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Good Friday in the Book of Kells

01 April 2021

Rosemary Power reflects on a Good Friday image from the Book of Kells


THIS year, the lectionary follows Mark’s Gospel and gives us Easter silence: a text ending in mid-sentence, on news told by an angel to grieving women that Christ is risen. In the Book of Kells, Matthew is much illuminated in the Passion narrative, while the resurrection is given full-page treatment in Luke, the Gospel to the Gentiles. Mark provides one full-page illuminated text, one of the strangest and least studied. Although it is for the Good Friday readings, it is shot through with the resurrection, and unites different stages in the redemptive story.

It reads — in an elaborate initial letter followed by stark black angular letters, so distorted that we need to know what they say in order to disentangle them — Erat autem hora tercia: “It was the third hour” (Mark 15.25). Jesus is on the cross. The jagged black script has been used before, in the summary of Matthew’s Gospel, found in the preliminary texts that record the slaughter of the Innocents. Time and creation are out of kilter; the text of scripture disrupted, bewildering.


IN CONTRAST, the opening letter of “Erat” contains colourful detail. It ends in a lion’s head looking inwards in astonishment, surrounded by the many small snakes that often refer to the believers who, in community, surround Christ, and each year slough off their sin like old skins.

The lion’s head reminds us of Mark’s symbol, and is an image for Christ. There may also be a hint of the feared lion which, together with the asp and the basilisk, is present in the psalm (now 91.13) quoted by the devil in the desert when Jesus is urged to jump from the high place. The snakes are present here, a massive one turned away at the end of that first word. In the full-page image, there is also an angel to catch Jesus — one of the legions he could call on for protection in this hour.

Below, in smaller red letters drawn out like flowing blood, it reads — in words not taken from the Vulgate, nor any known older translation — et crucifigentes eum divise[runt]: “and crucifying him, divid[ing]”. This can refer to the dividing up of Jesus’s clothes by the soldiers, which has already been read on the opposite (verso) page. It may be the first line of an ancient mini-litany; for there are two more lines on the following page. It also points us forward, to the time of Jesus’s death and another division, when the veil of the temple is ripped from top to bottom.


WHAT do we make of this angel with knees bent, in homage or because he has just alighted? He holds out a book — the scriptures of the New Covenant — but is solemn, and seems aghast at what he witnesses. His wings touch and unite both text and the golden side-panels (perhaps the pillars of the temple), as so often, in this complex work, recalling the unity of all things. The angel guides us to connect time then and now, Old Covenant and New, Temple and Christ; for the dividing veil is being torn away. We see the text, but must seek what is behind it.


Perhaps this portrayal was intended to indicate, although we see no hands, Christ nailed to the cross, but calm, contemplative, at the gates of the temple. We do see a youthful head peering from the top of the golden column on the right, eyes fixed diagonally across the page. This large head with bouffant golden hair is set on shoulders that are too small, and may have been completed by a slightly later hand than the rest. At first, it draws attention from its corresponding image at the base of the left-hand pillar, the trail of long robes with bare feet walking towards the centre of the page.

The golden colour of the columns draws our eyes, on a page otherwise coloured in crimson, red, purple, and dark blue. They may be the pillars that hold up the curtain of purple, scarlet, crimson, and fine linen before the Holy of Holies. Here is Christ, the New Covenant, divided at Calvary as in the eucharist, uniting all things in heaven and earth, making peace by the blood of his cross.

The head and the feet of the figure move towards the centre; between them, the body of the invisible Christ. With no temple veil, there is no division, and we — the onlookers from afar — can perceive Christ behind the text.


A FINAL resurrection note appears on the opposite page, which relates Jesus’s being brought to this place and raised. Along with the word “Golgotha” (the place of the skull: Mark 15.22), with head contemplating the main illumination, walks a small bird. It is a composite creature, with the claws of an eagle, the head of a dove, and the colouring of the peacock: the ancient European representation of Christ’s resurrection.

Perhaps the page was seen to depict Christ broken on the cross, divided as in the eucharist. All parts of the Gospel narrative are present: the nailing; the division among the unworthy; the suffering; death; and the rending of the veil between heaven and earth. Mark’s written Gospel ends on hearing the word of the resurrection, but without seeing the risen Christ. Yet Christ is here, within the text, and when — through prayer or the fulfilment of death — our eyes are opened, we will see the speaker.


Rosemary Power’s forthcoming book, Image and Spirituality: Praying with the Book of Kells, will be published this summer by Veritas (Dublin).

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