The World’s Most Beautiful Tome
Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College, is home to the 9th-century illuminated Book of Kells. Founded in 1592, Trinity (familiarly known as TCD, Trinity College, Dublin) boasts an impressive roster of alumni that includes Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, and Samuel Beckett. But its most important role today is as privileged custodian for this early medieval manuscript, the most important—and the most beautiful—work of art to survive from the early centuries of Celtic Christianity. Each page is magnificently decorated with elaborate patterns and mythical animals, influenced by the hand-wrought metalwork traditions of that period.
The illumination is unlike any other in the intricacy, complexity, and variety that cover every one of its 680 pages, rebound in the 1950s into four separate volumes. Such fanciful illumination by the scribes and monks of the monastery of Kells was called “a work not of men, but of angels” by a 13th-century chronicler.
The Book of Kells is housed in the ground-floor Colonnades area of the college’s Old Library, built in 1712 and enlarged in the 19th century. It still suffers from lack of shelf space to accommodate the quarter of a million volumes stacked floor-to-lofty-ceiling. It is one of eight buildings on the 40-acre site that collectively hold more than 4 million volumes: Trinity College has received one copy of every Irish or British book published since 1801.