For me, one of the great joys of traveling is meeting the great art personally – which I have collected in a book. Top 100 Masterpieces in Europe. Here’s my favorite one:
Jesus Christ sits on a throne and rocks something very important – a book, the holy word of God. She has curly flaxen hair and a lush head with a thoughtful expression. Sitting under an arch, he is surrounded by a maze of colorful, intricately woven designs.
This old biblical parable tells the story of Jesus. This particular drawing came at the very moment in the story (Matthew 1:18) where this heavenly Jesus is about to be born on earth as a humble mortal.
This is just a page of the 1,200-year-old gospel known as the Book of Kells. Perhaps the best work of art in the so-called Dark Ages, this book is a rare work of art from those turbulent times.
This is 800 years. The Roman Empire collapsed, leaving Europe in disarray. The Vikings were raping and looting. The Christian faith – which was officially embraced in the last years of the empire – is now weakened as Europe returns to its pagan and illiterate path. In the midst of the turmoil, on the outskirts of Europe, lived a group of scholarly Irish monks dedicated to indulging in the embers of civilization.
These monks worked hard to preserve God’s Word in the book of Kells. They slaughtered 185 calves and dried the skin to make 680 cream-colored leaves called Velam. Then the Tonsard monks picked up their swan-quill pens and went to work. They carefully wrote the words in Latin, embellished the letters with elaborate caricatures, and interspersed the text with full-page illustrations – creating this “enlightened” manuscript. The project was thwarted in 806 when the Vikings brutally looted the monastery and killed 68 monks. But the survivors fled to Abbey (near Dublin) in Kells and finished their precious Bible.
Christ Anthrone is just one page – 1/680M – This wonderful book. On closer inspection, the incredible detail-work of the page comes alive. On either side of Christ are two mysterious male costumes, and two strange-looking angels, with their wings folded in front of them. The head of Christ is the peacock (symbol of Christ’s resurrection), their feet are stuck in the vine (symbol of his Israeli roots). Of course, Christ is not terribly realistic: he poses as a Byzantine icon with brown eyes, strange ears, and ET fingers.
Real beauty lies in intricate designs. It’s a jungle of spiral, rolling and bound snakes – yes, they are snakes, their little heads rising here and there. The monks mixed Christian symbols (cross, peacock, shrub) with the pagan Celtic motifs of the world around them (circles, spirals and interwoven patterns). It is all done in bright colors – blue, purple, red, green, yellow and black – carefully carved with a quill pen. Of the 680 pages of the book, only two have no illustrations.
As Christianity regained its footprint in Europe, monasteries everywhere began to produce the same monastic-script – albeit rarely like the Book of Kells. In 1455, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press, books were mass-produced … and thousands of monks were freed from being the authors of civilization.