The Book of Kells combines full pages of ornament with the
transcription of the four gospel texts. Its 680 surviving pages are
inhabited with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures, some of which are clearly
recognizable as domestic cats.
While the cats are occasionally difficult to differentiate from
their relative the lion, there is no doubt of their presence on the famous Chi-Rho folio, where they are pictured with mice or rats in possession of communion hosts. This scene hints at the practical function of monastery cats, who were helping with
preserving food supplies.
If you have not done so yet, I
highly recommend that you watch the 2009 animated film The Secret of Kells (available on Netflix) this weekend. It tells a
fictional story of the creation of the Book of Kells by an elderly monk, Aidan,
and his young apprentice Brendan, who struggle to work on the manuscript in the
face of Viking raids. It was directed by Tomm Moore and
nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated
Feature in 2009. One of the cartoon characters is the white cat Pangur Bán, or “Fair Pangur.” Pangur means fuller (fulling is a
step in woollen clothmaking which involves the cleansing
while bán translates as white or fair. Her name is taken from an Old Irish poem, written about the 9th century at or around Reichenau Abbey. It was written by an Irish monk about his cat.
A paraphrase of the poem in modern Gaelic is
read out during the credit roll of this animated film.
Those of you who have seen the Secret of Kells might see why this is so beautiful to me: because the book was originally meant to be seen by as many people as could see it, in order to illuminate their lives. I’m not crying, that’s just fulfillment of purpose in my eye
This made my night, hopefully some of you appreciate this as much as I do!
The Book of Kells is a stunningly beautiful manuscript containing the Four Gospels. It is Ireland’s most precious medieval artifact, and is generally considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe. As many as ten different colors were used in the illuminations, some of them rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass.