The Temptation Page of the Book of Kells

kells 58 f202vThe third Temptation of Jesus (f. 202v) is currently on display in the Old Library. The episode is described later in the narrative, at Luke’s Gospel 4.9–13 (f. 204r), where Satan urges Jesus to throw himself from the roof of the temple in Jerusalem in order to demonstrate that the angels will save him:

‘And [the devil] brought him to Jerusalem and set him on a pinnacle of the temple and said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence. For it is written that He hath given his angels charge over thee that they keep thee. And that in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering, said to him: It is said: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’

Jesus is represented on a shingle-roofed building which resembles an Irish shrine, with lions as finials. Protected by angels directly above him and in the top corners of the page, he holds out a slender glass vessel, possibly a chalice filled with Eucharistic wine, in response to the small, black winged figure of Satan on the right. Stylized peacocks, symbols of his Resurrection, are placed within the crosses on either side of Jesus.

The image presents many complexities and difficulties of interpretation. The haloed figure with crossed flabella at the centre of the temple may portray Christ as Judge in a Last Judgment scene. The temple and Jesus may represent, in an almost literal manner, the body of the church with Christ as its head, while the human figures – thirteen at the foot of the page and nine to Jesus’ right – seem to represent the faithful of the congregation. It is also possible to read the page as the ground plan of a church with four pillars, showing both side and front elevations.

The figure of Satan has been disfigured by around twenty small stab marks to the neck, the arms and the torso. This controlled attack, not visible to the naked eye at first glance, seems to have been undertaken at a time when the book was bound, with the knife going through the vellum to previous leaves. The date of this intervention in the life of the Book of Kells is impossible to determine with accuracy, though it may be supposed to have occurred in the middle ages.

See the Book of Kells for yourself.

Bernard Meehan