abstract designs and animals comprise the symbols used by the artists. Great imagination and talent were used to weave these images into the text. In many cases, animal figures are manipulated and stylized to form letters. Often the contortions and disfiguring of the images convey a sense of humour.

Trinity College was first approached in 1979 by Faksimile-Verlag Luzern concerning a reproduction project. Hesitancy over the safety of the book dampened enthusiasm until the Swiss company designed an "integral mobile book holder" in 1986. It operated on a principle of gentle suction that would allow minimal handling during the copying process. Trinity College believed the device would ensure the protection of their manuscript. Quality control over reproduction was strict involving many trips between Switzerland and Dublin and innumerable comparisons of original proofs and duplicates by specialists and lithographers. Authorities agree that the quality of the facsimile renders it indistinguishable from the original. This is an amazing feat in duplication considering the source of the pigments used by the artists of the Book of Kells. The reds, for example, came from red lead and kermes found in the bodies of a Mediterranean female insect. Even tiny holes in the parchment caused by either inconsistencies in the parchment or decay from aging have been duplicated. Impossible to replicate, however, is the physical quality of the parchment which is made from animal skin.

The final product includes the text, a commentary volume and the beautifully handcrafted boxcover (shrine). The University of New Brunswick's facsimile edition is a gift from Dr. Marguerite Vaughan of St. Andrews.

The third Milham Lecture delivered in April 1990 by Dr. Thomas Power on the Book of Kells is available from the Harriet Irving Library.

Artist: Mary-Kathryn Whitney


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Last Update: 95/09/26