For me, one of the great joys of travel is having in-person encounters with great art — which I’ve collected in a book called Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces. Here’s one of my favorites:
Jesus Christ sits on a throne and solemnly cradles something very important — a book, the holy word of God. He has a lush head of curly flaxen hair and a thoughtful expression. Seated under an arch, he’s surrounded by a labyrinth of colorful, intricately woven designs.
This illustration from an old Bible tells the story of Jesus. This particular drawing came right at the point in the story (Matthew 1:18) where this heavenly Jesus was about to be born as a humble mortal on earth.
It’s just one page of the remarkable 1,200-year-old gospels known as the Book of Kells. Perhaps the finest piece of art from the so-called Dark Ages, this book is a rare artifact from that troubled time.
It’s the year 800. The Roman empire has crumbled, leaving Europe in chaos. Vikings were raping and pillaging. The Christian faith — officially embraced during the last years of the empire — was now faltering, as Europe was reverting to its pagan and illiterate ways. Amid the turmoil, on the remote fringes of Europe, lived a band of scholarly Irish monks dedicated to tending the embers of civilization.
These monks toiled to preserve the word of God in the Book of Kells. They slaughtered 185 calves and dried the skins to make 680 cream-colored pages called vellum. Then the tonsured monks picked up their swan-quill pens and went to work. They meticulously wrote out the words in Latin, ornamented the letters with elaborate curlicues, and interspersed the text with full-page illustrations — creating this “illuminated” manuscript. The project was interrupted in 806 when Vikings savagely pillaged the monastery and killed 68 monks. But the survivors fled to the Abbey of Kells (near Dublin) and finished their precious Bible.
Christ Enthroned is just one page — 1/680th — of this wondrous book. On closer inspection, the page’s incredible detail-work comes alive. To either side of Christ are two mysterious men holding robes, and two grotesque-looking angels, with their wings folded in front. Flanking Christ’s head are peacocks (symbols of Christ’s resurrection), with their feet tangled in vines (symbols of his Israelite roots). Admittedly, Christ is not terribly realistic: He poses stiffly, like a Byzantine icon, with almond eyes, weirdly placed ears, and E.T. fingers.
The true beauty lies in the intricate designs. It’s a jungle of spirals, swirls, and intertwined snakes — yes, those are snakes, with their little heads emerging here and there. The monks mixed Christian symbols (the cross, peacock, vines) with pagan Celtic motifs of the world around them (circles, spirals, and interwoven patterns). It’s all done in vivid colors — blue, purple, red, green, yellow, and black — meticulously etched with a quill pen. Of the book’s 680 pages, only two have no decoration.
As Christianity regained its footing in Europe, monasteries everywhere began creating similar monk-uscripts — though few as sumptuous as the Book of Kells. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, books became mass-produced…and thousands of monks were freed from being the scribes of civilization.