One summer a few years ago I stayed in student rooms in Trinity College. Although the accommodation was rather spartan with the traditional blue tack scars on the walls, it was so atmospheric to be able to wander around the old buildings of the Dublin university long after all the tourists had gone. Best of all was the chance to visit the Book of Kells as many times as I wanted. (The Library displays a different page each day.) These illuminated manuscripts are one of the wonders of medieval Europe.
Imagine the monks in their stone huts, battered by sea winds, bent over their painstaking work
Strictly speaking, rather than The Book of Kells, named after a town in County Meath, it should be called the Book of Iona, as it's thought that it was monks on that remote Scottish island who were the original artists. They were inhabitants of a monastery founded there in the 6th Century by the Irish monk Columba, or Colm Cille as he's known in Irish. In fact, for many centuries the manuscript was believed to be the great Gospel of Columba. But scholars now place the book in a later period and think it was completed by 800 AD. I find it extraordinary that in such a wild place with limited materials that these men were able to create a work of art that is so delicate and ornate. You can imagine the monks inside their beehive-shaped stone huts, battered by sea winds with squawking gulls outside, bent over their painstaking work. I've visited another early settlement on Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry in the Atlantic and it is hard to express how bleak and remote those lives were.
But it wasn't just forces of nature with which the monks had to contend. The monastery, like many early Christian communities, came under the threat of Viking raids. In 806, following a raid that left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a newly-founded monastery at Kells in County Meath in Ireland to keep them safe. The most likely theory is that the monks took the manuscript with them.
Amazingly since they were written, the majority of the pages have been passed down through the generations with just 60 pages missing. But medieval sources do record that an illuminated manuscript was stolen from the stone church of Kells in 1006 which is likely to have been the Book of Kells. According to the Annals of Ulster it was found “two months and twenty days” later “under a sod.” After fighting in the Cromwellian period, the church at Kells lay in ruins, and in 1653 the book was sent to Dublin by the governor of Kells for safekeeping. A few years later it reached Trinity College where it remains today.
Light of the dark ages
The scale and ambition of The Book of Kells is incredible. Written on vellum, it is estimated that the skins of 185 calves were needed for the project. Practically all of the 680 pages are decorated in some way or another. On some pages every corner is filled with the most detailed and beautiful Celtic designs. This is a description thought by many to be of the Book of Kells by the 12th Century writer Gerald of Wales:
You might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man – Gerald of Wales
"This book contains the harmony of the Four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite. Look at them superficially with the ordinary glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man."
The most extravagant illustrations come on the title pages of the four Gospels, which form the Latin text of the manuscript. I think my favourite is at the beginning of St John's Gospel. The whole page only contains four words, In principio erat verbum: In the beginning was the Word. Then there is the figure of St John himself, with large thoughtful eyes, who is shown holding a book. But far less reputably to his right, there is a smaller figure who seems to be knocking back a goblet of wine, his eyes closed in a alcoholic stupor and totally oblivious of a gigantic monster looming above him. This fantastical creature with sharp white teeth gleaming on the page has its red tongue almost licking the wine. I'm not sure whether this is a parable about the evil thirst of alcoholism or a monkish joke but I love the imaginative instincts behind the illustration.
Glory of glories
The most famous page is known as Chi Rho, which are the first letters of the word Christ in Ancient Greek. The letters themselves are the centrepiece of the folio. The page is covered in a swirling, almost psychedelic design, with extremely elaborate patterns in minute detail. You can stare at this for ages and find new flourishes, tracery and spirals. Some have even described this as an artistic form of doodling, as one line leads to another, weaving backwards and forwards on itself. Every space is filled. In one corner there is an otter killing a fish. Some suggest that this is religious iconography, symbolic of the death of Christ. But of course it would also be a scene that the monks could have observed in their Scottish wilderness.
Lions represent both figures, Judas on the left aggressively biting the more passive figure of Jesus – Bernard Meehan
There are many images of animals throughout the Book of Kells, from exotic peacocks, lions and snakes to more domestic cats, hares and goats. There has been much research into their significance. Some like the goats were presumably part of everyday life but others could have been pagan symbols carried over into the Christian era. The figures often add drama to the gospel stories. For instance if you look at the page in the Gospel of St Matthew that depicts the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, you can see two lions. According to Bernard Meehan who has studied the illustrations, "Lions represent both figures, Judas on the left aggressively biting the more passive figure of Jesus." To us that's almost hidden in the text, but it would have been far more obvious to people at the time.
A range of pigments was employed, including blue made from indigo or woad, native to northern Europe. Orpiment (yellow arsenic sulphide) was used to produce a vibrant yellow pigment. Red came from red lead or from organic sources which are difficult at present to identify. A copper green, reacting with damp, was responsible for perforating the vellum on a number of folios.
The Book of Kells isn’t the only illuminated manuscript in the so-called insular style. Monks from the original monastery founded by St Columba also set up other monastic communities including one on the great rock of Lindisfarne in Northumberland, established by the Ionan monk Aidan in 635. There monks created the lovely Lindisfarne Gospel but the Irish would claim the Book of Kells is the finest of its kind. The 11th Century Annals of Ulster describe the Book of Kells as “primh-mind iarthair domain”, “the most precious object of the Western world”.
One of the experts on the manuscript Bernard Meehan writes "For many in Ireland it symbolises the power of learning, the impact of Christianity on the life of the country, and the spirit of artistic imagination.” That's true for the tens of thousands of visitors who pay homage to the manuscript each year and it’s even captured the imagination of filmmakers. The Secret of Kells, an animated feature about a young boy’s passion for the manuscript was nominated for an Oscar.
So why did the monks go to so much trouble to create these amazing pages? It's as if the book itself flaunted the spiritual qualities of the text to those who saw it. The large pages and illustrations could be seen from further back in the church to make an impact on a congregation that for the most part couldn't read or write. Recent research has shown that books were used in religious processions, enhancing the notion that they were almost objects of worship themselves or at least had talismanic properties for a medieval populace.
There won't be many modern visitors who will be convinced of that but take a look at the images yourself and you will be transported into a magical world of awe-inspiring skill.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.