Recreating the Book of Kells.

Thomas Keyes, an Irish artist amd manuscript illuminator, writes about his project of recreating the Book of Kells; he begins with an account of the medieval monks of the British Isles and continues:

The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones credits the monk Eadfrith with being Britain’s first great artist for his work ‘Cotton MS Nero D IV’, better known as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Lindisfarne Abbey was devastated by the pandemic and embroiled in the argument over Easter, losing its abbot and other monks that would not conform in 664. Eadfrith lived into old age and died in 721 as Bishop of Lindisfarne, a role he was appointed to in 698 meaning that he is likely to have worked on the manuscript earlier in his career. […]

What is now the greatest Book of the English inspired the greatest Book of the Irish, the Book of Kells, to be produced at the turn of the ninth century. The book of the four gospels, takes innovations found in Lindisfarne and expands upon them to an incredible degree, suggesting that there was a vibrant century of innovation between the two manuscripts, evidence of which has mostly been lost. The level of technical skill on display within the Book of Kells has never been matched. It still isn’t fully understood. The chemical knowledge required to create pigments that remain stable after 1200 years is centuries ahead of what we thought they were capable of. This coupled with the mathematical ability required for draughting the designs and the scriptural familiarity needed to skilfully add the appropriate marginal characters to bring the text to life shed light on an incredibly vibrant culture of learning and sharing. 

We still can’t be certain where the Book of Kells comes from exactly but the leading contenders are all islands and remote peninsulas which turned out to be the worst place to be staying for the next apocalypse that came to Britain and Ireland from the north, first striking Lindisfarne in 793. In the Book of Armagh, a manuscript contemporary with Kells, the name of the Abbot of Iona ‘Cellach’, appears next to an ominous passage from the Gospel of Mark ‘For those days will bring distress such as has never been until now since the beginning of the world that God created- and will never be again’

Eventually he gets to his own project:

Ceolfrid’s ‘furthest ends of the earth’ no longer exists in the physical world. The edge is now a state of mind, or a statement of intent. Geographic boundaries are redundant as the machine is everywhere if you want it. You can still get phone signal on the tidal monastic island of Inishkeel off the coast of Donegal. This monastery was set up by Conall Ceal in the 5th century; his bell was kept on site for over 1400 years before being ‘acquired’ by the British Museum in the 1889. But the thread of continuity remains intact as the Turas, the pilgrim routes throughout Ireland are still travelled, with the faithful still circling the well on the island on Holy days at low tide. 

In rational terms I’m not exactly sure what making an insular manuscript will achieve in current circumstances, clearly the practical argument is fairly thin. I’m sure something could be cobbled together about sustainability and it’s impressively light carbon footprint, but at the end of the day it’s a book that’s already been published in much easier formats and you can access for free, so culturally and economically what’s the point? It’s not like the Gospels are a fragile indigenous origin legend about to be snuffed out by progress. But it is one of our deepest held ancestral reactions to the ending of a way of being, a kind of ritual pilgrimage into the story that has carried our culture through the literate epoch, a story that has an ending. […]

But I’m going to try and make the Book of Kells anyway, partly out of practical curiosity, partly pilgrimage. There’s something very clinical about explaining it, a list of pigments and tests, theories and comparisons. But the experience of being involved in manuscripts is intense for everyone I’ve met involved in all aspects of the subject. These objects take up years of your life, no matter what your angle is. They have captured a cohort of supporters in every generation for more than a millennium, that’s the only reason they are still here.

Contemporary conservators, librarians and curators of these objects fill roles that have in some cases been in existence since before the Norman conquest. Objects of this status have a long paper trail; institutions record their whereabouts and any mishaps. The Book of Kells first appearance in the records in 1007 is ironically when it went missing for ‘two months and twenty nights’ according to the annals of Ulster which goes on to describe the manuscript as ‘the most precious object of the western world’. For all that has passed between us and the author of that description, it still holds true. A million visitors queue up to see it each year.

Lots of striking images if you click through, as well as further links.


  1. Adrian Martyn says

    Atlantic islands, le do thoil. ‘The British Isles’ existed from May 1707 to January 1919. Not before, and most certainly not after. Or use the term quoted above in translation from Annala Ulaidh 1007, Iarthair Domhain. Both terms are of much greater longevity and antiquity than the obsolete imperial term, which was purely political and entirely modern.

  2. David Marjanović says

    The chemical knowledge required to create pigments that remain stable after 1200 years is centuries ahead of what we thought they were capable of.

    …aren’t most minerals easily stable enough for that…?

  3. I had a similar thought — the monks had no idea how long the pigments would last nor any way of estimating their longevity. They used the pigments they knew best, presumably because those colors had been found to last at least some modest number of years. The fact that they lasted much longer is mainly luck.

    And I’m not sure what is meant by the mathematical ability for draughting* the designs. Geometry was well established.

    *Although I grew up with that spelling, after so many years in the US it looks Very Silly to me now.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    shed light on an incredibly vibrant culture of learning and sharing

    Incredible vibrancy is in the eye of the beholder (or perhaps the ear of the listener) but “culture of learning and sharing” is, well, the normal type of culture. In fact, the universal type …

    Almost but not completely irrelevantly, the animated movie The Secret of Kells is Really Very Good. (We’ve discussed it before somewhere, but that, of course, is true of all topics on LH.)
    It does contain Hurtful Stereotypes of Scandinavians, though.

  5. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Don’t call Arnketill a stereotype, he resents that.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Would he settle for “Hurtful Archetype”?

  7. Honestly, I would be a lot more excited if it were announced that Cartoon Saloon was going to recreate the missing ten or fifteen minutes of The Secret of Kells (which never got produced because they ran out of funding). Given the popularity of the film and the ease of crowdsourcing today, it should be a breeze to raise the money. On the other hand, Evan McGuire, who voiced the main character Brendan when he was a tween, might no longer be able to do the voice; and Mick Lally, who voiced Brother Aidan, died within two years of of the film’s release. (In fact that last point may be the biggest reason that extending the film seems to have never been seriously contemplated.)

    I previously brought up The Secret of Kells in the midst of a discussion of “Pangur Ban,”, and David Eddyshaw made the same joke about anti-Viking stereotyping.

  8. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    He suggests “Hurtful Type”. Pointedly.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    David Eddyshaw made the same joke about anti-Viking stereotyping.

    It’s quite restful. I too repeat certain jokes, given the strong demand for thread comments that clearly don’t need a response.

  10. “Really Very Good”

    I saw a Japanese girl online who was learning Gaelic because of Song of the Sea.

  11. Sadly, I am not sure if Afghan languages are popular, despite the Breadwinner….

  12. I have an excellent Pashto-Russian dictionary, and one of these days…

  13. Amanda Adams says

    Thank-you, everyone. One hardly feels one dares criticize anything unless one can demonstrate that one can do it better. A surprising (to me) number of my students have copied some of the most difficult pages of Kells. With rare exceptions I prefer to do some different text in a similar style. There is now a currently fashionable theory that Kells was indeed entirely written by one person. I believe I have been told that there is a Japanese woman who has copied it; but now I am not at all sure I was told she had copied the whole book – four volumes as it remains to us. Research is continuing on the pigments, &c. As I recall, Bernard Berenson once wrote that everything that looks like “brown sugar” in the Book of Kells was originally bright magenta. He may have since been proven wrong (I haven’t read everything there is to read by a long shot…); but as far as I know he didn’t say what the pigment was that had changed to “brown sugar”… I find that news startling & disturbing, that I must re-imagine what I see with a lot of magenta in it… So all that “chemical knowledge” may be slightly overstated… I suppose we’ll read more about this as it progresses… & that is dated November 30, 2022; but I feel I read it ages ago. Maybe years ago…

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