MINIATURIST, Irish
(active around 800 on the Island of Iona)

Book of Kells

c. 800
Manuscript (Ms. A. I. 6 [58]), 330 x 241 mm
Trinity College Library, Dublin

The Book of Kells contains the four gospels in a Latin translation. There are 340 folios (678 pages) in colour decorated with miniatures, initials and symbols. It is likely that each gospel was intended to be headed by a page with a full-size miniature of the evangelist symbol, an evangelist portrait and a decorative rendering of the initial of the first word of the text.

Scholars differentiate between three main miniaturists: the "goldsmith", who decorated the introductory pages of the individual gospels with a degree of freedom reminiscent of the metal work of the day; the "illustrator", to whom miniatures can be assigned; and finally the "portraitist", who painted the evangelist portraits.

The picture shows folio 34r. It contains one of the most overwhelming examples of extravagantly fantastic insular decoration: the Christ monogram, also sometimes called the chi-rho page, at the beginning of St Matthew's gospel. The decoration on this page is regarded as the absolute pinnacle of the entire late Celtic style.

In this period, in the gospel books at the beginning of St Matthew's gospel where Jesus's birth is described, a huge Christ monogram in the form of a ligature - of the Greek XR (chi-rho) - was inserted. In the Book of Kells, the chi takes up the entire height of the page. In the midst of a confusing variety of ornaments, symbolic references to the eucharistic body of Christ are linked to animal images rendered in minute naturalistic detail.