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My Favorite Lettering Artists: The Decorative Scribes of The Book of Kells

The four symbols of the Evangelists from The Book of KellsIt may be the bias of my own Irish heritage, but I thought St. Patrick's Day would be an opportune time for me to highlight another favorite lettering artist - or more accurately - lettering artists. The 9th century masterpiece, The Book of Kells was most likely created through the hands of at least 3 different scribes and probably additional artists who helped paint the ornamentation found throughout the book. The actual manuscript, which has its own intriguing history, has been safely kept for scholarly work and public display at Trinity College in Dublin since the mid-19th century.

In his fascinating book, How The Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill chronicles the life of St. Patrick as he brought the gospel to Ireland, and how the literacy and learning which accompanied his mission enabled Ireland to become the "isle of saints & scholars". While Vandals and Visigoths were pillaging Europe in the 5th century, trampling & destroying manuscripts in their path, the monasteries in Ireland were engaged in copying such works as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and the Bible. 

Sometime around 800 AD, in line with that established practice, The Book of Kells - reputed to be the most ornate manuscript of it's kind - was created in one of those monasteries.  A compilation of the four gospels, this manuscript's millennial influence is seen not only in the text but also in the intricately decorated lettering which "illuminate" those inspired words. Throughout the manuscript, letters are lavishly decorated with tight and fluid celtic knots, zoomorphic designs and astonishingly creative approaches to letter construction - illuminated with bright pigments and gold leaf.


I've often referred the book in my own various practices, interpreting portions on glass, creating my own knotted letters and finding Celtic-knot-doodling to be a terrific time waster and stress-reliever!


My copy of The Book of Kells: Reproductions from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin contains 126 large, full color plates - reproductions of the manuscript. In it, author Henry Francoise observes,

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 colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say 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 wonder in the book.

And so we arrive at the exciting, timely news:
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, Trinity College has announced that the Book of Kells in it's entirety is now viewable in the library's online repository! All 677 pages are available in high resolution so that at any time, like Henry Francoise, you too may view it, study it and be lost in "ever fresh amazement".

Reader Comments (2)

I love manuscripts and what a way to honour the craftsmanship by using it as a reference in your artwork.

March 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Hi Erik,

It's good to hear from you in the Netherlands! Thanks for your comment.

You know, I never thought of it that way - as a way of honoring their craftsmanship. My using their work as a reference came more from a desire to make something beautiful like they had done. But since imitation is the highest form of flattery it is, as you say, a way of honoring those artists whether intentional or not.

None of us are independently creative in the strictest sense of the word but only in an analogous way as image-bearers of our Creator who alone created "ex-nihilo" (out of nothing). After all, even those artisans we're discussing were building on what had been passed on to them through meticulous training, drawing from centuries of artistic disciplines. And we stand in that same line, with the privilege and responsibility to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as well.

March 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Seese

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