ONE of the lesser-known glories of the Book of Kells, that supreme example of early Christian insular art, is the spirituality expressed through the visual. The vivid colours of its wide palette, and the skill and complexity of its interlace, are familiar through reproductions, or through seeing the actual work.
We have learned to understand the strange — and, at first sight, naive — depictions of the human body not as failures that contrast jarringly with the more abstract work, but as iconic presentations. They enhance this damaged copy of the Gospels in Latin, made in about the year 800, probably on the island of Iona, and in honour of God and St Columba.
The book is both a copy of the scriptural text and an interpretation. With the help of recent scholarship, we can look again at the intricacies of thought presented through the interconnections of word and image.
THE Gospel from St Matthew for Good Friday opens with a full-page design for the first words: Tunc crucifixerant Xρι cum eo duo latrones — “Then they crucified Christ [and] with him two thieves.”
The page is full of tension. The opening “T” is the rounded body of a beast, the neat interlace that fills its body contrasting with a gaping mouth and sharp teeth, its head turned inwards and limbs contorted, clawed hind-feet stretched above, and fore-feet below. Also in the rounded centre of the letter, around the beast’s teeth are snake-like creatures, while a red vine is being swallowed. A trapped cat’s head stretches upwards, its mouth spouting blood in red dots.
A second beast — a lion — roars, colourful flourishes emerging from between its teeth. Psalm 22, which Jesus starts to recite on the cross, reads (verses 12-13) “Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.”
The cat spewing blood reminds us of the playful cats in the book’s earlier pages, often found in conjunction with the eucharist. Perhaps they symbolise those who seek to follow Christ. Here, the believer is among the snakes writhing in the beast’s jaws, but touched by the vine, its “body” the red border to the first line of the text. They are part of the true believer’s life, written on the heart.
A snake can represent the serpent in the garden that tempted Eve (Genesis 3.1). But snakes can also represent healing, wisdom, and prudence: “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10.16). The snake that sloughs off its skin each year indicates redemption and renewal; and interlaced snakes are depicted frequently in the Book of Kells, and on the associated High Crosses.
In the desert of Sinai, the people of Israel were afflicted by snake-bites (Numbers 21.4-9), and Moses raised a bronze serpent for them to look to for healing. In John’s Gospel, the Son of Man will be lifted up like this serpent, and will draw all people to himself (John 3.13-15, 8.28, 12.32). St Columba, we are told, lifted his hands and blessed Iona, defending it from poisonous snakes. Here, the snakes are ambiguous figures, writhing but trapped, at the drama of the cross.
ALL the letters after the initial “T” are in contrast to its curved tension, in the angular script which can herald a passage that denotes pain. The monogram for Christ — the Greek “Xρι” — and the words after this sign have been placed in the form of a diagonal (saltire) cross, itself an “Χ”, the first letter of Christ’s name. Christ is both on the cross, and is found within the cross. The Word emerges from within the word. More, the word is written on the vellum made from a calf killed for this end.
The border in three places accommodates groups of five figures. Perhaps they are onlookers from afar — though not women as in Matthew’s Gospel (27.55). Being outside the main border, perhaps they depict onlookers from the illustrators’ own century. The designs contain circles, like eucharistic hosts, which link the figures to each other: they are blood-coloured, although the uppermost one is a tiny white circle — even at the cross, there is hope.
The figures do not look at the text or the beasts, but, instead, look at the opposite page (fol. 123v). For the main liturgies, the Book of Kells has a double spread; but for Good Friday we have only the second half, the text. The verso page is blank, for the accompanying illustration was never made.
It is thought that this Gospel book was started on Iona at the end of the eighth century. But the unimaginable occurred: the arrival of Vikings, who attacked in 795, and then in 802, when the monastery was burned, and again in 806, when 68 members died. In 814, many of the community left with their treasures for inland Kells. Work on this Gospel book ceased for a time, and it was never completed. Perhaps the overall planner was injured, others killed or enslaved, in their own crucifixions.
But the crucifixion page contains hope. The beast of the initial letter has a three-headed olive branch for a tail. Noah’s dove (bringing back a branch), and Jesus’s suffering in Gethsemane (the olive-press) are both represented. The page’s border, so stark at first sight, is full of panels of interlace and also tiny peacocks: a European-wide symbol of the resurrection, of Christ, and of all who follow him.
Evil seems to triumph on Good Friday, but resurrection is also present, and open to all. Even while Christ is mocked by priests as foretold in Psalm 22 (fol. 124v), on the next page a small peacock walks along the words “sacerdoti”: priests.
This Passiontide, we live in fear of disaster to our natural world, and of the disease beyond our control. This page brings us back to the ancient nature of lament, the creative art that reaches out to the eternal through remorse, repentance, and the desire for ultimate healing. Lament for the dead, for the skills lost, for those far away or fallen to famine and danger, were part of the lives that produced this work that still speaks to us through its profundity and beauty.
Rosemary Power is a medievalist and a member of the Iona Community. Her book on the spirituality of the Book of Kells will be published by Veritas, Dublin, this summer.