Texts of Power: The Book of Kells

Kells Chi Rho

About the Artist

Nothing is known of exactly who produced the Book of Kells. It is believed to be the work of several different monks followers of the sixth century Irish Saint Columba, on the island of Iona, near the coast of Scotland. Details of design within the book indicate that it was produced sometime in the latter half of the eighth century.

About the Work

The “Chi Rho Page” is one of the most widely pictured of the illuminated pages in the Book of Kells. This volume today comprises 340 vellum leaves, or “folios,” now measuring 330 x 250 mm (after being cropped in the eighteenth century for rebinding). The text and illuminations measure roughly 25 x 170 mm. Its contents, apparently written and drawn by a number of different hands, include some preliminary matter, including canon tables, and the complete Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and part of John. Sometime in the tenth century the book was brought to the town of Kells, northwest of Dublin, probably by monks fleeing Viking raids on their coastal monasteries. In 1007 c.e., the book was stolen and damaged; up to 30 folios are thought to have been lost from the original. Recovered soon afterwards, the book was finally given to Trinity College in Dublin the sixteenth century, where it is now held.

Related Texts and References

Gospels of Matthew and John.

Lavin, Irving, “The Art of Art History: A Professional Allegory,” Leonardo, Vol. 29, No. 1 (1996), 29-34.

Ryan, Michael, “Manuscript Writing and Illumination, “Encyclopedia of Irish History and Culture. Ed. James S. Donnelly, Jr. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, 415-417.

The Chi-Rho Page from the Book of Kells: “The Word Made Flesh”

Web exhibit by Dr. Allen Farber of State University of New York College at Oneonta


Picturing the Power of Words

Meyer Schapiro is said to have remarked that “. . . for the Celts, who were emerging from a primitive state of illiteracy, the letters of the alphabet had something of the quality of magical signs.” Schapiro’s remark invites us to consider what kinds of meaning the artist has inscribed within the designs of the two letters of the famous “Chi-Rho Page” of the Book of Kells.

One train of associations might begin with the opening verse of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . .” In fact, the Chi-Rho page begins the 18th verse of the Gospel of Matthew. In Latin, the text begins “XPI autem generation . . .” in translation: “Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”

Given these verses, and that the Greek letters Chi and Rho are the first letters of “Christ,” what can we make of the artist or artists’ intent in the “Chi-Rho Page”? What has the artist included beyond the intricate motifs that run through and around each letter? Does the intricacy of the page’s designs contribute to Schapiro’s sense that they have more than a purely decorative purpose, i.e. that they convey how literacy can seem a kind of magical power? What difference, if any, does it make to call the designs “magical” rather than “religious?” What difference does it make to see the letters’ designs as magically or religiously potent or, alternatively, decorative?

Religion and Art

A number of religious traditions have treated the letters and words of their script as themselves having spiritual significance. For example, Judaic and Islamic religious texts are often as elaborately designed and intricately executed as the Book of Kells.

How might we distinguish (if at all) between an object of worship and an object of art? Can one object be seen as both at the same time (by the same people, i.e. its worshipers)? What commonalities and/or differences are there between how we “practice” religion and how we “practice” art? Are there different kinds of meanings that these two terms identify? Considering books in particular, how are they objects of worship? of art? for use? Has our view of books changed over time? And our sense of the power of literacy?

Our Texts of Power

Consider what kinds of religious, magical and/or artistic significance we give words, letters, and/or texts of any kind today. Can you think of any examples of such that compare to the apparent significance that the illuminators of the Book of Kells gave to the “Chi Rho Page”? Cull from your daily life and all the letters, words and texts you encounter examples that have been lent some extra meaning through formal design. What kinds of meanings do your examples convey?

Alternatively, are there letters, words and/or whole texts that you value especially highly? Why? Are there ways that you might design them in order to imbue them with the significance they have for you? Pick such a letter/word/text and design it according to how you perceive its meaning, and/or would convey its meaning to others.

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