Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned. Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 BC to 1500 AD, From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland.

Priceless Medieval Sacred Text Reveals Its True Origins

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Arguably the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, the wonderfully illustrated Book of Kells , was “created in 2 parts over 50 years,” Dr Bernard Meehan of Trinity College, Dublin, told reporters at The Independent .

Around 561 AD, Colum Cille (also known as Columba and Columbus) sailed from Ireland with 13 followers and landed on Iona, an isolated Scottish island off the south-western tip of Mull. There, he established a scriptorium and a monastic confederation which would become an intellectual powerhouse of the medieval world. The Book of Kells was created around 800 AD and contains the four gospels written in Latin calligraphy on calfskin leaves, decorated with elaborate and colorful illustrations. Glorifying life of Christ, this book is regarded as shadowing all other artistic and cultural achievements of the early Middle Ages.

Facsimile copy of the Book of Kells

Facsimile copy of the Book of Kells ( CC BY NC-ND 2.0 )

Until now, it was believed that a group of 9th century Irish monks at Iona composed this world-renowned copy of the gospel, in one go, but Meehan claims the “last part of the book was written first.” Talking to reporters at The Independent, Meehan said, “St John’s Gospel and the first few pages of St Mark, was written and illustrated by a monk at the monastery of St Colum Cille on the Scottish island of Iona, during the last quarter of the eighth century AD and the Gospels of St Mark, St Luke and St Matthew were produced 50 years later at a new monastery at Kells, in County Meath, Ireland.”

The Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John.

The Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John. ( Public Domain )

Meehan first identified that the monk who prepared the Book of John “had a very particular style which made it stand out from other parts of the text.” Having completed St John's Gospel “this particular monk's work suddenly stops at the end of chapter four, verse 26, of St Mark’s Gospel,” Meehan added. He speculated that this may have been “intended as the start of another separate, standalone work” or that monk may have been killed during Viking raids on the island of Iona, which began at the turn of the ninth century. It was also possible the monk had fallen victim to an “outbreak of disease, possibly smallpox, that hit the monastery in the early part of the ninth century” added Meehan. In 806 AD Vikings raided the island killing 68 of the monastic community, and the surviving monks fled to a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, Ireland with the Book of Kells. It eventually came to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1661 AD, and is still on display there today.

Gospel of Matthew from the Book of Kells is now thought to be the work of a different scribe

Gospel of Matthew from the Book of Kells is now thought to be the work of a different scribe ( Public Domain )

Although Dr Meeham’s new observations are grabbing today’s headlines, the Book of Kells was but one publication in the literary tradition of Iona, which itself was far greater and more expansive than any one book. When Columbus established his Celtic church and scriptorium in the 6th century the island was called Innis nam Druidneach , The Isle of Druids (priests of the pre-Christian Celtic religion). Written histories and folklore alike tell of Columbus doing battle with local Druid elders, who fled here the 5th century escaping persecution from Imperial Rome. A 2006 Scotsman article reveals that in the century before Columbus arrived the “Druids founded a library on Iona” and because they never wrote their traditions down, as far as we know, “the impact that finding this library would have on our interpretation of history would be explosive.”

Another literary legend on Iona speaks of another priceless cache of books, this time originating in “the greatest library in Europe.” Scottish History is murky for the first half of the first millennium, yet several chroniclers recorded King Fergus II uniting with Alaric the Goth to fight the Roman Empire during its fall. According to historian and author Dr E Mairi MacArthur, in the Scotsman article , King Fergus was said to have “recovered many books from the plundered Roman libraries, including rare religious manuscripts from ancient Greek and Persian philosophers and scientists.” These priceless volumes of ancient knowledge and lost wisdom are said to have been taken to Iona for safekeeping in “the secret druid library.”

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