Mc Carthy, Daniel, “Representations of tonsure in the Book of Kells”, Studia Celtica 51 (2017): 89–103.

  • journal article
Citation details
“Representations of tonsure in the Book of Kells”
Abstract (cited)

Four Insular documents from the seventh and eighth centuries show that a major controversy took place amongst the Insular churches regarding the shape of the tonsure worn by clerics. Those who followed the customs of the Roman church wore a coronal tonsures, oval or circular in plan, while those belonging to some earlier Irish and British churches wore a delta tonsure, triangular in plan. This paper critically examines six figures in the Book of Kells proposed to have been illustrated with tonsures. Three of these at ff. 32v, 34r and 273r all show Jesus with the delta tonsure. The haloed figure above the second Canon table at f. 2v is likewise shown with the delta tonsure. On the other hand, the mounted figure at f. 255v is shown with a coronal tonsure and is explicitly coupled to the words ‘unum’ and ‘peccauerat’ of Luke 17:1 and 17:3 respectively. In Luke 17:1-3 Jesus censures all those who give cause for temptation to sin, saying it would be better that they were cast into the sea with a mill-stone about their neck. Consequently, by this graphic presentation of the coronal tonsure the compilers of Kells expressed their strong disapproval of it. A sixth figure at f. 182r proposed by James McIlwain in 2008 to be illustrated with the coronal tonsure is shown in fact to represent Pontius Pilate wearing an oval cap. Thus the five illustrations of tonsure in the Book of Kells represent a graphic polemic, exalting those who wore the delta tonsure, but directed against those who wore the Roman coronal tonsure.

Subjects and topics
tonsure church Insular
Dennis Groenewegen
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August 2018, last updated: February 2022