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 manuscripts produced between the late 7th and the early 9th century in Ireland outstrip all other similar European works of the same period when it comes to artistic distinction and the sheer exuberance of the decoration. Producing such codices was an important part of the monastic culture that had come to Ireland from Roman Britain with St Patrick in the 5th century.

The most beautiful of these magnificent manuscripts to have survived is the Book of Kells. Its place of origin is generally attributed to the scriptorium of the monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island which left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath.

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 codex is first mentioned in 1007 when it was stolen from the church of Kells (about 65 kilometres north of Dublin) and later recovered. It was stolen probably for the sake of the costly binding, which has long since been lost.

The picture shows folio 114r with the Arrest of Christ.