Knots don’t always get much respect. Think about how we use the word. Don’t get your knickers in a knot. My stomach’s in knots. Not much good about knots in those phrases. But when you are talking about jewelry and design, Ireland wrote the book on knots, and the whole world wants to read it… or at least visit it. The Book of Kells is perhaps our most famous piece of art, not least because of the amazing knot work it features. In fact, the Book of Kells is in such demand that it has recently gone online.
Not that long ago, seeing the Book of Kells meant you visited the Long Room in the library at Trinity College and very quietly gazed at the page on display that day. Then Trinity wised up and developed a world class visitors’ center so large numbers of people could see more of the book and learn about its history. And this year, Trinity launched a website displaying Ireland’s most famous book. Of course, everyone and their dog needs an app these days so the Book of Kells has one too, with plenty of informative and engaging history and context. It’s more than a pretty font, you know.
So what exactly is this book that has inspired so many artists and jewelry makers through the centuries? The Book of Kells is actually an illuminated manuscript version of the four Gospels. The text is in Latin and the book is made of a prepared calfskin known as vellum. It is linked to the Columban monastery built in Kells, County Meath in the early 800s, although all or at least most of the book was written on the Scottish island of Iona at the monastery saint Colum Cille founded there. The monks fled to Kells after a particularly brutal Viking raid in 806, taking the book with them. Of course, history does not tell us with certainty whether or not it was finished at the time. It obviously was not written quickly!
The gloriously lavish artwork of the Book of Kells is what has made it so famous. Its intricate, twisted human and animal figures and the knot work adorning its pages along with the beautiful design of the letters themselves reflect the true passion the Columban monks had for their faith and for art itself. While it can be fun to study and discover the mean of some Celtic knot work, really when you look at how the monks found ways to incorporate it throughout the Book of Kells, you can say that all knot work really boils down to a love of beauty.
There is only one Book of Kells, but there are countless ways to indulge a love of Celtic knot work. Knot work designs are hugely popular for everything from tattoos to embroidery and of course jewelry. Not everyone appreciates tattoos and embroidery, but it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t love a beautiful knot work pendant or pair of earrings.