Skip to 0 minutes and 13 secondsWhy do more than one million people every year come to look at a 1,200 year old book? Welcome to this course on the Book of Kells from Trinity College Dublin. I'm Dr. Rachel Moss from the Department of History of Art and Architecture. And I'm Dr. Fainche Ryan from the Loyola Institute of Theology at Trinity. And together with our colleagues from the library at Trinity, over the next four weeks we'll be exploring one of Ireland's most famous manuscripts. The Book of Kells sits in a darkened room encased in protective glass in the old library here at Trinity College. It's regarded as one of the greatest cultural treasures of Ireland and described by some as the most famous manuscript in the world.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 secondsBut why is it so famous? Why do so many people travel from across the world to see it? And why is its artwork reproduced in such varied places as Irish national coinage and tattoos? There is no one answer to these questions. Indeed, a key to understanding the Book of Kells is to remember that from its very inception it held different meanings for different peoples. At one level, it is a sacred scripture, part of the Christian Bible, and it has been prepared and created with such care and attention that one might say its very composition was an act of devotion.

Skip to 1 minute and 36 secondsAt another level, it is an artistic masterpiece the intricacies of which lead the mind and the eyes along pathways of imagination. The Book of Kells is to Dublin what the Mona Lisa is to Paris and the Sistine Chapel ceiling is to Rome. You haven't been to Ireland unless you've seen the Book of Kells. For Irish people it represents a sense of pride, a tangible link to a positive time in Ireland's past reflected through its unique art. It is truly a symbol of Irishness. Over the next four weeks of this course, we'll be exploring the multiple facets of the Book of Kells. It's not our intention to provide definitive answers to the many questions that surround us.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 secondsRather, we'll be exploring the manuscript through various perspectives and encouraging participants to think for themselves about the meanings that the manuscript holds. In 613, Saint Columbanus wrote to Pope Boniface IV stating, we Irish, inhabitants of the world's edge, are followers of St. Peter and Paul. This is a remarkable statement and tells us about the context in which we are speaking. The Irish saw themselves as Christians and unique, and yet in contact with the centre in Rome. This is the world in which the Book of Kells was created, and this will be our focus this week as we explore the religious and political climate on this island in the context of cultural developments on the mainland.

Skip to 3 minutes and 16 secondsMass produced through print on paper, today we take the making of books for granted. Admiration is directed towards the creativity of the author rather than that of the typesetter, printer, or publisher. Viewed through the modern lens, the Book of Kells is simply a copy of an earlier text-- a new edition, if you like. However, the story of the making of the Book of Kells is exceptional. Next week, we'll be exploring some of the challenges faced in putting together a book on the scale of the Book of Kells.

Skip to 3 minutes and 52 secondsWe'll be looking at the procurement of materials from vellum to pigments and their preparation; at the laborious task of planning and copying the text and illustrations; right down to the binding together of a manuscript that was more than simply a book. When the 12th century cleric Gerald of Wales visited Ireland, he came upon a manuscript similar to the Book of Kells and he advised those who followed in his footsteps to take the trouble to look fairly closely and penetrate with your eyes the secrets of the artistry. You will notice such intricacies so delicate and subtle, so close together and well-knitted, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colouring.

Skip to 4 minutes and 43 secondsThese words of Gerald we will take very seriously in week three of this course when we will focus on some key pages of the manuscript. We will take time to meditate, to observe, to think as we seek to delve deeper into the complexities and the many meanings of the images in this great manuscript. How do you preserve a fragile object and at the same time make it available for all who wish to see it? In the final week of this course, we'll be looking at the long history of the Book of Kells and how it managed to survive over 1,200 years of history. We'll be examining the different meanings and values that it held over the generations.

Skip to 5 minutes and 27 secondsWe'll be looking at the challenges faced today in presenting and preserving the book, and ultimately at what the future holds for Ireland's most important manuscript.

Welcome to the course

Why do more than 1,000,000 people a year come to look at a 1,200 year old book?

Over the next four weeks of this course we will be exploring the multiple facets of the Book of Kells. It is not our intention to provide definitive answers to the many questions that surround the manuscript. Rather we will introduce it through a number of different perspectives to encourage you to think more deeply about what meanings the Book reveals.

Week 1: The History of the Book of Kells

This week we’ll be exploring the cultural background from which the book emerged – looking at the structures of the early Irish Church and visiting the town of Kells, the early monastery from which the manuscript derives its name.

Week 2: Making the Book of Kells

In Week 2 we’ll be joined by our colleagues from the conservation department of the library to look at the technical challenges presented in making a manuscript of this type, and by master calligrapher Tim O’Neill, who will share some of the secrets of the design.

Week 3: Meanings of the Book of Kells

This will be followed in Week 3 with explorations of the possible meanings of the art of the book when it was made.

Week 4: Modern life and the Book of Kells

Week 4 will focus on modern interpretations of the Book and what it means to us today.

At the end of each week you will be asked to complete some multiple choice questions to help you reflect on the course materials.


Find out more about your lead educators Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan, and follow their comments by selecting their profiles below and clicking on the follow square.

Dr Rachel Moss
I am an Associate Professor in the History of Art and Architecture at Trinity College Dublin.
Dr Rachel Moss
Dr Fáinche Ryan
I am an Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Director of the Loyola Institute, Trinity College Dublin.
Dr Fainche Ryan

Silvia Gallagher will also be on hand to help you with any technical queries and comments.

We have also included a glossary at the end of the page which explains some of the key terms used in the course.

Please note that the Book of Kells is now available in digital format for you to explore and zoom in and out of in your own time.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Trinity College Dublin

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