"Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists. . . . You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man." -- Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hiberniae, ca. 1185.Gerald of Wales wrote his ecstatic description of what is most probably the Book of Kells 800 years ago, some 300 years after the work appeared. It remains the best description; he felt and conveyed the Book's power, the mystery that made it even then unique among early medieval manuscripts.
While clearly subject to international influence (Celtic, British, Norman; possibly Italian, Byzantine, and Coptic), the Book of Kells' painters and scribes illumined their work with a purely idiosyncratic beauty. The Book of Kells is more an icon than a typical evangelistary; indeed, the Saint Jerome text of the gospels is frequently corrupt or carelessly rendered, so intent were the artists on their ornament and iconography.
One may still see the glorious ornament on display at Trinity College, Dublin; a more accessible version is this, newly reproduced from a rare facsimile edition. Thirty-two full-page, full-color plates have been selected and painstakingly printed to retain the ineffable handpainted impression of the original leaves. All the full-page decorations, portraits, and illustrations are included, as well as a representative sampling of the textual leaves, in their graceful Insular (half-uncial) calligraphy, interspersed and initialed with an imaginative, fanciful, and even humorous bestiary of lions, lambs, eagles, otters, cats, dragons, birds, fish, and snakes; strange men are seen in the cross-armed Osiris position, entwined in lion's tails, snakes, vines, and peacock feathers. The interlacing and spiraling follow the Insular tradition; in botanical ornament the Book stands apart from that school. The illustrations include vital specimens of Western art: the first image of the Virgin and Child in a Western manuscript, and numerous early representations of the Apocalyptic visionary symbols of the Evangelists; symbols that lost their eeriness in later, diluted form, but that in the Book of Kells, according to one scholar, "retain their wild, unearthly quality. They are perhaps the most striking element in the decoration of the Book."
Perusers of this Book, casual and serious students of art, religion, or Western culture, will echo Giraldus, who wrote: "For my part, the oftener I see the book, and the more carefully I study it, the more I am lost in ever fresh amazement, and I see more and more wonders in the book."