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The Book of Kells

I requested The Book of Kells from the library at Davidson College, through interlibrary loan, which is a great way to get obscure titles for free. I’ve been using ILL (InterLibrary Loan) more lately. I got Frederick Prokosch’s The Seven Who Fled, at Harlan Ellison’s recommendation, Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, at Neil Gaiman’s recommendation, and several more. I’m only allowed 5 at a time through my public library, which is a bit of a pain, and there’s generally no renewal available, but it’s still free, and I have more books than I can read, so I’m happy about it.

John, portrayed as an eagleBut back to the Book of Kells. It’s an illuminated Latin translation of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but since I have my own New Testament, I wasn’t reading it for the text. I don’t think anybody does, at least not any more.

I was looking at the pictures. It’s covered in pictures (thus the “illuminated” bit of “illuminated manuscript”). Each of the Gospel writers is represented by a winged beast–Matthew is a man, Mark a lion, Luke a lamb, and John is the eagle I’ve pictured here. I loved one particular illustration of Jesus, after he’s died, in which the blood is shown with red knotwork covering his body.

I had always thought it was, in fact, a volume containing Kells–not that I knew what those were–but apparently Kells is an abbey in Ireland.

They read it liturgically, in the Mass, so the monks who copied the Latin felt it should be lavishly embellished in every way possible. They overlaid some of it with gold leaf, and drew full color illustrations–some full page and some woven through the text. The text is a wonderful example of calligraphy as well. Someone stole it at one point and scraped off all the gold, but the illustrations remain beautiful. I like the style, especially of the birds. They seem a bit put out, and a little scared. The knotwork throughout feels like idle doodling at some points, but at others, especially when it fills over-large lettering on a title page, it’s truly beautiful.

Great example of early comics, too.

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