“THE ARREST” is the traditional name for this image, which contains part of the text of St Matthew’s Gospel, and illuminates not just a single event, but several stages of the Passion and resurrection.
Here, the Word is lifted out of the text; is offered, as eucharist, to the people; is the one who suffers, and is taken in the garden; is raised high on the cross, to draw all people to himself; and comes to meet the onlooker on the first day of the week.
The writing in the arch — et hymno dicto exierunt in montem Oliveti, “and the psalm being sung, they went to the Mount of Olives” — continues the text of Matthew’s Gospel from the previous page. Christ, dressed in the traditional red and blue garments, is the largest figure, his bare feet reaching below the arch, his body in the form of the saltire cross (the “X”), which is also the initial letter of his title in Greek. His arms are raised in blessing as he looks directly at the onlooker.
His humanity is shown in the absence of a halo, and he is depicted culturally as northern European rather than the browner figure of older, eastern icons, with their different colour-palette and the use of gold to display light as coming from within.
He has a full beard — something he has been growing throughout the Book of Kells since first shown in his mother’s arms.
The two figures on each side of Jesus are smaller; dark-haired, with pointed beards and neatly trimmed hair. Barefoot like him, they, too, are in movement, holding his arms. They may be taken as his companions in the garden. If they are arresting him, they are doing it while — like Jesus — wearing priestly rather than military garments.
From pots on their heads grow the olives of Gethsemane — the olive-press — that twine around the text. These may point to Psalm 133: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head. . . running down on Aaron’s beard.”
In Revelation 11.4, two witnesses, two olive trees, and two lamps are present in the temple. Psalm 52.8, which begins by complaining of those who champion evil, then declares: “But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.”
The figures may be seen not only on the hostile level of arresting, but also as supporting Jesus, as Moses was supported in prayer, with arms outstretched — a position often used for prayer at the time the Book of Kells was made; the pose of Jesus on the cross. It would, perhaps, have been undertaken communally during the Passion liturgies.
THIS illumination is on a right-hand (recto) page, and the text opposite concerns not the arrest but the Last Supper. At one level, this is the moment of the “fraction” — the breaking of the bread — carried out by two priests, as directed in Adamnán’s Life of St Columba (Book 1, 44).
Related is the popular account of Saints Paul and Anthony meeting in the desert and breaking bread brought to them by a raven, an image found on several High Crosses. The priests are here holding Jesus up to view, and preparing to break and give Christ — the living “X” of his monogram — to those present. Christ is offering himself to the onlooker: held up, blessing, and coming towards us.
This is a joyful reading for a Maundy Thursday liturgy, but the drama is tense with knowledge of the cost to come. The garden is present, in the olives of Gethsemane, in the act of arrest on behalf of the priests. The figures in profile also hint at the false witnesses of the trial, and even at those on either side at the cross.
Meanwhile, on this page, the surrounding arch reflects the canopy of the heavens, but also the temple, with the steps at its base. Jesus is in, but not confined by, the temple; he extends outwards, towards the onlooker. While every part of the image touches another, Jesus is neither touching this arch nor confined to it.
Within it, near the base, are panels with intertwined snakes with their own multiple meanings of evil, healing, and redemption. Level with the head of Jesus, the arch forms crosses that contain more. At the apex — the place of the capstone — two beasts face each other, jaws open, tongues intertwined as they roar.
Overleaf, a new opening, dominated by a roaring beast, warns the disciples of being put to the test. A night-time liturgy is to follow, leading into the day of the trial and the cross. The great beasts of Psalm 22 — the psalm of the cross — that rend and tear will follow Jesus through the Passion, until finally, on Easter Day in the Gospel of Luke, a cheerful pantomime beast roars off the page.
THE illumination presents the eucharist as a unity of the words at the Supper, the taking, blessing, breaking, and giving, the consequences in the mental anguish and then arrest in the garden, and the breaking and giving on the cross.
Then there is Jesus coming towards the onlooker on the day of resurrection; and Jesus walking with two people on the way to Emmaus, where they recognise him in the breaking of bread — the imagery returning us to the text opposite, of the supper in the upper room.
Beyond that again, in the Acts of the Apostles, Mount Olivet was the place of Christ’s ascension, and was understood, too, as the place of his second coming.
After more than 12 centuries, the unity of this approach can touch us, as we face, with bewilderment and grief, our climate crisis and pandemic.
As ever, in this profound illumination of scripture, the Book of Kells offers hope. The resurrection is never obscured: in a single image, we find that those who walk to the cross of Christ also meet him coming towards them in the garden, on the road.
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.