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The Book of Kells – Christ Crowned – Rick Steves’ travel blog


For me, one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is personal encounters with great works of art – which I have collected in a book called Europe’s 100 best masterpieces. This is one of my favourites:

Jesus Christ sits on the throne and solemnly embraces a very important thing – a book, the Holy Word of God. He has a lush head of curly linen hair and a thoughtful expression. Sitting under an arch, it is surrounded by a maze of intricately woven colorful designs.

This illustration from an ancient Bible tells the story of Jesus. This specific drawing came at the point in the story (Matthew 18:1) where this heavenly Messiah was about to be born as a humble human being on earth.

It is just one page of the wonderful 1,200-year-old gospels known as the Book of Kells. Perhaps the finest piece of art from the so-called Dark Ages, this book is a rare artifact from that turbulent time.

It’s the year 800. The Roman Empire collapsed, leaving Europe in shambles. The Vikings were raping and plundering. The Christian faith – formally espoused during the last years of the empire – was now faltering, as Europe was reverting to its pagan and illiteracy ways. Amidst the turmoil, on the far fringes of Europe, lived a group of Irish monks specialized in tending to the coals of civilization.

These monks worked to preserve the word of God in the Book of Kells. They slaughtered 185 calves and dried their skins to make 680 cream-colored pages called parchment paper. Then the two-toned monks took their pens and went to work. They meticulously wrote the Latin words, decorated the letters with elaborate symbols, and mixed the text with full-page illustrations – creating this “illuminated” manuscript. The project was halted in 806 when Vikings brutally looted the monastery and killed 68 monks. But the survivors fled to Kells Abbey (near Dublin) and completed their precious Bible.

The Crowned Christ Is Only One Page – 1/680y From this amazing book. On closer inspection, the page’s amazing detail work comes alive. On the sides of Christ there are two mysterious men holding a robe, and two angels of hideous appearance, their wings folded forward. The head of Christ is surrounded by a peacock (a symbol of Christ’s resurrection), and their feet are intertwined in vines (symbols of his Israelite roots). Admittedly, Christ is not terribly realistic: He stands stiffly, like a Byzantine icon, with almond eyes, oddly positioned ears, and ET fingers.

The real beauty lies in the intricate designs. It’s a jungle of snails, swirls, and intertwining snakes – yes, these are snakes with their little heads popping up here and there. The monks blended Christian symbols (cross, peacock, vines) with the pagan Celtic motifs of the world around them (circles, spirals, and interlocking patterns). All in bright colors – blue, purple, red, green, yellow and black – delicately engraved with a quill pen. Of the book’s 680 pages, only two are without frills.

When Christianity regained its foothold in Europe, monasteries everywhere began creating similar monastic manuscripts – although few were as grandiose as the Book of Kells. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, books became mass-produced … and thousands of monks were liberated from being the book of civilization.





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