In this lesson, I always start by asking students, “How do we show respect for the word of God?” Together we make a class list, then with some prompting add the ways the Church shows respect for God’s word. (For example, we process with the Book of the Gospels at mass, the priest kisses the Bible, there is often a spot of honor for the Book of the Gospels in the Church,)
Next, I show students pages from illuminated manuscripts as an example of ways people used to show respect for the word of God. We discuss the detail and imagine what it would be like to have to write each copy of the Bible by hand.
Then I break students into small groups and give them a short history of the Book of Kells. Feel free to use mine if you decide to use this lesson in your own religion class.
The Book of Kells was probably written in the 8th Century on the Isle of Iona in Scotland to honor Saint Columba. It contains the four gospels written in Latin and a few other texts. About a hundred year after the Book of Kells was written, Vikings raided the monastery, killing 68 members of the community. The rest of the community fled to Kells, taking the manuscript with them. In the 11th Century, the manuscript was stolen, and the cover was torn off. (People think that this was because the cover may have been covered in gold and jewels.) The book was found in a ditch, but the cover was never found. The book suffered some water damage but remained intact. In the 1500s, the Book of Kells was given to the Roman Catholic Church during the English Reformation because the monastery was worried that it would be destroyed. In the 1700s, the Catholic Church returned the manuscript to Ireland, and you can see it to this day at Trinity College in Dublin.
Each group has five minutes to read the history, plan and then perform the whole story for the class in 30 seconds. The timing sounds a little crazy, but it forces students to pick the most important events and also adds an air of hilarity to the class. (Student buy-in is pretty high when you add the 30 second time constraint.)
After we have heard and seen the story of the Book of Kells, students choose a verse for their own illuminated manuscript. They plan out what they want to draw, how they want it to look, etc. Normally I allow about 4-5 days for this project.
Why spend all this time on an art project? I’ve found that by the time we finish this whole process, students have an added respect for the act of writing the words of scripture. Often times students memorize their verses by the time we are done with the project. Another perk is that we have classroom walls filled with gorgeous art by the time the students finish their manuscripts.
Some variations on this lesson include:
- Tying in the manuscript with a specific Saint. I’ve done this with Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Patrick. Students learn about the life of the saint in addition to the Book of Kells and choose a verse based on the saint’s life.
- Tying the manuscript lessons to history- maybe learn about the Gutenberg Bible and look at the changes in the bible from handwritten text to printed by machine. (I could see Saint Jerome, the translator of the Bible from Greek to Latin, being a part of this lesson.)
Here is a website where you can view the Book of Kells online.