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The Book Of Kells: Illuminated Initial Letters

Fine as its set-pieces are, the chief joy oí the Book of Kclls are the illuminated initial letters which are scattered with generous abandon through every page of text. These letters distinguish the Book of Kells most from all other manuscripts in the Insular tradition. Though these are usually to be found on the left of the page, they are not always so. It is also far from uncommon to find even small letters in the middle of a line embellished with an extra twirl, or with their open áreas filled with contrasting colours, or the inconvenient space at the end of a sentence filled with stars, or fish or birds. The examples on this page and the next are in fact taken from copies made with an accuracy and beauty unsurpassed even by the origináis. On this page are shown three examples of black-letter initials (EXSURGENT, VESPER and BONUM) where the initial letter is written in ink and differs little from the rest of the text, except in size, and coloured adorn-ment, and where subsequent letters diminish gradually in size until they merge gracefully into the rest of the text.
The "P"of PROPTER and the letter 'K' in this plate are samples of the other great tradition of Celtic initial illuminating. In this, the basic form of the letter is retained, but drawn as a coloured ribbon with its extremities adorned with heads and limbs which bear no real relation to the letter but provide a harmonious extensión of it. Note that the border of the ribbon is never a single line but is always embellished in some manner, usually as here by a fringe of red dots. Less commonly are the first T of ET DIXIT in this píate and the T' of PO[nite] in Píate XXIII where Ihe letter or part of it is actually formed by a recognizably complete animal forced into an unnatural posture by the demands of the letter. This is much more a continental tradition. Its use in an Insular manuscript such as the Book of Kdls is another pointer towards the relative lateness of the work, just as the extensive use of mongrams, as in ET DIXIT, confirms its essentially Insular charac-ter. It is precisely this blending of so many distinct strands that gives the Book of Kclls its unique charm.
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