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Flaws and imperfections

One would expect such an important, high-class object as the Book of Kells to be made of the best materials and to have been flawless in both text and illustration, but this is not the case.

It is estimated that up to 159 calfskins would have been used in the production of the Book of Kells. Difficulties in procuring such a large quantity of high quality vellum resulted in sheets of uneven thickness and colour being used. As one turns the pages of the manuscript, there are noticeable differences in colour and thickness between the pages. In addition to this, some of the pages contained flaws. Rather than discard these, the scribes either worked around them, or simply patched them before proceeding with their work. There is a good example of this on fol. 316r, where quite a large patch was stitched onto the page.

Figure 1, from the Book of Kells, a patch sticked onto a page Fig 1. Patch on fol. 316r. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Copying an entire gospel book in neat majuscule hand required effort and concentration. From time to time the scribes evidently became distracted, either skipping words by mistake (fol 146v), or in the case of fols. 218v and 219r, the same text has been transcribed twice.

Figure 2, from the Book of Kells, omitted text included at the bottom of the page Fig 2. Fol. 146v, a significant portion of text accidentally omitted has been added to the end of the page. A dotted red cross seven lines down indicates where the text belongs. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Figure 3, from the Book of Kells, a page framed by red crosses Fig 3. The text on fol. 218v is surrounded by red crosses and lines to indicate that it should be ignored as the text is repeated on the following page. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

The copy is also only as good as its model. When transcribing the canon tables (a system that allows links to be made across each of the four gospels, we will be looking at this in more detail next week) the Book of Kells artists appear to have used a flawed model. Rather than being a practical aid to navigating the text, their function in this manuscript is purely decorative.

A small number of pages have also been left unfinished. Most obvious among these are the passages at the start of the Gospel of Matthew that outline the genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17) on fols. 29v – 31v. On fol. 30v, for example, the text has been transcribed, and the outline of the frame of the page scored into the vellum. The scribe/artist had also started to draw in details and to paint them, but both drawing and painting are unfinished giving a useful insight into working practice.

It is not known why this section was never finished. There have been several suggestions. Perhaps it needed to be bound into the book in a hurry, or perhaps it was intentional, as perfection could only be achieved by God, and not within a man-made thing.

Figure 4, from the Book of Kells, an unfinished page Fig 4. Fol. 30v, part of the unfinished section of Matthew 1:1-17. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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