An Leabhar Cheanannais.

The Four Evangelists, from The Book of Kells courtesy of Brian Keller

Music brought me to Doolin and County Clare, but it was a very different art form that first brought me to Dublin. Ireland’s most famous illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells, or  An Leabhar Cheanannais, has enchanted me for many years. Having done a bit of calligraphy, as well as desktop publishing, I have had a long time interest and appreciation of lettering, fonts, and page layout, both with pen and ink and in the new digital forms. So it was with great anticipation that I made my way to Trinity College Dublin to finally lay my eyes on this medieval work of art and phenomenal technical feat. In an earlier post I told the story of my embarrassing incident outside the ‘ancient’ door at the side of the museum which houses The Book of Kells and the Old Library at TCD. But once I finally found the correct entrance, I was rewarded with a view of the treasure I had been in awe of for a very long time.

Considered Ireland’s finest National Treasure, The Book of Kells, which was created by Irish monks around the early 9th century, contains the four gospels written in Latin. The calligraphy and artwork was done on vellum (prepared calfskin) and decorated with magnificent designs of geometric patterns, celtic knots and swirls of bold and brightly colored inks and, if I remember correctly – gold leaf, in illustrations so intricate that you need a magnifying glass to appreciate them fully. Along with these beautiful and intricate designs, the real fun comes from the illustrations of human beings and animals which are worked into the text and even help form some of the letters. Some of these illustrations are so comical, and even a bit wicked, that you can’t look at them without feeling that you are getting a glimpse into the minds of some very talented monks having a bit of fun with their calling!

A great example of the human hands, and minds, behind such wonderful manuscripts comes, not from The Book of Kells, but in a copy of St. Paul’s Epistles, which was written in Irish, around the 8th century at Reichenau Monastary. In the margin of the text is found a poem, written and probably composed, by an Irish monk who was working on the manuscript. This charming poem is about his cat, Pangur Bán. Following are the first and last verses of the eight verse poem (translated from Irish):

Pangur Bán

I and Pangur Bán, my cat,

‘Tis a like task we are at;

Hunting mice is his delight,

Hunting words I sit all night.

Practice every day has made

Pangur perfect in his trade;

I get wisdom day and night,

Turning Darkness into light.

Life in medieval Ireland could not have been easy, especially for the poor, but even the wealthy had their challenges with so many bloody battles and skirmishes and the constant need to defend territory from both foreign invaders and even the clan on the next mountain who wanted a bit more power! And being a monk was not without its difficulties and risks. However to me, there could have been few occupations in that era as rewarding, both spiritually and artistically, as that of the monks who spent their lives creating these beautiful works of art for the eyes, mind and soul.

My son recently brought to my attention an animated film that is based upon these monks and The Book of Kells, and has been nominated for this year’s Oscars in the Best Animated Film category. “The Secret of Kells” is due to come out this March and I can’t help but think that an artistic treasure like The Book of Kells would attract animators with a great respect for its history and beauty. And considering the animated cat in the film has the name “Pangur Bán”, I think I am in for a treat! Meanwhile, here is the trailer for your enjoyment: