The Book of Kells – Christ Enthroned – Rick Steves’ Travel Blog

For me, one of the great pleasures of travel is having personal encounters with great art, which I have collected in a book called: Europe’s top 100 masterpieces. Here is one of my favorites.

Jesus Christ sits on a throne and solemnly cradles something very important: a book, the holy word of God. He has a lush head of curly flaxen hair and a thoughtful expression. Seated under an arch, she is surrounded by a maze of colorful, intricately woven designs.

This example from the old Bible tells the story of Jesus. This particular drawing appeared at the very point in history (Matthew 1:18) where this heavenly Jesus was about to be born as a lowly mortal on earth.

It is just one page of the remarkable 1,200-year-old gospels known as the Book of Kells. This book, perhaps the best work of so-called Dark Age art, is a rare artifact from those troubled times.

It is the year 800. The Roman Empire has collapsed, leaving Europe in chaos. The Vikings raped and plundered. The Christian faith, which had been officially accepted in the last years of the empire, was now on the wane as Europe returned to its pagan and ignorant ways. Amid the turmoil, on the far reaches of Europe, lived a group of Irish scholar monks dedicated to tending the embers of civilization.

These monks strove to preserve God’s word in the Book of Kelsi. They butchered 185 calves and dried the hides to produce 680 cream-colored pages called parchment. Then the tonsured monks took their swan pens and went to work. They meticulously spelled out the words in Latin, decorated the letters with elaborate curlicues, and crossed the text with full-page illustrations to create this “illuminated” manuscript. The project was interrupted in 806 when the Vikings savagely looted the monastery and killed 68 monks. But the survivors fled to Kells Abbey (near Dublin) and finished their precious Bible.

The throne of Christ is only one page, 1/680th – about this wonderful book. Upon closer inspection, the page’s incredibly detailed work comes to life. On either side of Christ are two mysterious men holding robes, and two grotesque-looking angels with their wings folded in front. Flanking Christ’s head are peacocks (symbols of Christ’s resurrection) with their feet entwined in vines (symbols of his Israelite roots). Let’s admit that Christ is not so realistic. he poses as rigid as a Byzantine icon, with hazel eyes, oddly placed ears and ET fingers.

True beauty lies in intricate design. It is a jungle of spirals, eddies, and entwined snakes; yes, these are snakes with little heads sticking out here and there. Monks mixed Christian symbols (cross, peacock, vines) with the pagan Celtic motifs (circles, spirals and interwoven patterns) of the world around them. Everything is done in bright colors: blue, purple, red, green, yellow and black; with a finely engraved pen. Out of the 680 pages of the book, only two have no decoration.

As Christianity regained its footing in Europe, monasteries everywhere began to produce similar monastic registers, although few were as opulent as the Book of Kells. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, books began to be mass produced…and thousands of monks were freed from being the scribes of civilization.

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