Book of Kells
History, Illuminations of Irish Illuminated Gospel Manuscript.

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Detail from the Book of Kells
showing the heads of lions and
chalices spouting vines: all examples
of abstract Celtic art. One of the
greatest illuminated manuscripts
from Ireland, it marks the apogee
of medieval book illustration.

Detail from Book of Kells.

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Book of Kells (c.800)


Origins and History
Who Wrote the Book of Kells? (Scribes, Illustrators)
How It Compares With Other Manuscripts
Eastern Influence on the Design
Symbols of the Evangelists
Monogram Page (Chi-Ro) and Others
Other Irish Illuminated Gospel Books

Further Resources
Making of Illuminated Manuscripts
History of Illuminated Manuscripts

Medieval Book Painting Series
Medieval Manuscript Illumination (c.1000-1500)
Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1000-1150)
Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1150-1350)
International Gothic Illuminations (c.1375-1450)

For more about Christianity and the arts, see: Christian Art (c.150-2000).

Opening Page to Gospel of John.
A masterpiece of religious art
from the 8th century.

For details of the medieval European
renaissance, under Charlemagne, see:
Carolingian Art (750-900)
Ottonian Art (900-1050)


One of the great masterpieces in the History of Irish art, and a world-famous example of early Christian art, the Book of Kells (Leabhar Cheanannais) is the most famous of the illuminated manuscripts, produced by Irish monks about 800 CE. Also known as the Book of Columba, or the Gospel of Colum Cille, the Book of Kells includes the four Gospels of the New Testament written in Latin, decorated with innumerable illuminations, illustrations and miniature images in a blaze of colour. Although unfinished, it is a wonderful example of medieval Christian art and one of the best surviving examples of the Hiberno-Saxon style or Insular art. It is on permanent display at Trinity College Dublin Library in Ireland. The name "Book of Kells" comes from the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, Ireland, where it was preserved during medieval times. When was the Book of Kells written, where was it written, and who was the author of the manuscript? These questions remain the subject of considerable debate among scholars of monastic Irish art, and there are a number of theories. According to the most widely accepted explanation, the Book of Kells was created at the monastery in Iona, and illuminated by at least four different artist-monks, whose names are lost to history. Other art scholars have suggested that the manuscript may have been produced at Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland, then moved to Iona and thence to Kells. Or lastly, it may have been produced at an unidentified Scottish monastery.

NOTE: For the world's earliest known illuminated gospel text,
please see: the Garima Gospels (390-660) from Ethiopia.


Origins and History of the Book of Kells

The greatest achievement of Irish medieval art, the Book of Kells, was formerly held to be earlier than the Lindisfarne Gospels (which are dated approximately from 700 CE) but is now generally assigned to the late eighth or early ninth century. It can only have been made in one of two places: Iona or Kells. It seems probable, though, that due to its resemblances to the Lindisfarne Gospels it was at least begun at Iona (a traditional centre of holy learning and illumination, from where Saint Columba launched his mission to Christianize Scotland and where he was later buried), the base from which Lindisfarne had been colonized about the year 635. Unfortunately, Vikings frequently raided the island, burning the monastery and killing the monks.

In 804, after two Viking raids, the monks of Iona fled from their exposed island monastery to Meath, in Ireland. They obtained a grant of land at Cenannus (Kells) and established there the metropolis of the Columban Order. But they regretted abandoning Iona and made various attempts to resettle there, carrying with them the sacred objects and books of the monastery. Finally in 849 all were brought back to Kells, the great manuscript probably with them.

That the manuscript was at Kells two centuries later we know from an entry in the Annals of Ulster (1007). And as it is hardly probable that such a work should have been begun during the troubled years between 804 and 849 (and since most of its decorative art points to a date within the eighth century) it is reasonable to assume that an important part of it had been produced in the scriptorium of Iona before the Viking raids drove the monks to Meath. In any case the most probable date of the Book of Kells is between 760-804 and 815-20; and it is likely that different painters were working at it for several years. Again, in view of A. M. Friend's evidence that in its Canon Tables and Evangelist portraits it has borrowed motifs from the continental Ada Group, these elements must be dated at the earliest about the close of the eighth century.

The removal of the Book of Kells - along with the relics of Saint Columba - to the Irish mainland, failed to secure its safety. In 1007, it was seized by Vikings who plundered its jewelled cover. It was later unearthed in a ditch, miraculously intact with only a few sections missing.

After the surrender of the monastery of Kells to the Crown by Abbot Richard Plunket in 1539, the manuscript passed into the hands of one Geralde Plunket of Dublin, possibly a relative of the abbot, and from Plunket to James Ussher; a highly versatile and accomplished scholar of the day, and one of the earliest students of Trinity College, Dublin. Finally the manuscript passed with Ussher's library to Trinity College, where it is today.


Who Wrote the Book of Kells? (Scribes, Illustrators)?

At the beginning of the eleventh century the book belonged to the church of Kells and was called "the great gospel of Colum-Cille." This was supposed to be because, the book was written and illuminated during the time of Saint Columba (Saint Columcille) (c.521-97), perhaps even by Columba himself. However, when it is said that the Book of Kells may have been written by Columba it is not meant that he was also the artist from whose pen the elaborate ornamentation of the volume proceeded. Columba was reputed to have been a most industrious, indeed almost fanatical, scribe. But the scribe and the illuminator were seldom the same person. The illuminations were frequently executed much later than the manuscript itself and the original plan of the Book of Kells was apparently so vast that it could not be completed in a short time. The spaces to be decorated were left blank by the scribe. Several painters, possibly at different periods, were employed to fill them; there are, indeed, still to be seen some pages where the ornaments of the framework are unfinished, being only partially sketched in outline.

Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Columba even wrote the script, since paleographic research shows that the style of Latin script used did not emerge until well after his death. In response, some experts in Irish Art consider it may have been created in 797, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Saint Columba's death.

Four Illuminators or Artists
The scholar Francoise Henry believes that among the several artists who may have worked on the illumination at different periods four are readily identifiable on stylistic grounds. One artist, she feels, was obviously entrusted with the cruciform cover page known as "the page of the eight circles", the great Chi-Rho, and the initial page of each of the gospels, except the Quoniam. She sees in him "the goldsmith", someone familiar with work in precious metals, in enamel and in niello. The delicacy of his work is impressive, as is his interest in asymmetry. Francoise Henry recognizes another individualist in the portraitist of the three Evangelists, the page composed of square frames, and the Quoniam at the beginning of the Gospel of Saint Luke. The third is the "illustrator", the author of the Virgin and Child, the Tunc Crucifixerat, and the Temptation. Finally, a fourth artist is responsible for many less important contributions. For more, see: Irish Art in the early Christian Period (Methuen, London, 1940) by Francoise Henry.


How the Book of Kells Compares With Other Manuscripts

The script employed in the Book of Kells is the beautiful round uncial of all the best Irish manuscripts. It differs little in that feature from the Book of Durrow. But here their similarities cease. The scale of the Book of Kells is different from that of the Book of Durrow, and the mood of its expression is vastly different: the calm, meticulous distinction of the earlier book gives way to a flamboyant, magnificent exuberance; there is nothing of that constrained perfection of order and organization - inherited from the Cathach of Saint Columba (c.610-20) - which mark both the Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

No manuscript we have seen before approaches the Book of Kells for elaborate ornamentation. Each of the Gospels was prefaced with three pages of full-length decoration - a depiction of the Evangelists' symbol, a portrait of the Evangelist himself, and an Initial Page. In addition, there were extra pages of decoration at two key passages in the text, the incarnation of Christ and the Crucifixion. Last and most unusual of all, a series of narrative illustrations were planned, three of which have survived.

In addition, the cover pages have a cruciform composition, followed by a series of porticos framing the Canon Tables. The carpet pages of pure ornament of the Book of Durrow are replaced in the Book of Kells by cruciform pages bearing the symbols of the Evangelists and the same symbols, disposed in various ways over and under the arcades, give the Canon Tables a fantastic appearance. The Chi-Rho introducing the Genealogy of Christ in Saint Matthew is ornamented as richly as the initial pages of the gospels.

A continuous chain of ornamentation runs through the text. The capitals at the beginning of each paragraph - two, three, four to a page - are made of brightly coloured entwinements of birds, snakes, distorted men and quadrupeds, fighting or performing all sorts of acrobatic feats. Other animals wander about the pages between the lines or on top of them. In addition, one of the most striking and unusual features of the Book of Kells is this profusion of animated capitals, a feature of Irish illumination which may owe its origin to the ornamented letters ending in coiled Celtic spirals in the Book of Durrow.

Eastern Influence on the Design of the Book of Kells

Oriental and particularly Coptic influence is generally recognized throughout the Book of Kells - Coptic clearly in the group of red dots on the robes of the Evangelists Mark and John. Furthermore, the figure of the Virgin and Child seated on a throne surrounded by attending angels appears frequently in Coptic art. Francoise Henry points out a striking analogy between the the Virgin and Child page and a ninth-century Coptic manuscript in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (Catalogue of the Manuscripts of the Pierpont Morgan Collection). It is true that the Coptic manuscripts are all, so far as is known, later than the Irish. But Coptic manuscripts of the ninth to the fourteenth centuries were evidently based on a well-established ancient tradition originating in the sixth (or even the fifth) century. This assumption is supported by an early Coptic binding with a decorative arrangement of broad ribbons and crosses which suggest the existence in the sixth century of full pages of ribbon interlacing. The later Coptic manuscripts which we know probably embody many archaic elements. But it would appear that there must have been a direct connexion between early Irish Christianity and the tradition of Byzantine art decoration seen in the monasteries of Egypt, as well as the highly orientalized Greek Christianity of the south-east Mediterranean.

Illuminations in the Book of Kells

For all the wealth and variety Irish manuscript illumination has to offer, it is the Book of Kells that is generally recognized as the supreme achievement in this field.

Symbols of the Evangelists

The emphasis placed on the Evangelists' symbols was unprecedented. In addition to the traditional symbol pages at the start of the Gospels, they featured in the Canon Tables, the portraits and other prefatory sections. They were also used in a number of different ways - sometimes as ornamental motifs, sometimes as heraldic beasts, and sometimes as potent talismans. As such, they underwent a variety of transformations. In one instance, a peacock's tail becomes attached to a lion's head while, in another, the eagle of St John holds the Gospel in a human hand. Only two of the portraits have survived, providing one of the weaker aspects of the decoration, but the four Initial Pages are superb. In each case, the first letter runs the full length of the page, and the words themselves are completely indecipherable to the untutored eye. Instead, the calligraphy becomes a pretext for a dazzling display of spiral and interlace patterns from La Tene Celtic art designs. It also offers the artist an opportunity to exercise his imagination to the full. On the St John's page, for example, the letters 'c' and 'i' are transformed into a man playing a harp while, on the St Luke's page, the characters 'iam' merge together to become an instrument of torture.


Monogram Page (Chi-Ro) and Others

The decoration on the pages which mark the incarnation of Christ is even more spectacular. The format of the Monogram Page is similar to the examples in the Lindisfarne and Lichfield manuscripts, but the sheer profusion of detail is astonishing. Hidden away among the loops and spirals, there are vignettes of cats and mice fighting over a communion wafer, an otter clutching a fish, and a row of angels displaying the Gospels. In most other manuscripts, the Monogram Page provides the sole decoration at this point but, in the Book of Kells, the incarnation passage is commemorated with two other illustrations. There is a splendid Carpet Page - the only one in the Kells' manuscript - and a portrait of Christ. The latter was a great rarity in Insular manuscripts, as was the notion of adding decoration to the Crucifixion passage. Sadly, this is one of the sections of the book that was never completed. There is an ornamental Initial Page, but this faces a blank sheet where, doubtless, a depiction of the Crucifixion was planned.

The narrative illustrations hint at a new 'figurative' direction in Celtic art. With their preference for abstract or stylized forms, Celtic craftsmen usually shied away from themes of this kind and only a few, isolated examples can be found in the earlier Gospel Books. Here, there are three, and it seems likely that the complete manuscript would have included several more. The surviving illustrations depict the Temptation of Christ, the Arrest, and the Virgin and Child. The latter is particularly interesting, partly because it is the earliest-known version of this subject in an Insular manuscript, and partly because it demonstrates the hesitancy of an artist working in an unfamiliar genre. The figures of the Virgin, the Infant Christ and the attendant angels were probably borrowed from an Eastern icon, but they sit uneasily beside the more obviously Celtic elements - the writhing beasts in the border, the beard-tuggers in the semicircular insets, and the savage head on the back of the Virgin's throne.

Celtic Style Designwork
For the origins and history of Celtic Designs, the evolution of motifs such as Celtic Interlace Designs, zoomorphic patterns and symbols including Celtic Knots and Celtic Crosses, all part of the heritage of the Ancient Celts, see Celtic Culture.


There is no question but that the Book of Kells is Ireland's finest example of Biblical art and its richest illuminated manuscript in graphic invention, colour and fantasy. Nevertheless, its overpowering brilliance should not blind us to the quiet distinction, elegant restraint and sensibility of its earlier cousin, the Book of Durrow. Both have their place: one, in a sense, the high point of controlled beauty, almost an artistic understatement; the other a sumptuous, baroque conflagration with, nevertheless, a tight architectural structure. And both share those peculiar characteristics that set them apart from the illuminated work of other cultures and other areas, and which curiously relate them in spirit to the visual approach and the visual appetites of the exploring artists of the present period in the twentieth century - a thousand years and more since the dates of their production.

Other Irish Illuminated Gospel Books

The Book of Kells is one of a number of illuminated books created by Irish artists in monastries in Ireland, Scotland and England. These illustrated texts, with their covers richly ornamented with precious metalwork, comprise the foremost examples of early Christian art. Other manuscripts include: the Codex Usserianus Primus (600-610), Book of Dimma (c.620), Lindisfarne Gospels (700), Codex Amiatinus (715), Echternach Gospels (715), Lichfield Gospels (785), Book of Armagh (807), Book of MacRegol (810), Book of Deer (early 9th century), the Book of MacDurnan (910), and the Book of Dun Cow (1080).

• For culture in Ireland, see: Irish Visual Arts.
• For more on the history of illuminated manuscripts, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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