Irish Treasures: The Book of Kells


The Book of Kells is one of the top attractions for visitors to Ireland. It is something all Irish children learn about in school, is regularly discussed as part of Irish history and art, and is generally considered to be the country's most prized possession. Sounds like quite a lot of excitement over a book, doesn't it? Well as you may have guessed, it's not just a regular book as we know it...

The Book of Kells is considered to be one of the greatest masterpieces in both Irish art and early Christian art. It is known as an illuminated manuscript, or in other words an elaborately decorated and illustrated bible made from vellum (calf skin) and painstakingly painted by hand. It contains the four Gospels of the New Testament and there are more illustrations than words on each page, so you don't need me to tell you how big it is – let's just say it's not exactly an average paperback!

Illuminated manuscripts became popular around 400 to 600 AD and were prominent all over the Roman Empire, lasting up until the Middle Ages. They contained latin verses accompanied by images and illustrations that told a visual story of the words, as this was a time when the majority of ruling classes were still illiterate. As it was mostly religious orders who had the scholarly know-how to read and write, illuminated manuscripts were more of than not versions of the Bible. Vellum, a parchment made from the skin of lambs or calfs, was used for the manuscripts as it was the most durable material available at the time. The practice of illuminated manuscripts declined after the invention of the printing press and rising levels of literacy, but thankfully there are many thousands of beautiful examples left. The Book of Kells, however, is by far the best example.

The exquisite illustrations in the Book of Kells has been a source of inspiration for artists and Irish artisan craftspeople for centuries. See our handcrafted Irish jewelry inspired by it's decorative symbols and their meaning

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Funnily enough, illuminated manuscripts had no real functional use; they were just something pretty to look at! With the Book of Kells in particular, design wins over practicality every time; if a line of text doesn't completely fit on one line, it was squished in somewhere nearby. There are quite a lot of typos and mistakes in the text that have been left uncorrected too. During religious celebrations it was likely to have had pride of place on the altar, but wouldn't be used as monks and priests could already recite the gospels verbatim. It was purely just for show.

Origins and History

The Book of Kells has been dated back to somewhere around 800 AD, and was made in either Iona or Kells in county Meath, right in the center of Ireland. Many historians believe that it was started off in Iona and later taken to Kells for safekeeping, where it remained for several centuries. Either way, all evidence points towards the manuscript being created by monks who learned their craft at Iona, which was a center of religious teaching and very significant at the time. For that very reason, it was frequently raided by Vikings, who had been making their way through the island of Ireland plundering whatever valuable items they could find and settling down in various towns afterwards. This eventually caused the monks to flee in search of more defendable land. They set up camp at Kells and built a large complex, and presumably went back to their usual work undisturbed.

The first written mention of the Book of Kells dates from 1007 AD in the Annals of Ulster, mentioning that the Vikings had in fact gotten hold of it at one stage and removed all of the jewels on its front cover, before leaving it in a ditch. It was claimed that they also managed to rip the pages and the cover apart, which would account for the few missing pages at the beginning and end of the manuscript. It was found a few months later buried in soil and returned to the monastery once again largely intact.

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The Book stayed in Kells until 1654, when Cromwell's forces were quartered in the Church of Kells and the governor of the town sent it to Dublin for safekeeping. Henry Jones was the man who ensured no harm came to the Book, and eventually presented it to Trinity College Dublin in 1661, where it has remained ever since apart from a few appearances at international exhibitions. Some additions have been made to the text over the centuries; roman numerals were added to the chapters of the Gospels and the pages were counted and numbered too. In order to make sure it didn't fall apart, the manuscript has had to be rebound several times.

During one of these bindings the pages were cropped and the tips of some illustrations were lost. In another binding some of the pages became detached and have had to be kept separately ever since. The most recent binding, and the one that has lasted the longest, was in 1953 by Roger Powell. He divided the manuscript into four volumes and treated the pages so they didn't crumble or bulge.


Making the Book

The identity of the writers and illustrators who worked on the Book of Kells have been lost over the centuries, so naturally there is a lot of debate about who they may have been, even today. Early records give it the title 'the Great Gospel of Columcille', as it was created during the time of the legendary Saint Columcille, although he was not likely to have actually written or worked on it himself. In fact, the book is so large and so intricately decorated that it would have taken several years and definitely more than one person to complete.

Experts claim that at least four artists would have worked on the illustrations alone, and usually decoration was done completely separate to the writing. Scribes would have written the text first and left spaces for the illuminators to decorate. We know this because although the text of the Book of Kells is complete, there are some pages that never reached the illumination stage, and have been left with just rough sketches of decoration outlined. From extensive examination, it's clear that there were four distinct artists who worked on the book, as the variations in style and motifs differ.

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The process of making illuminated manuscripts went like so; first the parchment (or vellum) was made from animal skin. It was soaked and the hair removed, then folded and stretched over a frame with a tool called a lunellum, and then dried out and cut into sheets. The size of the skin determined the size and shape of the eventual manuscript. The sheets were folded in half and then the scribe set to work. He would first smooth the parchment with pumice, then ruled his margins and guide lines, and write down the text with a quill and ink. As vellum was so thick, he could literally scrape away any mistakes with the quill. Once that was done, the illuminator would add decoration first by sketching it with charcoal, then with coloured ink and sometimes even gold leaf applied to the page with a glue-like substance called gesso.

Gold plating was always applied first, followed by lighter ink colours, bold colours and finally outlines. The pages were then put in order and stacked into an unbound book shape. Pages were hand sewn to one another and then the whole manuscript was given a protective cover of wood or leather. The covers were usually lavishly decorated with jewels, gold and silver.

The actual Book of Kells comprises 340 pages (decorated front and back) and is bound in four volumes. The pages are very high quality calf vellum. Thirteen of the pages are solely covered with illustrations, while the rest contain both text and illustrations. The lettering was written with iron gall ink, and the illustrations were painted in colored ink which was most likely made from several different imported substances from foreign lands.

Analysis of Book of Kells
Analysis of Book of Kells

Design Elements of the Book

The Book of Kells is by far the most elaborately decorated of Irish illuminated manuscripts and many consider one of the most magnificently designed manuscripts ever to exist. It belongs to the Insular style, which was common thoughout the British Isles from around 600 – 900 AD. There are several examples of other illuminated manuscripts from the same period, such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Armagh. The majority of these examples are actually older than the Book of Kells, and their influence on the manuscript is obvious.

As mentioned above, it contains the four gospels of the New Testament; each one begins with three whole pages of illustration covering the length and breadth of the page. The illustrations depict each of the Evangelist's symbols, as well as portrait of each. Noteworthy passages are also given extra decoration, including the Crucifixion and the incarnation of Jesus. It is clear from the text that a series of illustrations that were intended to be used as an alternative form of narration were supposed to appear in the text, however they were either left unfinished or did not stand the test of time.

The cover pages of the Book have a cruciform composition (i.e the shape of a Christian cross) followed by arch shapes (known as porticos) containing the canon tables, or in other words, a slightly more complicated version of a table of contents. Symbols of the four evangelists appear in various different sizes and shapes doing various different actions throughout the first few pages. In no other example of an illuminated manuscript is the most functional part of the book given so much attention.

On each individual page of the Book the first letter of each paragraph is huge and brightly adorned with animals, men and mythical creatures engaging in battles or performing a range of actions. These designs are typically Celtic and the practice of illustrating the first letters is unique to Irish illuminated manuscripts – the Book of Kells is the only example in which every single opening letter without fail is subject to this design. As well the first letter of each paragraph there are similar designs placed all around each page, both on the headers and margins as well as between paragraphs, and sometimes even between lines of text. It is said that these Celtic designs were passed down from the slightly older Book of Durrow, which features ornamented letters ending in coiled Celtic spirals.

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The illuminators of the Book of Kells were apparently very creative and imaginative. On many pages, the capital letters have been transformed into completely different objects. For example, on one of the pages in St. John's section, a 'c' and 'i' are joined together to form a man playing a harp, and in St. Luke's section, the letters 'i', 'a' and 'm' are transformed into an instrument of torture. Throughout the whole manuscript there are countless examples of Celtic spirals, zoomorphic animals, Celtic knots, Celtic crosses and interlace patterns.

Some of the most unusual depictions can be seen on the pages that tell the story of the incarnation of Christ. The whole scene is sumptously decorated with Celtic loops and spirals, but hidden among and between are such scenes as a cats and mice fighting over food, an otter with a fish, and rows of angels. There is also a full page portrait of Christ and an unfinished sketch of what would have been a magnificent crucifixion scene.


The Book of Kells Today

The Book of Kells is still in remarkably good condition today. It has reached it's final resting point at 330mm x 250 mm. Each page has 16 to 18 lines of text, with 340 folios, plus an extra 30 pages that have gone missing over the years. The parchment quality varies throughout the manuscript from pages as thick as leather to some more similar to papyrus.

Today, the Book of Kells is on permanent display in Trinity College Dublin. They usually display one illustration page and one text page, and change the pages regularly. So no matter how many times you visit, you'll always see something different. The entire book is available to view in digital format from the University library's Digital Collections portal. If you can't make it to Trinity this really is a great way to see this amazing artwork.

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Images from Digital version on Trinity College website.

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