Book of Kells Folio 34 Description!

I sometimes have trouble finding satisfying discussions of illuminated manuscripts in general art history textbooks. I have found that many descriptions, while very informative about a specific illumination or artistic style, tend to focus on illuminated manuscript pages as isolated works of art. Although I realize that such isolated descriptions are part and parcel of the general survey textbook (it’s impossible to discuss everything in depth!), I still am a little disappointed. I feel like medieval gospel books were meant to be experienced as cohesive whole, not as merely isolated illuminations.

One such example of an isolated description can be found in a recent edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, which discusses the “Chi-rho-iota (XPI)” page, folio 34 recto of the Book of Kells (c. 800, shown right). Although I really like that Gardner’s touches on historical context by explaining that this particular passage would be read on Christmas Day, I feel like a sense of the illustration within the biblical text and Book of Kells itself (as a whole) is relatively lacking.

This being said, I was quite delighted when I read the following passage yesterday afternoon (see below). This is one of the best descriptions of Folio 34 that I have seen in an introductory textbook. Although the passage doesn’t exactly describe the folio in relation to any other pages in the book (and, as I mentioned earlier, I realize such analysis is largely beyond the scope of an introductory textbook), I really like that the author tries to tie the decoration of the page into the actual context of Saint Matthew’s gospel:

“The earliest surviving Hiberno-Saxon religious manuscripts reveal and interest in decorating the letters themselves, a not surprising development when we remember that the words were believed to be proclamations of God. This tendency reaches its peak in the Book of Kells. When the text discussing the life of Christ in the Gospel of Saint Matthew (1:22) reaches the point where the Incarnation of Christ is mentioned, the letters burst out into joyful, exuberant patterns. This whole page is devoted to three words – Christi autem generatio (“the birth of Christ”) – with most of the page devoted to the first three letters of Christi (XPI). The X is the dominant form, and it surges outward in bold and varied curves to embrace Hiberno-Saxon whorl patterns. Interlace fills other areas, and simple colored frames set off the large initials amid the consuming excitement. The human head that forms the end of the P also dots the I. Near the lower left base of the X, a small scene shows cats watching while two mice fight over a round wafter similar to those used in the Mass – a scene surely of symbolic intent, even if its meaning is lost to us today. The pulsating vitality of the word of God is thus visually demonstrated.”1

Have you found any descriptions of illuminated manuscripts that you like? Do you know of other descriptions that help the reader to better understand either the biblical context or the folio’s physical context within the gospel book itself?

UPDATE: The Book of Kells is available online as a digital copy through the Trinity College Library in Dublin (which has the book in its permanent collection). You can see a high-res copy of the Book of Matthew, for example, with Folio 34 HERE. The library also has provided an introductory page to the Book of Kells.

1 David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 171.

  • heidenkind says:

    I think the British Library has an entire illuminated manuscript online (unfortunately I don't remember the title), and if I remember correctly there's a lot of supplementary information to go along with it. Might be worth looking for.

  • heidenkind says:

    Aha, here it is: They actually have more than one available digitally.

  • phin says:

    Buddy, have you heard of the cartoon "The Secret of Kells?" It is a movie based off the "creation" of Folio 34. The story is okay, the ending left me a little wanting, however the animation makes it worth watching at least once.

  • M says:

    Oh, coolies! Thanks for sharing, heidenkind. Wow, that site looks like a fantastic resource. If I ever teach a class on illuminated manuscripts, this would be a great site!

    phin, I haven't even heard of that movie! I was going to suggest that we should watch it together the next time I am visiting you, but you've already watched it "at least once." 🙂

    I'll check it out, and let you know what I think. (If anyone is interested, the movie is available for online streaming at Netflix.)

  • H Niyazi says:

    Hi M! Medieval illuminations are truly wondrous things. I have only ever seen the ones in the Medici Collection(Laurentian Library) in person, but am always looking at digitised editions for visual inspiration (and clues to Renaissance iconography!)

    In addition to the resource Heidenkind mentioned, here are a few others which I encountered in my ongoing adventures adding sites to the art/history site database (ahdb)

    National Library of Netherlands

    Cambridge Medieval Illuminations

    There is also a UCLA site that a catalogues all online medieval manuscriprt collections!

    A 2009 volume I am really enjoying on the topic is "Materials, Methods and Masterpieces of Medieval Art" by Janetta Benton.

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    Great! Thanks for those recommendations, H! They look like good resources. I'll keep my eye out for the 2009 publication by Benton, too.

  • M says:

    An emeritus professor of religion contacted me yesterday, recommending this site after stumbling across this post.

    This website not only includes some images of other folios from "The Book of Kells," but also has a great quote from Gerald of Canturbury (a 12th century monk).
    We don't know which Hiberno Saxon gospel book was described by Canturbury in the following quote, but it may have been the Book of Kells itself:

    "This book contains the harmony of the four Evangelists according to St. Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colors. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the Eagle, there the Calf, here the Man, and there the Lion, and other forms almost infinite. Look at them superficially with the ordinary casual glance, and you would think it an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it, and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man. 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."

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.