Pilgrimage to Ireland: The Book of Kells at Trinity College

DUBLIN — What do you think of when you hear the country of “Ireland”? Some think of stout beer and aged whiskey, others leprechauns and red hair, and still some others (though fewer they may be) who think dreamily of centuries-old illuminated manuscripts and the colleges that house them.

Trinity College in Dublin, to be exact, holds many a wondrous treasure for the insatiable scholar and fewer curiosities for the vaguely obligated tourist. For me, it held one of the crown jewels of literature, The Book of Kells.

I arrived at the library exhibit entrance and purchased my ticket to view the book just before it started to rain. I was personally offended at how few people were actually interested in experiencing this cultural and historical treasure and aghast at how many people sped through the exhibit, which was admittedly small and I am one of those people who must read EVERY. SINGLE. PLAQUE.

The exhibit existed of two rooms, the antechamber which explained the history of literacy in Ireland and explained many of the art motifs used with in the book, and the room that housed the book itself.

The ante-chamber held stone pillars engraved with the early Irish alphabet and wall panels explaining the alphabet and how it was used. Vellum and quill pens were also displayed along with descriptions of how they were prepared and used to make manuscripts like The Book of Kells.

A small maze-like series of fake walls showcased enlarged illustrations from the book, defining some of its symbols. Snakes, I was surprised to learn, were a symbol of the Resurrection as many in the medieval age believe that snakes died and were reborn as they shed their skins.

Celtic knots and their importance to Irish Christian theology, religious iconography, and many of the motifs were explained in order to prepare the viewer to understand the true beauty of the book in the next room.


The Book of Kells is hailed as the pinnacle of manuscript illumination and rightly so, with its sweeping illustrations of Christian truths translated into symbols and pictures. The book — a stunning collection of the Gospels in Latin written around the year 800 — is thought to have been crafted in the ninth century by Columbian monks, though where remains uncertain.

Composed of 680 pages, each one is made from the highest quality vellum, calfskin, and contains 10 complete full-page illustrations. No page is without some sort of embellishment, be it the lettering of certain words or even a decorative border, the scribes who crafted the manuscript were dedicated to ensuring that each page honored the holy text it held.

Two of its volumes (having been re-bound in sections to preserve the text) lies on display in a darkened room. You have ascend a few steps to access the room and I must admit, I felt like a wizened mage coming to consult my trusty tome.

The books are kept under thick glass to protect from dust, people breath, and grabby hands. One volume was opened to one of its full page illustrations, perhaps the most famous, The Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each evangelist is accompanied by a symbol meant to represent them; man, lion, calf, and eagle respectively. The second volume was open to a passage of the gospels, which, I could not tell due to the unfamiliar style of script and my own tragic knowledge of Latin.

Taking photos is not permitted in order to preserve the ink and mysticism. For maximum enjoyment, I suggest elbowing your way to the front of the table and pressing your nose flat to the glass. This may be harder to do during Christmas and Easter, when there are even more visitors than usual to the site. This may also upset some people, but they generally leave you alone if you start weeping from the beauty before you.

One of the oldest surviving illuminated Gospels from the British Isles, the stunning beauty of this Christian and cultural relic cannot be over emphasized. Far more valuable than the Declaration of Independence but arguably just as important, The Book of Kells truly makes me feel like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure. I’d risk life and limb to steal it.

Kristin Pender is a student at The King’s College in New York City.