Kells, County Meath

IMG_4212For a town with a population of not much over 6000 Kells has made an inordinately strong mark on Irish History.

It is best known as the original home of what is , arguably,  the most famous illuminated manuscript in the world.

But while the Book of Kells is truly incredible, and I’ll talk more about it later, Kells itself (especially the abbey) has its own fascinating history. I am also slightly biased as some of my family comes from Kells and the surrounding area. A plaque to one of my ancestors can still be seen in the church at the abbey.

This post isn’t going to cover the entire history of Kells, there’s simply too much of it. It will, however, look at the early history of the town, the Book of Kells, and some of the key buildings in town.

So to begin at the beginning.

There were possibly people in the area before, but the history of Kells as a settlement dates back to the 6th century, when it was a fortification of the High King Diarmait mac Cerbaill.  The site was gifted to Saint Colmcille who founded the abbey which remains today, though none of the exisiting building are contemporary.

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The second image is an etching from the late 1700s.

Saint Colmcille (known in latin as Columba) was born to the ruling family of present day Donegal. Still standing in Kells today is Colmcille’s cell which dates around the 10th century. It is too late to actually have been used by Colmcille and was in fact probably an oratory that may have housed his relics, with some sleeping accommodation for some monks. IMG_4260

In roughly 561 Colmcille travelled to Scotland as a ‘pilgrim for Christ’ and to convert the Picts. In 563 he settled on Iona and founded the abbey there. It went on to be one of the most influential in the area inspiring the foundation of other houses, including Lindisfarne. In the 9th century Iona was subject to fearsome Viking raids and they relocated most of the community to Kells in 804. It is agreed by most scholars that the Book of Kells originated in around 800 making it possible that it was originally made in either Kells or Iona. It was definitely at Kells by 1007 when the Annals of Ulster record it as being stolen from the stone church in Kells.

This is not the church we see today. From 808 to 814 a new church was built, though it was rebuilt after the Viking raid of 920 and most likely again after other raids over the years. By 1655 it was well and truly in ruins and it was used as a horse barracks by Cromwell. The current church dates to 1788.

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It is in St Columba’s Church that you can also see the plaque dedicated to my ancestor.

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However there are parts of the site that do date to earlier. Firstly the round tower. Round towers are honestly one of my favourite structures ever and I’ve visited quite a number. You can find out more about their history in this previous post.

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The Kells round tower dates to the 10th century and it is 90 feet tall without its roof, which would have been conical. Is has six floors and would probably have been accessed by ladders. There is still a lot of debate as to the purpose of round towers. It is possible that they were simply bell towers, part of the system of the call to prayer with the height made necessary by the size of the ecclesiastical sites. They may have also been symbols reaching towards the glory of God and illustrating the importance of the ecclesiastical site, conveying messages of spiritual and temporal power. There is also an argument, though currently thought of as a little less likely, that they were watch towers and were part of defence systems. They may have been built partly as a response to Viking and other attacks. The monks would have been able to climb in, store their treasures, burn the stairs to the door, keep the raiders out and possibly ring bells from the top of the tower to call for assistance. Essentially no one is absolutely certain as to their purpose. It is also plausible that there were multiple purposes, combinations of the possibilities listed above.

Kells Abbey also boasts three partly complete high crosses. There are between 60 and 70 high crosses remaining in Ireland (in varying states of repair), they are usually richly decorated often with biblical scenes and probably served as sermons in stone, telling the stories of the bible to the mostly illiterate population.

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The 9th century south cross depicts: the crucifixion, the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions den, the fall of man, the death of Able, Saints Paul and Anthony and the Evangelists.

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The 10th century west cross depicts: the entry into Jerusalem, the presentation in the temples, the miracle at Canna, the baptism of  Christ, Noah’s Arc and the fall of Able. There would have been more on the arms of the cross.

IMG_4253IMG_4254The 12th century east cross shows the crucifixion

There is also a north cross, of which only the stub remains and I don’t have a photo. In the town of Kells itself is the market cross, which unfortunately I didn’t see on my visit, so I don’t have a photo of it either.

The high crosses in the church yard were constructed in a time of great prosperity for the abbey and the town. By the tenth century it was the most important Columban abbey in Ireland. The downside was that as it was wealthy Kells became one of the most attacked towns in Ireland. In 951 a Viking raid was said to have carried off 3000 people and goods. By the 12th century Kells had been burned twenty one times and plundered seven times. These were not all Viking raids, several Irish kingdoms were also responsible. It was also not all raids. In 1152 the Synod of Kells was held and many laws were codified. It was in this period that the other treasure of Kells (apart from the Book of Kells) was probably made. the Crozier of Kells dates to the 9th 11th and 12th centuries and is housed in the British Museum.

By the time the Normans arrived in 1172 Kells (along with the rest of Meath) passed into the hands of Hugh de Lacey one of  Henry II’s barons and one of the key Normans in Ireland. A castle was constructed in Kells in around 1176, though pretty much nothing remains today. The town’s walls were constructed by de Lacey in the early 1170s. The Normans also founded the abbey of St Mary and the priory of St John again pretty much nothing remains of the buildings.

Over the following centuries Kells suffered and profited with the fortunes of both England and Ireland. It was burned a number of times and rebuilt, it was caught in raids and rebuilt. Today it is a small Irish town steeped in history and its greatest legacy and claim to fame is the Book of Kells.

I’ll be using two of my favourite books to discuss the Book of Kells.

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel

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It is a fascinating dialogue with some of history’s most interesting illuminated manuscripts. De Hamel not only tells the stories of the manuscripts, he traces his own journey in accessing the manuscripts. It is a truly remarkable read.

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan

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This book is an in depth examination of the Book of Kells and contains truly incredible facsimiles of much of the Book of Kells. The photos you’ll see below are my pictures of images in Meehan’s book, I apologise for the glare in a handful of them.

So, as I explained earlier the first definite mention of the Book of Kells was when it was stolen in 1007. The Annals of Ulster describes it thus:

“The Great Gospel of Colum Cille was sacrilegiously stolen in the night from the Western Sacristy of the church of Cennas. It was the most precious object of the Western Would, on account of its covers with human forms. The Gospel was recovered after two months and twenty nights, its gold [probably a shrine it was housed in] having been taken off it and with a sod over it.”

The Book of Kells remains a ‘treasure of the Western World.’ It is a national monument of Ireland, it’s included on the Memory of World list put together by UNESCO, it’s been on Irish coins, Irish stamps and its designs and scripts are synonymous with Ireland. Today it is housed in Trinity College library in Dublin and attracts 520 000 people to view it each year, of which I was one in 2012. You can see the viewing queue below

IMG_6389The Book of Kells was absolutely worth the wait, it is truly remarkable.

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But how did it come to end up in Dublin at Trinity College?

The Book remained in Kells until 1641 when Irish rebellion against Protestant settlers caused serious harm to Kells. The church would remain ruined for another forty years. It was decided the Book wasn’t safe there anymore so it was removed in Dublin probably in 1653 by the Governor of Kells Charles Lambert, 1st Earl of Cavan. Henry Jones the Bishop of Meath presented it along with the Book of Durrow to Trinity College. The Book entered popular consciousness in the early 19th century and at this time it was assumed that it dated to the 6th century and had been created by Columba. Queen Victoria was shown it as the book of Columba. In 1874 it was described as the oldest book in the world, which is definitely not true. The Queen’s visit and the Exhibition in Ireland generated even more interest and the Book became cemented in the consciousness of Ireland.

The Book of Kells is a manuscript of the four Gospels:

Matthew

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The opening page of this gospel is portrait of Matthew

Mark

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The opening page of this gospel is the four symbols of the Evangelists.

Luke

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The opening of this Gopspel is the word QOU N IAM

John

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The opening of this Gospel is a portrait of John.

The evangelists aren’t the only portraits in the Book of Kells. Other key biblical figures feature as well. Such as:

Jesus

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and Mary

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Along with others. It is reasonable to assume that originally portraits of Mark and Luke were probably also intended. They may have been lost over the years. The Book of Kells has been rebound at least five times. One of the most disastrous was the rebinding in 1826 by George Mullen. He trimmed the pages so he could gild them (losing decoration in the process), he painted some of the margins with purple wash and filled in all the natural holes in the vellum with new vellum.

The current binding was undertaken in 1953 by Roger Powel, many of Mullen’s additions were removed and Book of Kells was split into four volumes, one for each Gospel. The Book of Kells has had a hard life and it is remarkable that any of it has survived.

It is a symbol of a time of learning and culture. The detail is extraordinary as is the depth of colour, even in the pages that are predominately writing.

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The work is very Celtic, very much of its time. We have no hope of understanding what all the symbols and imagery would have meant to the people of the time. We can, though, appreciate it for its beauty and have the enjoyment of trying to understand the people who could have made something this exquisite.

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The Book of Kells will always be inextricably be linked with the town of Kells, as it should be. But as I hope I’ve shown, the Book is not the only worthwhile part of the history of Kells. This small Irish town has been at the heart of Irish history for centuries, it is well worthwhile being celebrated in its own right.

References:

Iona Past and Present with Maps by Ritchie 1934

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher De Hamel 2016

ISBN: 9780241003046

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan 2012

ISBN: 9780500238943

The Antiquities of Ireland Volumes I and II facsimile copy 1982

ISBN: 0946198020

The Story of Kells by  Leo Judge

ISBN: 18724901070

http://www.heritagetowns.com/kells.shtml

The photos are all mine apart from the photo of the plaque and one photo of the church which are by Penny Woodward (used with permission)

 

 

An Illumination

Melbourne University has been running a fascinating exhibition on the history of illuminated manuscripts and it is now in its final weeks. As part of the exhibition the university has also been running lectures and workshops and I was lucky enough to attend one on parchment.

Both this talk and the exhibition itself gave me a fascinating insight into the world of illuminated texts. If you are in Melbourne it is absolutely worth a visit and will be running until the 15th of November.

The books in this particular exhibition are in the codex form. This form began in the the 1st century CE and by the 4th century had mainly replaced the papyrus scroll. Codexes are usually made from parchment, a fascinating material in and of itself. Parchment was made from the skin of animals, usually goats, lambs or calves although there were exceptions.

Parchment replaced papyrus for a number of reasons, one of the main ones was that production of parchment could be decentralised. It could be done anywhere where there were animals, whereas papyrus could only be made in a handful of places, such as Alexandria, where the materials were available. Parchment can also be wiped clean and re-used. Parchment was the mainstay of the codex also because it is really durable. Unless it gets wet parchment will last for centuries. Which is why many illuminated manuscripts survive today, despite the fact that they are hundreds of years old. Which is not something that can be said for even reasonably modern paper.

Codexes were not made up of one animal skin. Multiple animals were used and it is possible for researchers to discover an amazing amount from the skins in an individual codex. Everything from how many animals were used, to what type of animals, the age of the animals, the health of the animals, the tools used to do the work and even the region the codex was made in.

Parchment was made by first treating the skin of the animal with lime to remove blood, dung and organic material and to loosen the fat. The skin was then stretched over a wooden frame, kept under tension and scraped repeatedly with a curved blade as it dried to create a smooth writing surface. Finally it was treated with chalk to remove any excess oils and fats.

There were two more key processes to the creation of an illuminated book. The writing and the illumination itself. The text was written in iron gall ink, usually, a fascinating substance that was made with the galls created by one type of wasp on oak trees. This ink was responsible for pretty much all recorded western history for 1400 years. The fascinating video from the BBC below explains where these galls come from and how they were used.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p033dbrb/player

Aside from the text the other important part of these codexes is the illumination. The word comes from the latin illuminare and refers to the glow that comes from the decorations, especially the gold leaf.The tools and processes for illumination are actually quite similar to the process and tools for creating icons, something which I’ve written about before.

The illuminations were begun by drawing the outline with lead or ink, then the areas for the gold were painted with bole, a red clay, or with gum, then the gold leaf was applied to the surface and burnished. Finally other colours were added. The colours were made from a wide range of materials for example lapis lazuli for blue and madder for a reddish colour. The lapis lazuli largely came from Afghanistan and was highly prized. The materials were ground up and mixed with a binding material like egg white to give it viscosity and make it stick to the page.

Examples of some of the materials and tools can be seen below.

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The works created using these methods are stunningly beautiful.

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A leaf probably from part of a choir book, the illumination has been attributed to Joannes Zmilely de Pisek

Prague c. 1500

The exhibition holds a variety of codexes which cover the different purposes for which they were used. The use for codexes was largely religious in nature, not always but mostly, and this is what is represented in the the exhibition.

The codex has been part of church life for centuries, used both by clergy and parishioners. It wasn’t until around the 11th century though that codexes for specific services came together.  Around the 11th century the different texts used by the priest during Mass were compiled into the Missal.  An example of which can be seen below.

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Missal, Use of Rome

Catalonia Spain c. 1450

The other codex that came into being at a similar time is the Breviary. This codex held a compilation of the texts for the Divine Office. An example can be seen below

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Breviary, Use of Rome.

Associate of the Jouvenel Master (illuminator)

Bourges France 1460-1470

Codexes were not only for the use of clergy. Books for private devotion were also reasonably common. One of the earlier examples is the Psalter. As Psalter is one of the books of the Bible produced as an independent manuscript. It contains 150 songs of praise, thanksgiving and petitions to God and was used for private prayer. It wasn’t uncommon for Psalters to be personalised, with heraldry and often references to their owners. They were to an extent symbols of status. They also were often signposted with illuminations to allow the user to follow along, so to speak, with public worship. A leaf from a Psalter can be seen below.

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Leaf from a Choir Psalter (King David in Prayer)

Italy or Spain c. 1430

In the late 13th century a new type of personal prayer book began to become more popular than the Psalter. The Book of Hours was made up of devotions based on the Offices of the Breviary primarily the Hours of the Virgin. While the content of the Book of Hours varied according to the preference of the owner the Book of Hours commonly contained, along with the Hours of the Virgin, some of: the Office of the Dead, the Hours of the Cross, the Seven Penitential Psalms, the Litany of the Saints, short excerpts from the four Gospels, and prayers for particular saints. The Book of Hours usually opened with a calendar of the feasts of the Church year. Like the Psalter the Book of Hours was a status symbol and was thus richly illuminated and often contained references to their owners.  An example can be see below

Book of Hours

The Mildmay Master (Illuminator)

Book of Hours, Use of Rome.

Bruges, Southern Netherlands, c. 1460s

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the Rothschild Prayer Book. The Rothschild was created primarily in Ghent, but some pages were probably created by other artists in other Flemish centres and inserted into the manuscript in the main workshop in Ghent. As such it is a beautiful example of a coordinated undertaking from the hands of several masters. It dates to c.1505-1510 and is the culmination of centuries of development of the Book of Hours. Unfortunately it was the one thing I was not allowed to photograph. But the digital copy below can at least give an approximation of this work of art.

Rothschild

This by no means covers the entirety of the exhibit, but I hope it has given a taste of the truly beautiful books displayed there and the complex and intriguing world of the illuminated manuscript.

Reference: Visit to the exhibition and talk on parchment by Libby Melzer and Grace Pundyk.

For more information on the exhibition

https://events.unimelb.edu.au/illumination