Book review: The Book of Kells, edited by Bernard Meehan

Circa 800 AD: A manuscript from the illuminated gospel known as the Book of Kells. Picture: Getty
Circa 800 AD: A manuscript from the illuminated gospel known as the Book of Kells. Picture: Getty
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YOU should never judge a book by its content. Words and ideas are all very well, but they’re never the whole story: a book is a created object; an artefact.

The Book of Kells, edited by Bernard Meehan

Thames & Hudson, £60

Even the tattiest paperback represents the sum of someone’s labours; its physical form – however battered – is a statement in itself. A written work is an emissary sent out into the world on its author’s behalf: “Go little book…”, as the Latin poets said. As such, it should command respect. Once when Walter Benjamin was on the point of opening a new book by a “valued, cultured and elegant friend”, he tells us: “I caught myself in the act of straightening my tie.”

The modern Marxist intellectual is on the same page here as the medieval scribe, of whose work The Book of Kells is pretty much the ne plus ultra. With over 80 full-colour, full-page facsimiles and scores of blown-up details, Bernard Meehan’s new book brings out the heart-stopping splendour of this medieval masterpiece. This sumptuously illuminated vellum edition of the Gospels, created around the end of the eighth century, is the pride of the “Land of Saints and Scholars”, though it’s arguably no more “Irish” an icon than the Edinburgh-born James Connolly.

Many scholars believe that the Book was actually written on Iona and taken to the Abbey of Kells in County Meath for safekeeping after the start of the Viking raids.

There’s no disputing its stunning beauty, though – or the heart-stopping skill of the scribes who made this book what the 11th-century Annals of Ulster characterised (quite understandably) as “the most precious object of the western world”. As striking as the amazingly intricate overall designs are the quirky (and often, surely, comic) details. Meehan makes a fascinating guide. In so far as he can be, at least: for The Book of Kells, as he’s quick to remind us, is a profoundly mysterious work – its script, its iconography, its text, the techniques its makers used; its very origins remain obdurately obscure.

But then that was of a piece with an aesthetic – and a theology – that saw beauty as a guarantee of goodness and appreciated mystery as a guarantee of truth. All but impenetrable in places even to those thoroughly versed in the Latin of the Vulgate, The Book of Kells seems to have been conceived to be exhibited, not read. Its makers had no truck with transparency – no thought that ordinary believers had a right to see for themselves what their scripture said. On the other hand, they clearly believed with a passion that the word – and work – were much more than their immediate meaning; that they were worthy of reverence and a degree of ceremony. A truth we may wish to hold on to in the age of the iPad and the Kindle.