Board of Trinity College, Dublin/Bridgeman Art Library

The Word comes alive on the first page of the Gospel of John from the Book of Kells. As author Robin Griffith-Jones notes, John’s mysterious and poetic opening lines set the tone for the entire gospel.

The Book of Kells’s vivid and complex design of human figures (including the evangelist John with his book, at top), birds, animals and interlace patterns makes it extremely difficult to actually read the first line of the Latin text—In principio erat verbum (“In the beginning was the Word”). But the letters are all present: The vertical bar at left that runs the entire length of the image is the letter “I”; John is resting on the top of the “n”; a diminutive man drinking from a chalice sits on the giant “p.” The “rin” and “ci” appear a little more than halfway down the page, in a scrolling script. Here each letter is formed with birds’ heads and serpents’ tails. Below them appears “pio erat ver” in clearer black lettering. A bottom row of black lettering finishes the line with “bum” and begins the next.

The Book of Kells was produced in about 800, probably by Irish monks on the island of Iona, in Northumbria. It now belongs to Trinity College Dublin.