Perhaps it’s no surprise that the hospitable Irish took in a “foreigner,” a Welshman named Patrick, and made him their own patron saint! And Saint Patrick’s Day, that exuberant day of merriment, came around again this month, on the 17th of March.
The Irish also gave the world Halloween, another day of revelry, but in their defense, they’ve made considerable contributions in most areas of the arts: from literature to music and fine art.
Ireland boasts painters of note going back through the centuries, but few that can still draw a crowd like the anonymous artisans—devotees of the Christian faith and of St. Patrick himself—who illustrated the “Book of Kells.”
At its core, the “Book of Kells” is simply a Christian Bible containing the four Gospels of the New Testament. At just 10 by 13 inches, it dates from around A.D. 800, and along with delicate, hand-painted Latin calligraphy, it’s filled with work that became the standard in religious iconography: from hosts of angels to various saints and Stations of the Cross, to depictions of Christ.
The “Book of Kells” takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, in County Meath, Ireland. It was kept at the abbey until Oliver Cromwell’s army arrived in 1654, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. One can’t help but note that while Oliver Cromwell, a man of legendary historical stature in his own right, came into this world and then left it, the book, a thing of great beauty, remains to this day. Isn’t that the great spell of all things from antiquity—that the beauty and dedication of those artisans remain, while so much of our history passes into the mists of time?
Viewed as one of Ireland’s chief national treasures, it draws lines of visitors to this day; people are fascinated by both its antiquity and beauty.
The work’s standing as a piece of pure religious history is equal to that of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. But one doesn’t need a religious or spiritual leaning to have one’s breath taken away by the obvious devotion these unknown monks gave to their work.
Whatever inspired this incredible artistry, the book certainly stands out among traditional Christian texts in terms of its design. Drawn from both the geographical and traditional landscapes of its time, the complex designs swirl in a myriad of sophisticated Celtic motifs and symbols, entwined with mythical creatures depicted in saturated colors. The pigments—yellow and red ochre, lapis, indigo, and copper verdigris—were sourced from as far as the Mediterranean and Afghanistan. The lettering was accomplished with iron gall ink, and is thought to be the work of at least three different scribes. If a mistake was made, the whole page had to be redone, and yet the artistry has been accomplished with a sense of great energy, verve, and rhythm.
Each of the 680 calfskin vellum pages is a masterpiece unto itself, and the Latin script, a festival of the ornate, sheds any sense of the arcane to become a poetic coda replete with portent and mystery.
One might wonder at the dedication and time it must have taken to complete—and wonder too, whether those artisans had any idea people would still be marveling at their work these many centuries later. There’s certainly a sense of enigma when staring at its pages, trying to peer back down through time to catch a glimpse of our world and culture in such a far off epoch. Perhaps that’s part of the fascination; we are not just seeing the work itself, we are hoping to catch sight of the actual people who made it. It is easy to imagine that those artists might be staring right back at us, wondering how things have turned out all of these years later.
Of course, there was no printing press, no means of cheap mass production to propagate the words of the Gospel in A.D. 800, but it seems obvious that whoever dedicated the excruciatingly painstaking time to creating this masterpiece would have produced it in the exact same manner today. They were devoted both to their god and to their craft. That devotion seems a steadfast line of fidelity, a constant that to this day connects lovers of history and culture across the ages, a conversation and an exploration that is still very much in progress, and timeless.
Technology may have marched onward, but when it comes to the human condition, it’s clear that we know little more today than those who were able to create such miraculous and sophisticated works of art and literature as long ago as the Iron Age. From the detailed writings of early philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato—writers whose work predates even the Holy Scriptures—it’s clear that the whole gamut of human experience, from our frivolous vanities to our highest callings, was understood and explored with great eloquence in a way that seems, almost shockingly, contemporary. In many ways, it seems there has been no passage of time whatsoever between those times and our own.
Through the beauty of their work, we are able to find a sense of real and tangible connection to a deep and shared heritage, in what might otherwise have seemed a miscellaneous and disconnected history, lost to the darkness of time.
To witness such work firsthand is to incur a debt that we can only repay through our most humble appreciation and deepest gratitude, with reverence and wide-eyed wonder. For today’s humanity, these works surely stand as lights from the past that still guide the way forward, inspiring us all to our highest callings.
Pete McGrain is a professional writer/director/composer best known for the film ‘Ethos’ which stars Woody Harrelson. Currently living in Los Angeles, Pete hails from Dublin, Ireland, where he studied at Trinity College.