The Book of Kells: Saint Columba’s Scriptorium

The Book of Kells: Saint Columba’s Scriptorium

Tucked away in a back corner of Trinity College Dublin’s campus is an old classroom building which has been retrofitted with all the modern bells and whistles. There’s climate control. There are heat sensors. There are relative humidity monitors. There are low-level soft lights. Alarms. State-of-the-art display cases. Proximity monitors. A gift shop.

All of it was put in to accommodate the Book of Kells.

Jump to visiting information for the Book of Kells.

Book of Kells
Entrance to the Book of Kells exhibit

St. Columba’s Scriptoria

Back in the day, there was a guy called Columba. Later, the Church made Columba a saint for his missionary work in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands and islands. But for a while there, he wasn’t all that popular. He left Ireland in the 560s (chased, some say), and made his way to Scotland. There, he founded several monasteries, including, according to tradition, one on the Scottish island of Iona.

The monastery on Iona was very important for several reasons, but the one that concerns us now is its scriptorium. A scriptorium is essentially a book production center from the pre-Gutenberg days. Usually attached to monasteries, scriptoria consisted of a bunch of monks sitting around copying out whole books and illuminating them. In the days before the printing press, this was as close to mass-production as it got. These scriptoria produced very beautiful books; they often worked on commission for royalty or Church officials to make books which were not only functional, but also statement pieces.

Enter the Vikings

Life in the scriptoria was not easy, though, especially in the British Isles, because the Vikings. They had this nasty habit of raiding Scottish monasteries, stealing everything of worth, then sailing on their merry way. They would often steal books, because many books had bindings of precious metals and jewels. Not having any purpose for the book itself – regardless of its beauty or literary accomplishment – the Vikings would rip the pages out, toss them in the ocean, and keep the bindings to sell later on.

In one particular raid, the monks on Iona grabbed everything they could and paddled to Kells, Ireland, far from the Viking marauders. According to this story, the monks grabbed a particularly precious book and carried it away with them.The book’s new home gave it its name: The Book of Kells.

Trinity College Dublin
The quad at Trinity College Dublin

A Work of Art

We know very little about the Book of Kells after that Viking raid in 806. It entered the record again in 1641, when a rebellion reduced the Kells monastery to rubble. The book was saved, but it doesn’t resurface until 1653, when it was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. There, it sinks once again into an unrecorded existence until someone donated it to Trinity College Dublin. The exact date of the transfer is unknown, but the best guess is 1661. In the mid-19th century, Trinity College began to display the book, and, apart from a few world tours, it’s remained there ever since.

People are excited to see this book, I think, because they hear how beautiful it is. Maybe they have an idea of how important it is to Irish and religious cultures. But I don’t think most people appreciate what it actually is: a relic of high-quality book production from a bygone age. The text itself is not that impressive – entire chapters are missing, some are in there twice, words are left out, etc. If you sat down and read this book to learn about the Gospels, you’d be lost. But the artistry that went into creating that book was amazing.

Someone – or four someones, as recent scholarship suggests – labored over every aspect of that book for months in order to produce the work on display in Dublin. Someone hand-drew each line on each page, applied the gilding, wrote out the script, and blocked out the illustrations. And then, somehow, it survived Vikings, a hasty sea voyage, daily use for hundreds of years, rebellion, fire, and neglect. And still came out the other end with vibrant colors and intact.

The Book of Kells Exhibition

I’ve visited the Book of Kells several times. The first time, we were able to just walk up and into the exhibit without any problem. There weren’t even that many people there. This time, though, the place was absolutely slammed. I chalk this up to increased attention paid to the book. Also the accident of about three different cruise ships having put in at Dublin that morning.

Book of Kells line
The line to see the Book of Kells

The exhibit tells the story of the Book of Kells, as far as it can be pieced together. It also includes some good information about the nature of book production in the first millennium AD, and displays several examples of other books produced around the same time. The design pulls you into the small room at the end, softly lit with a display case in the middle of it.

In the display case is the book itself. Conservators rebound it in the 1950s, separating it into several volumes to reduce the amount of stress on the spine – that’s why there are two books in the case. So, both are the Book of Kells. After you stand around and take in the pages open to display, you can go from beautiful book to beautiful room, and head upstairs to the Old Library of Trinity College.

Old Library
The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin

Visiting the Book of Kells Exhibit at Trinity College Dublin:

Getting there: The Book of Kells exhibition is located in the old library building on the campus of Trinity College Dublin. Trinity College is right in the heart of the city, so it’s easy to walk to. There are also several forms of public transit that stop just off campus, including a LUAS tram line.

Admission: Entry to the exhibit costs €14 for adults, €12 for concessions.

Opening hours:

  • May through September: Monday to Saturday from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM, and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM
  • October through April: Monday to Saturday from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 4:30 PM

Good to know:

  • It’s best to purchase tickets in advance here.
  • Unexpected closures may occur. Check the website to make sure that the exhibit will be open before you visit.
  • Alas, visitors cannot photograph the exhibit or the Book of Kells itself.

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