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The Image on the Tabernacle Door

An Explanation

Tabernacle (Inside Chapel)

The tabernacle door facing the chapel presents a rather unique piece of art and portrayal of Jesus. The image is taken from the Book of Kells and has been painted on a piece of brass. The image is that of Christ enthroned in heaven and the original was painted in the 6th or 7th century. The interior of the door has an image of an angel from Fra Angelico.

The Book of Kells is Ireland’s greatest national art treasure. It is an illuminated manuscript that presents a Latin translation of the Four Gospels accompanied by a dazzling array of decorative ornamentation, iconography and illustration. The book is named after the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, Ireland where it is believed monks from order of St. Columbkille created its pages. There is historical speculation that St. Columbkille himself did some of the script of the manuscript and its illustrations.

Which pages and images were done by Columbkille is not clear. It is unlikely, but within the realm of possibility, that the image of Christ painted on the door of the tabernacle could have been painted by Columbkille since similar images began to appear in the fourth century. Most scholars believe the majority of the work of the Book of Kells was done to commemorate the anniversary of St. Columbkille’s death. The book was probably created over a two hundred year period.  Begun at the monastery in Iona, it was finished at Kells.

Tabernacle Twins

The history of Christianity in Ireland has two branches. The first model of Christianity is that brought by St. Patrick of a Romanized Catholicism. This model is what most of us recognize as the Catholic Church found in local parishes organized around the Bishop. In Ireland, this model of church developed its own uniqueness.

The other model of Christianity is found in the monastic tradition which began in Ireland in the 6th century. Monasteries were founded throughout Ireland with communities of monks and nuns. Hungry for learning these monks became known for their devotion to learning and the arts. It was this devotion that inspired them to create a repository of classical Latin learning.

When most of Europe became illiterate after the barbarian invasions, it was the monks of the Irish Church who kept the lamp of classical scholarship lit in the libraries of their monasteries.  Of these monasteries, none were more influential than those created by St. Columbkille.  It was in their scriptorium that illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells were created.

The book itself has not had a peaceful history. In the Annals of Ulster from the year 1007, we read, “the great Gospel of Columbkille, the chief relic of the Western Word, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Kells on account of its wrought shrine.” The book was found two months later buried under sod with its gold cover missing. It remained at Kells until it was transferred to Trinity College in Dublin in the 17th century where it remains to this day.

The Book of Kells is a work of Irish Catholic devotional art that was to serve as a holy object for public display. No less than the altar or crucifix it was to inspire awe and reverence for those who saw it. It is a visual witness to the glory of Christ’s life and resurrection.

Tabernacle as Art

The image of Christ on the tabernacle door is a representation of Christ enthroned in majesty in heaven. Christ is presented at the center of the image holding the Book of Life on which are inscribed the names of the saints. The figure, seated on a throne is surrounded by four angels.

As is often the case in early religious art, Jesus is pictured as a man from the place and time the local artists would have known. For this reason the image of Jesus in the Book of Kells has light colored hair. The Irish monks would probably have never seen anyone from the Middle East.

This image of Christ contains peacocks which are a symbol of eternal life because of the ancient belief that dead peacocks did not rot. Plus, there is the dazzling display of color in a peacock’s feathers that serve as a metaphor of majesty. The two peacocks are set against a second image, that of a chalice from which vines are sprouting. The chalice is a symbol of the Eucharist; the vines are symbols of Christ’s lineage as the Son of Man going back to Adam and the “true Israel.”

The source for this imagery is the gospel of John where Jesus declares “I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, bears much fruit.” Common to Celtic art are the three leveled spirals surrounding the entire image. They represent the Trinity and the three components of the saving mystery of Jesus: life, death, and resurrection.  Celtic knots found in this image and in the stained glass windows in the clerestory in the church are representative of eternal life – having no beginning and no end.