The Production and Planning Process of the Book of Kells
By Roxanne V. Jones,
Master of Arts, San José State University (2011)
Abstract: In describing manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, it is often noted that they were copied from pre-existing documents, suggesting that the task of making such manuscripts was easy. While the scribes did use pre-existing manuscripts as an exemplar, the layout of the manuscript had to be carefully planned before ink or pigment could be placed on the page because the nature of the materials they used–the ink, pigments, and vellum–were often scarce and expensive. Scribes did not have the luxury of having an endless supply of materials at their disposal.
Preparation of the material took time. Once the scribes had the appropriate materials, they had to ensure that they used them judiciously to avoid any mistakes so that nothing went to waste. From the perspective of manuscript production, this thesis examines specific sections of the Book of Kells to demonstrate how manuscripts were made and the importance of planning the work before placing ink and pigment on the vellum. It shows that there was much more work involved than simply copying the text from one manuscript to another.
Introduction: The Book of Kells is one of Ireland’s greatest treasures, although its origins— location and date—cannot be definitively determined. The gospel book earned its name from the monastery in which it was last housed before its move to Dublin (circa 1654) for safekeeping during the Cromwellian period when Catholic establishments were dissolved and property was either looted or destroyed. The monastery at Kells was founded in the mid-sixth century by Columcille (St. Columba) who played an important role in establishing several monasteries throughout Ireland and most notably the place of his exile, the island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. Columcille and the monasteries associated with him became production centers for many of the elaborately decorated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, the likes of which had never been seen before. As Christianity grew in Ireland, the Irish needed to stock their churches and monasteries with ecclesiastical materials. Manuscripts such as bibles, psalters, and gospel books, from which the Irish made their own copies, made their way from Rome to Ireland. The Irish were not satisfied with simply copying the text from the exemplars, as they began to infuse the text with decoration and elaborate artwork.