NEAR the start of the Book of Kells, a (Latin) Gospel Book made in about the year 800, most probably on Iona, the island west of the Scottish mainland, comes a portrait of the Virgin and Child (folio 7v).
The image is small; within it, Mary is massive, dominating the space within the elaborate frame, crammed as it is with detail. Her pose and her presentation echo the icons of the Eastern Church, and she has a stylised nose and small mouth, with large, almond-shaped eyes and a distant, contemplative gaze.
She is seated on a high-backed chair, whose base is decorated with a jewelled cross, and whose back ends in a lion’s head — perhaps indicating that Jesus, Lion of Judah, is supporting her as she holds him in his infancy.
David ColemanSt Martin’s cross, Iona
She is dressed as a woman of wealth, with the headdress of a Roman matron. The jewelled brooch at her breast adorns garments that were perhaps once purple, and that have the light, clinging sense of silk. Her halo has a decorated rim, and connects to her head through three shining crosses.
Jesus is even more stylised: the Lord of creation, as well as the child in her arms. His body is of adult shape, and he has long, wavy hair and a beard-line: it is one of the features of the Book of Kells that he later grows a full beard. The faces, hands, and bare feet of both figures are all whitened — the Northern European way of displaying light as coming from within, comparable to the Eastern way of painting over gold leaf.
THE figures also have their human aspects. The Eastern models have been adapted to display humanity in Northern Europe: light-coloured hair and blue eyes — something that we have taken as normal, and forgotten that it was once novel. A single curl escapes from Mary’s head-dress. Jesus, his eyes on his mother, dangles his feet and stretches one hand across her breast, while the other clutches her right hand. Both Mary and the angels have legs, and she has breasts with nipples visible through her clothing: she is a nursing mother. Mary holds Jesus protectively, although with her hands — with the palms strangely turned outwards — she offers him to us, the onlookers.
The four surrounding angels are full of movement. Two above the head of Mary indicate the scene, and their translucent clothes give a sense of movement, while their wings show through Mary’s transparent halo. The two below peep playfully around her chair.
There are half-circle panels on each side, within which two figures have legs entwined as if dancing, perhaps representative of the humanity for whom the Incarnation comes about. In another half-circle above are bird-headed creatures with elongated bodies; similar figures interweave within the border. They may be representatives of the heavens, showing — as we find elsewhere in this work with its complex, interconnected imagery — that all creation sings praise of the incarnation.
MARY is presenting her son to the Magi and thus to all humanity; a scene found also on some high crosses, including two on Iona. The older St Oran’s cross has the delightful detail of the child Jesus turned towards his mother, and with dangling feet, while the St Martin’s cross — still in its original place outside the abbey — has this scene surrounded within its frame by four angels, in the centre of the west face, where it catches the last of the evening’s sun.
David ColemanSt Oran’s cross (detail), Iona
Painted on vellum, the Kells image contains more detail. The right-hand margin is broken by a box containing six small figures, who look not towards Mary and Jesus, but away.
Though it is on a single sheet of vellum, it seems that the portrait was intended to occupy a space beside a richly-embellished summary of the start of Matthew’s Gospel (folio 8r). This begins with the word Nativitas, the “N” having a long tail which stretches down most of the page, ending opposite these six figures. Here comes a line of jagged, discordant, script: “The Magi offer their gifts and the children are slain.”
The six figures link the joyous scene of Virgin and Child with the consequences of the showing at Epiphany, over which Mary’s gaze also passes. The child Jesus is not separate, safe within an unbroken boundary of blessedness, but is human, and vulnerable to the cost and consequences of incarnation.
THE association with innocence and death must have been poignant on Iona, which had its share of plagues, and — at about the time the book and the high crosses were made — suffered the violence of Vikings, eager for plunder and slaves. The book was taken to the greater safety of the new monastery at inland Kells.
St Martin’s cross stood through peace and violence. The effect of the weather means that we can no longer see if the child inclines to his mother or looks outwards, blessing the onlooker. Mary, however, faces the onlooker, offering her child to a world where innocence may bring new hope, or may be shattered. In later centuries, people buried their stillborn babies beneath this cross, under the protection of Mother and Child.
The more complex image on vellum gives us multiple perspectives. Crushed as it may appear within a heavy border, in faded colours that only echo their original vividness, the image is full of stillness and movement, joyousness and grief. Layers of the story — of the showing of Jesus to the peoples of the earth, and the cost — are presented; and were once shown in monasteries marked by high crosses, places of both sanctuary and destruction. They have come to our own world of violence and hope, joy and anxiety, across 12 centuries.
Rosemary Power’s book Image and spirituality: Praying with the Book of Kells will be published by Veritas (Dublin) in spring 2021