“Folio 114r, Book of Kells”, Trinity College Dublin. This page illustrates Matthew 26:30: “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” However, the view of John Obadiah Westwood that this is “a drawing of Christ seized by two Jews” ,first published in 1843, has held sway until recently. His interpretation is clearly wrong. It does not fit the text being illustrated, nor does it fit the image. For example, the two figures flanking Christ do not look like soldiers. In fact, they look more like the central figure of Christ. Moreover, not only are there no weapons, there is no sign of Judas. In fact, the crosses which are prominent on either side and chalices and vines in the base of the pillars detail, suggests that Christ’s sacrifice as a whole is in view and and not just that particular verse of the Passion narrative. It has been noted that the three figures are dressed like priests, but the most striking element is Christ’s very clear posture of prayer. (The fact that his posture echoes the shape of a saltire cross is probably pushing things too far, and yet this image was made, if not on Iona, certainly within that monastic community’s tradition!!) All these elements as well as the steps at the base of the pillars give the whole image a liturgical feel and it should be remembered that Matthew 26:30 follows directly the institution of the Eucharist (Mt 26:26-29). But who are the two figures on either side of Christ? There is a strong resemblance, so that they could in fact be brothers. But there are differences between them. Notice how differently each is related to the central figure of Christ. The folds on the helm of the tunic of the righthand figure are the same as those of Christ’s tunic. You should be able to see that this figure is slightly closer to Christ. Christ’s head is also slightly to the right. This figure’s head is slightly bigger too. It has been noted that unlike the left hand figure, the right hand figure’s hair is plaited which matches more closely the “rasta-style” curls on Christ’s head. But the biggest clue to the identity of this figure is the position of his elongated right hand. It touches Christ’s breast, which suggests that this is in fact the beloved disciple. The vine links the right hand figure’s nose or mouth with Christ’s outer garment suggesting the the way the beloved disciple leaned on Christ’s breast. The monks who made the Book of Kells would have understood the beloved disciple to be the Apostle John, and so these two figures can be identified as the brothers, James and John. However, there is another problem for us in that these two figures are supporting the arms of Christ as he prays in Gethsemane, whereas the Gospel says that they fell asleep. A few verses later on, Jesus rebukes them, saying to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?” ( Mt 26:40). In the Greek text accepted today as correct, and in the Latin Vulgate, the word “you” is plural, so that we take it that all three slept. However in the Latin text used for the Book of Kells the word “you” is singular. This implies that the monks who made the Book of Kells believed that James and John did indeed stay awake and support Christ in his agony. But the gospel does not mention thatthe disciples holding Christ’s arms up. This is surely an allusion to our first reading, in which Aron and Hur hold up the arms of Moses, so that he can continue to pray despite his exhaustion. It is interesting to note the fact that in various texts which come from the great dispute over the date of Easter, writers identify Peter with the “Roman” Church and John with the “Columban” Church. What we see on this folio may have been intended as an image of the sacrifice of Christ presented as a great liturgical prayer. There is evidence that suggests that in the “Columban” Church and, specifically in the monastery on Iona, these verse from Matthew were read on Holy Thursday. But look again at the two figures flanking Christ. look at their feet. See how they move towards Christ. Look how their eyes are fixed on Christ who prays for the salvation of the world! He prays for us!
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