Topographia Hibernica (A Topography of Ireland) (c. 1188)
Chapter 38: Of a Book Miraculously Written
Among all the miracles in Kildare, none appears to me more wonderful than that marvelous book which they say was written in the ti[m]e of the Virgin at the dictation of an angel. It contains the Four Gospels according to St. Jerom[e], and almost every page is illustrated by drawings illuminated with a variety of brilliant colours. In one page you see the countenance of the Divine Majesty supernaturally pictured; in another, the mystic forms of the evangelists, with either six, four or two wings; here are depicted the eagle, there the calf; here the face of a man, there of a lion; with other figures in almost endless variety…
…But if you apply yourself to a more closer examination, and are able to penetrate the secrets of the art displayed in these pictures, you will find them so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn, and the work of interlacing so elaborate, while the colours with which they are illuminated are so blended, and still do fresh, that you will be ready to assert that all this is the work of angelic, and not human, skill…
Chapter 39: How the Book was Composed
…before the morning on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood before him in a dream and showing him a picture drawn on a tablet which he had in his hand,[and] said to him, “Do you think that you can draw this picture on the first page which you propose to copy?” The scribe, who doubted his skill in such exquisite art, in which he was uninstructed and had no practice, replied that he could not. Upon this the angel said, “…[e]intreat your Lady to offer prayers for you to the Lord…and give you spiritual vision…”
The scribe having done as he was commanded…All these, aided by divine grace, the scribe made himself master of, and faithfully committing them to his memory, exactly copied in his book in their proper places. In this manner the book was composed, an angel furnishing the designs, St. Brigit praying, and the scribe copying.
The Book of Kells, despite its astonishingly beautiful illuminations, hardly appeared in any medieval account. Aside for few medieval annals and their even fewer words, the excerpt from Giraldus Cambrensis’ (1146-1223) Topographia Hibernica was perhaps the only literary account of The Book of Kells. This twelfth-century chronicler, also known as Gerald of Wales, provided us with a rare medieval description of The Book of Kells.
Just as how the contemporary audiences of The Secret of Kells (2009) were amazed by either the story or the visuals of the movie, Giraldus Cambrensis was stunned by the beauty of The Book of Kells’s illuminations, which he described as “so delicate and exquisite, so finely drawn,” when he traveled to Ireland. Giraldus Cambrensis’ reception of the book evoked a similar emotion among monks in the movie when they witnessed the marvelous images of the book, and this perhaps explains why The Book of Kells was considered a beautiful treasure.
The creation of The Book of Kells, described both in Topographia Hibernica and depicted in the movie, was also a subject of fascination. Since The Book of Kells is so exquisite and intricate, both Giraldus and the movie suggested that such art could only be made with divine or mystical assistance. In Giraldus’ account, the scribe received the help from both an angel and St. Brigit, while in the film, Aisling and the eye of Crom Cruach aid Brendan and Aidan as they illuminated the book. Invoking divine aid was not an uncommon phenomenon as a literary trope in medieval chronicles or hagiographies, but it was the traditional Irish pagan culture that filmmakers turned to as they draw inspiration for The Secret of Kells.