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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds In all the places I’ve been to– Rome, Zurich, Trieste– I have brought it about with me and I have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have. So wrote James Joyce about his copy of the Book of Kells. The transformation of the Book of Kells from being just a medieval Bible to being artist muse and national symbol goes back to the mid-19th century. This was the period of the Industrial Revolution– a time of great change, where people sought security by looking back to their past. It was also a time of the flourishing of national histories.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 seconds In Ireland, historians looked back to the period prior to the 12th century– the time of colonisation of Ireland by the Anglo Normans. They sought out evidence of its sport, its literature, its language, and its art. Up until the mid-19th century, the Book of Kells remained relatively inaccessible. Stored in the vaults of the library at Trinity College, it was available for study for Fellows of the college, their acquaintances, and students. This was the period before photography. So the only way of making its artwork more accessible was through laborious copying with pen and watercolour. With the introduction of new print technologies in the mid-19th century, some of these earlier copies were published. One such example is the work of Joseph Westwood.

Skip to 1 minute and 54 seconds We know that he had direct access to the manuscript, because he signed his initials on the last folio. The difficulties in replicating the intricacy of the pages of the Book of Kells are evident in these early copies. Although the accuracy of early reproductions of art from the Book of Kells left something to be desired, it soon caught the public imagination. And different letters and motifs from the book were soon to be found– not only in books dealing with the history of Irish art– but also in manuals for designers. By the 1880s, it was possible to buy a range of products decorated with Book of Kells motifs.

Skip to 2 minutes and 38 seconds Whether broches or bracelets formed from letters from the Book of Kells, pottery, furniture, or indeed embroidery on aristocratic ladies dresses– Book of Kells motifs became the height of fashion, and were seen as an appropriate way to express not only one’s knowledge of Irish history, but also one’s Irishness. This role as an expression of Irish national identity continued into the 20th century and the foundation of the Irish state. The motifs from the Book of Kells were merged with the more fashionable Art Nouveau style to create whole new artworks, reflective of our nationality. One example of this are the war memorial books commissioned from the artist Harry Clark to commemorate the Irish war dead from World War I.

Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds The borders of these books are decorated with sinuous interlace designs that reflect at the same time the art of the Book of Kells, but also the more fashionable Art Nouveau style. Moving into modern times– just as a visitor returning from Paris might have bought a key ring with the Eiffel Tower on it, so to tourists returning home from Ireland can avail of a range of souvenirs decorated with Book of Kells imagery. Somebody may purchase a tie decorated with a Book of Kells animal– perhaps simply to reflect that they have ticked the Book of Kells off their bucket list– or it may simply be because they appreciate the design.

Skip to 4 minutes and 16 seconds But it may also continue to be an expression of their affiliation with Ireland.

The Book of Kells in popular culture

For almost two hundred years now, the Book of Kells, ‘the most Irish thing we have’, has provided inspiration to all manner of artists.

The transformation of the Book of Kells, from ‘just’ an ancient illustrated bible to both muse and national icon goes back to the mid nineteenth century. As this was the period that preceded photography, the only means of making its now famous art more widely available was through manual copying, usually with pen and watercolour.

However, with the public exhibition of the manuscript and the introduction of photography, the artwork gradually became more famous and was reproduced in all manner of contexts. As an expression of what was seen as pure ‘Celtic’ art it also took on the role of national symbol, and was used as a means of expressing ‘Irishness’.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Trinity College Dublin

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