Folio034r — The Chi Rho Monogram, The Book of Kells

December 24/25, 2021 Lectionary Texts — Year C
Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-4


I’ve lived through many ages… I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book… the book that turned darkness into light. — Aisling, The Secret of the Kells

In a college library in Ireland sits one of the most valuable and impressive books in the world. It dates back to around the year 800, but so much is unknown about this rare jewel including who made it and where. There is no question however as to the why. The book, known as the Book of Kells, is a work of art every follower of Christ should be familiar with. Unfortunately, for many (myself included until recent years) it is not all that widely known.

Christian communities in the Middle Ages, especially those in the Celtic world, had a place known as the Scriptorium. Here, books and manuscripts were both kept and copied by monks (tediously by hand, of course). The newly converted Celtic Christian scribes started to get super fancy in their copying task turning the work into worship creating elaborate page designs and illustrations. This is known as illumination. No book was more attentively and creatively rendered among the Celts like a volume of the Gospels. The Book of Kells is the finest existing example of an illuminated Gospel.

There is one page in the Book of Kells that stands out as an artistic masterpiece. It is called the Chi Rho (pronounced KEE – row) page. It is a highly decorative monogram for Christ whose name is spelled ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The X is Greek letter Chi and the P is letter Rho. The page is filled with unbelievable woven knotwork and spirals. All this intricacy is found on a parchment page approximately 13 by 9.5 inches in size.

Explore the art…

What do you notice?
What do you see?
What does all the knotwork and spirals represent for you?
How is the “blessed hope” mentioned in the Titus passage present in this image?

If you want a fun way to learn about the Book of Kells, I highly recommend the animated movie, The Secret of the Kells. This is such a beautiful film that brings alive the magic and mystery surrounding Celtic illumination work (there are some fantastic myths and legends out there). I am not the first person who also feels this is an appropriate Christmas time movie with its theme of light dispelling the darkness.

It greatly interests me to create art based off of the Chi Rho page. While I have much grander visions of a very large work of art, as a beginning exercise, I am working on a small piece right now in my daily art making practice. It is helping me explore this masterpiece, but I am greatly challenged in working to simplify something so complex. It is work that allows for personal worship each day and I am thus enjoying it.

The people who had been living in darkness
have seen a great light.
The light of life has shined on those who dwelt
in the shadowy darkness of death.
Hope of all hopes, dream of our dreams,
a child is born, sweet-breathed; a son is given to us: a living gift.
And even now, with tiny features and dewy hair, He is great.
The power of leadership, and the weight of authority, will rest on His shoulders.
His name? His name we’ll know in many ways —
He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Dear Father everlasting, ever-present never-failing,
Master of Wholeness, Prince of Peace.

ISAIAH 9:2,6

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