February 25th 2023

“The Temptation of Jesus”, Book of Kells.  folio 202v,  late Eight Century Trinity College Dublin. 

This is an illustration of the passage from Luke wherein the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says to him:  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here; for it is written, `He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and `On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Luke 4:9-12).  This text is written on an adjacent page (folio 204r).  The devil invites Jesus to test the promises of God to his faithful made in Psalm 90 (91) and he selectively cites verses from that psalm.  Those who pray the night prayer of the Church know it off by heart and no doubt the monks on Iona did too.  The psalm is the key to understanding this ancient image and its message.  The top half of the page shows Jesus surrounded by angels. He is clothed in fine robes and on his sleeves there are clusters of dots arranged in threes; symbols of the Trinity and his divinity.   Snakes, peacocks and angels can be found in the decoration. They are symbols of the eternal life of heaven, the backdrop to the earthly life we now live.  Jesus holds a glass vessel filled with red liquid, which must be the chalice from which he will drink. Notice how the devil tries to snatch it from him.  The devil is shown just by some long streaks of black ink almost as if the dark ink had dripped unto the vellum by mistake.  With cloven feet, a twisting tongue, dark wings and stick-like limbs, the devil resembles a shrivelled and dried up version of the beautiful angels above.  The point is that the devil fails to persuade Jesus to abandon the constraints of his mission and loses the contest,  but yet he remains in our lives through sin and death. The lower half of the page has puzzled the scholars because it doesn’t correspond to Luke’s account of the Temptation.  I think it helps if you keep psalm 90 (91)  in mind, and try to imagine how a Columban monk of the late Ninth Century would have visualised the Temple, Jesus, the devil, sin, death and eternal life.  The monk sees the Temple as a large version of the kind of chapels he knew with their steeply pitched roofs. The building is adorned with the colours of the Ark of the Covenant mentioned in Exodus.  For me, there is something very beautiful about Jesus in his triumph shown sitting high upon its roof. There is a line in the Confessions of St Patrick where he writes that he was like a stone lying in the mud and Christ raised him up and placed him on top of the wall. I grew up in a thatched house and the straw roof had that same steep pitch.  I can remember as a child looking up with amazement and delight at the thatcher sitting high on the ridge of the thatch.  Here we see love’s triumph over evil, as that monk would have seen it.  The  scholars still ask who are all these people?   But Jesus appears again in a door-like nimbus and in the pose characteristic of his return in glory to judge the living and the dead, with the multitude to his right and the left.  But the best clue is in their eyes.  Those on Christ’s right keep the devil in their sights.  Those on his left don’t see the devil at all.  This lower section isn’t about the Temptation of Jesus. Rather, it is about the temptation of his followers and, in particular, the monk who would understood his life of prayer and penance as an ongoing battle with the devil and his temptings.   Analysis shows that at some stage, someone even stabbed the dark steaks of ink that form this image of the devil.  The illustrator monk would have known by heart another verse from Psalm 90(91):  “he who abides in the shade of the Almighty, says to the Lord: ‘My refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust.’” and “under his wings you will find refuge”.  These are the folk gathered below the angels’ wings above.  The monk knew only too well that devil departed, but not forever, only until “an opportune time” (Lk 4:13).  He’d have known so well the text  “Be calm but vigilant because your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat. Stand up to him, strong in faith.” (1 Pt 5:8-9).   This image and these texts are worth pondering as we begin  the holy season of Lent. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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