The 1,200 year old pages (known as folios) in the Book of Kells have been turned to reveal a striking new display. Visitors to the Old Library can now get a close up view of the richly decorated illustrations and dramatic symbolism in Temptation of Jesus (folio 202v). The episode is described later in the narrative, at Luke’s Gospel 4.9–13 (folio 204r):
‘And the [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’
An Irish shrine
Temptation of Jesus presents Jesus on a shingle-roofed temple which resembles an Irish shrine, with lions as finials. Protected by angels directly above him and in the top corners of the folio he holds out a slender glass vessel, possibly a chalice filled with eucharistic wine, closely observed by 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; interlaced snakes, also resurrection symbols, fill the crosses set at the foot of the image.
The image presents many complexities and difficulties of interpretation. The haloed figure with crossed flabella (liturgical fans) at the centre of the temple may allude to Jesus as Judge in a Last Judgment scene. The temple and Jesus may represent, in an almost literal manner, the body of the church with Jesus as its head, while the human figures – thirteen at the foot of the page and nine to Jesus’s right –may 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.
In the context of Western art, the figure of the Devil is a very early representation of the form with which we are now familiar – inky black (although originally with more reds and browns), with cloven feet and a twisting tongue. His insignificance compared to Jesus is clearly shown by his smaller size, and the fact that he is placed below the figure of Jesus. Recent microscopic analysis has revealed an emotionally charged reaction to this image as the body of the devil figure has been stabbed multiple times.
Gospel of Luke folios 202v-203r: Temptation and Iesus autem is on display at the Old Library until August 2021