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Posts Tagged ‘Book of Kells’

The Book of Kells,  Trinity College Dublin MS 58 f27

The Book of Kells, Trinity College Dublin MS 58 f27

In the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, the gift on the fourth day (today) is “four calling birds”. These represent the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the writers of the four gospels in the New Testament. You can see their symbols in the picture above, on a page from the Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin MS 58 f.27). Matthew is the angel, or winged man ; Mark is the winged lion ; Luke is the winged ox ; John is the eagle. While studying the Book of Kells, I have heard tell again and again how Gerald of Wales described it as the work of angels, not of man, in his 1185 work Topographia Hibernica:

Hic Majestatis vultum videas divinitus impressum; hinc mysticas Evangelistarum
formas, nunc senas, nunc quaternas, nunc binas alas habentes; hinc aquilam, inde
vitulum, hinc hominis faciem, inde leonis; aliasque figuras fere infinitas. Quas si
superficialiter et usuali more minus acute conspexeris, litura potius videbitur
quam ligatura; nec ullam prorsus attendes subtilitatem, ubi nihil tamen praeter
subtilitatem. Sin autem ad perspicacius intuendum oculorum aciem invitaveris, et
longe penitus ad artis arcana transpenetraveris, tam delicatas et subtiles, tam
arctas et artitas, tam nodosas et vinculatim colligatas, tamque recentibus adhuc
coloribus illustratas notare poteris intricaturas, ut vere haec omnia potius angelica
quam humana diligentia jam asseververis esse composita. (Book V)

Translation: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.

(Note: translation is from E. H. Alton’s Evangeliorum Quattuor Codex
Cenannensis
(Berne, 1950-1), p.15, quoted in Fran├žoise Henry, The Book of Kells: Reproductions from the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1977), p.165. I found the original Latin quotation in Amelia Sargent’s PhD thesis Visions and Revisions: Gerald of Wales, Authorship, and the Construction of Political, Religious, and Legal Geographies in Twelfth and Thirteenth Century Britain, University of California, Berkeley (2011).)

It is not certain that Gerald was writing of the Book of Kells, although recent scholarship suggests this to be the case; he may have been describing a similar book, a possible Book of Kildare, where he wrote this part of his text. The Book of Kells deserves such a description even were it not the original target, in the richness of its colours and the vivid strangeness of its patterns of text and image.

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Roman de la Rose

The garden in the Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is one of my favourite such spaces in all of medieval literature. The text to your left (in Old French, should you be that way inclined) gives a rich description of said garden, filled with apple trees, almond trees, fountains, flowers of all colours and perfumes. It’s a place where the normal rules don’t apply. Anything can happen in such a garden. (more…)

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