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In this video, Rachel Moss and Fáinche Ryan describe the location of one of the earliest references to the Book of Kells.
In AD 1007, the monastic chronicles record the theft of the great gospel book of Colum Cille, described as the most precious relic in the western world, from the western annex of the church at Kells, more or less where I’m standing now. This is the first definite historical reference that we have to the book now known as the Book of Kells being here at Kells. Thankfully, the manuscript was later recovered and returned, and remained here at Kells until the mid 17th century when it was brought to Trinity College for safekeeping. Today, Kells is a busy market town, but it still retains significant reminders of its monastic past.
In common with most early Irish church settlements, it was surrounded by a circular enclosure. This was partly defensive to protect it from attack, whether by Viking or more local enemy, but it was also symbolic. It had resonance with the Old Testament cities of refuge of the Levites, which had a sacred centre and a less sacred periphery. These, like the early Irish monasteries, were places of sanctuary. Remarkably, given centuries of development, part of the circular enclosure at Kells can still be traced in its unusual circular street plan. Within this lies the church yard where Christian worship continues to the present day.
In the early ninth century when the monastery at Kells was first established, most of the buildings were constructed from timber, and so no longer survive. The earliest buildings now on the site probably date to the 11th century. The round tower served primarily as the bell tower for the site. However, at times of attack it was also a place of refuge. In 1076 we learn that the recently appointed high king of Tara, Murchadh Ó Maolseachlainn was murdered in the tower. A two storey church now known as St. Columba’s House probably also dates to the 11th century.
Its sturdy construction and very small windows suggests that it may have been used to hold some of the more precious possessions of the monastery, perhaps including relics. These would have been protected by an anchorite or a recluse living above in the upper story. A land charter copied into one of the blank pages of the Book of Kells in the late 11th century refers to the building as Dicet Colum Cille and mentions the presence of a medicinal herb garden around it. In common with a number of other early Irish monasteries, Kells was an important centre of artistic production and learning. Aside from its long association with the Book of Kells, the most enduring testimony to this are the high crosses.
A number of these crosses still survive at the site. They were constructed from large blocks of stone, brought here, and then carved with various scenes from the Bible. We know for sure that they were actually carved on the site at Kells because one remains unfinished, possibly because the head broke before it was completed. The high crosses date to roughly a century later than the manuscript the Book of Kells, and the artwork on them is really quite different. That said, there are some parallels.
For example, the scene depicting the wedding feast at Cana when Christ converted water into wine on the broken cross and the depiction of a vine scroll on the tower cross both allude to wine and the wine of the Eucharist, a theme that we find throughout the pages of the Book of Kells. Similarly, there are distinctive features on some of the figures. For example, the crouching warrior on the base of the market cross or the figure of Cain on the tower cross, both of which have pointed chins that we find on many of the figures throughout the pages of the Book of Kells.
That said, it’s unlikely that the masons responsible for carving the high crosses were sitting there with the manuscript open in front of them as they carved.

In 1007AD, chroniclers recorded that the great gospel of Colum Cille, most precious relic of the Western world, had been stolen from the western annexe of the church at Kells.

This is the earliest certain reference that we have to the manuscript now known as the Book of Kells.

Today Kells is a bustling market town, but there are still significant reminders of the early church settlement here. Its unusual curved street pattern reflects the early Christian enclosure around the monastery. The round tower and St Colum Cille’s ‘house’ are remnants of the eleventh-century landscape of the monastery, and the fine carved stone high crosses demonstrate an art style that on the one hand is quite different to that of the manuscript, but on the other speaks to many of the same themes.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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