5 fascinating facts about the Book of Kells

Here are five remarkable facts about the Book of Kells, one of Ireland’s greatest treasures.

5 fascinating facts about the Book of Kells that you probably didn't know

The Book of Kells is well-known globally as one of the world’s most famous medieval manuscripts. This stunning 9th-century manuscript (a.k.a. Trinity College Dublin MS 58) documents the four Gospels of the life of Jesus Christ and is without a doubt one of Ireland’s greatest treasures.

Located in Dublin, this text is renowned for its lavish illustrations, outstanding artistic craftsmanship, and the air of mystery that surrounds its origin. There is so much about the Book of Kells that we do not know, but what we do know is truly remarkable.

Here are 5 fascinating facts about the Book of Kells!

5. The question of where the Book of Kells was written has long been debated. 

Facts about the Book of Kells include the debate about where it was written
Credit: @are_we_nearly_there_yet_ / Instagram

There has been a long and controversial debate about the place of origin of the Book of Kells. It takes its name from the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, but the book has also been venerated as the gospel book of Saint Colum Cille, and as a relic of the saint, as indicated by a poem added to the manuscript in the 15th century.

Most academics tend to attribute its creation to the monastery of Iona, founded by St. Colum Cille on the island of Iona off the coast of western Scotland. Following a Viking raid on Iona in 806 AD, the Columban monks took refuge at the monastery at Kells, and it is believed by these scholars that they brought their stunning creation with them.

One the other side of the debate, some academics attribute the manuscript solely to Kells. Others attribute the creation of the Book of Kells to both sites, arguing that it is likely the manuscript moved from Iona to Kells, but work took place on it in both locations.

What we do know is that in 1641, the Abbey of Kells was destroyed and the manuscript was sent to Dublin. Twelve years later, the manuscript reached Trinity College Dublin, where it has stayed ever since and has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College since the mid-19th-century.

The Book of Kells Exhibition is a must-see on the itinerary of all visitors to Dublin and gives a great insight into the history of this sensational text and its many mysteries.  

4. According to the Annals of Ulster, the Book of Kells was once stolen. 

Facts about the Book of Kells include the record that it was stolen
Credit: @thebookofkellsofficial / Instagram

Shrouded in a haze of mystery, there is a lot that we do not know about the Book of Kells and likely never will know. It remained at the Abbey of Kells in County Meath throughout most of the Middle Ages, a site that throughout the 10th century suffered many Viking raids.

The earliest mention of the manuscript in the historical record can be found in an entry in the Annals of Ulster. Here it is described as “the chief relic of the western world,” and it is recorded that it was stolen from Kells in 1006 for its ornamental cumdach (shrine).

Luckily, the manuscript was later found again buried in the earth, though unfortunately this time without its ornamental cover. It was returned to Kells and remained there until the destruction of the monastery.

3. Parts of the Book of Kells are missing.

Facts about the Book of Kells include the fact that parts of it are missing
Credit: @thebookofkellsofficial / Instagram

The Book of Kells consists of 340 high-quality vellum (calfskin) leaves, also called folios. This is made up of 680 pages, a number of which contain the dazzling illustrations that the manuscript is best known for.

Since 1953, the manuscript was bound into four volumes, and two are on public display at any given time and then rotated. One is usually opened to display one of the major decorated pages, and the other to show two pages of script.

It is truly fascinating that so much of this ancient manuscript still exists to be seen today. It is estimated that about 30 folios have gone missing over the years, indicated by gaps in the written text and by the absence of some significant illustrations.

It is likely that the majority of these folios went missing during the Middle Ages. It is also possible that the force of ripping the manuscript free from its ornate cover when it was stolen from Kells may account for the missing folios from the beginning and end of the manuscript.

2. Over 1 million people visited the Book of Kells in 2018.

The Book of Kells Exhibition in Dublin is popular among tourists

Over the years, an average of 500,000 people have visited the Book of Kells attraction in Trinity College Dublin each year, and the numbers have continually been on the rise.

In 2014, 662,679 people visited the site, and this figure jumped to over a million people in 2018. Reportedly more than a third of visitors in 2018 came from the United States to see for themselves the wonders of the Book of Kells.

Among the many admirers of the manuscript were Britain’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, who came to view the Book of Kells during their visit to Dublin in July 2018.

1. The stunning manuscript was created by more than one person.

More than one person worked on the manuscript

Topping our list of fascinating facts about the Book of Kells is that it was written by not one person, but several! We do not know why this spectacular manuscript was created or why such monumental work and craftsmanship went into its creation.

While the Book of Kells is indeed beautiful in its illustration, the written text has a significant amount of mistakes and a lot of content is repeated, suggesting that the manuscript was likely used for display or ceremonial purposes rather than being used for reading or studying the Gospels.

It is believed that three artists produced the beautifully decorated pages of the manuscript—one of whom could create illustrations of such extraordinary fineness and delicacy that some of his work contains such fine detail that it can only be truly appreciated under a magnifying glass.

It is also believed that four scribes copied the text, all of whom displayed individual characteristics and stylistic traits while working within the scriptorium style.

One of the key unanswered questions is whether any of the artists or scribes were the same person. Unfortunately, despite all the facts about the Book of Kells that we do know, it seems we may never truly know the identities of these talented individuals; however, we must admit, that is one of the many mysteries that make the Book of Kells even more fascinating.