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The Book of Kells (c. 800 CE) is an illuminated manuscript of the four gospels of the Christian New Testament, currently housed at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. The work is the most famous of the medieval illuminated manuscripts for the intricacy, detail, and majesty of the illustrations. It is thought the book was created as a showpiece for the altar, not for daily use, because more attention was obviously given to the artwork than the text.
The beauty of the lettering, portraits of the evangelists, and other images, often framed by intricate Celtic knotwork motifs, has been praised by writers through the centuries. Scholar Thomas Cahill notes that, “as late as the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was forced to conclude that the Book of Kells was “the work of an angel, not of a man” owing to its majestic illustrations and that, in the present day, the letters illustrating the Chi-Rho (the monogram of Christ) are regarded as “more [living] presences than letters” on the page for their beauty (165). Unlike other illuminated manuscripts, where text was written and illustration and illumination added afterwards, the creators of the Book of Kells focused on the impression the work would have visually and so the artwork was the focus of the piece.
Origin & Purpose
The Book of Kells was produced by monks of St. Columba's order of Iona, Scotland, but exactly where it was made is disputed. Theories regarding composition range from its creation on the island of Iona to Kells, Ireland, to Lindisfarne, Britain. It was most likely created, at least in part, at Iona and then brought to Kells to keep it safe from Viking raiders who first struck Iona in 795 CE, shortly after their raid on Lindisfarne Priory in Britain.
A Viking raid in 806 CE killed 68 monks at Iona and led to the survivors abandoning the abbey in favor of another or their order at Kells. It is likely that the Book of Kells traveled with them at this time and may have been completed in Ireland. The oft-repeated claim that it was made or first owned by St. Columba (521-597 CE) is untenable as the book was created no earlier than c. 800 CE; but there is no doubt it was produced by later members of his order.
The work is commonly regarded as the greatest illuminated manuscript of any era owing to the beauty of the artwork and this, no doubt, had to do with the purpose it was made for. Scholars have concluded that the book was created for use during the celebration of the mass but most likely was not read from so much as shown to the congregation.
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This theory is supported by the fact that the text is often carelessly written, contains a number of errors, and at points certainly seems an afterthought to the illustrations on the page. The priests who would have used the book most likely already had the biblical passages memorized and so would recite them while holding the book, having no need to read from the text.
Scholar Christopher de Hamel notes how, in the present day, “books are very visible in churches” but that in the Middle Ages this would not have been the case (186). De Hamel describes the rough outline of a medieval church service:
There were no pews (people usually stood or sat on the floor), and there would probably have been no books on view. The priest read the Mass in Latin from a manuscript placed on the altar and the choir chanted their part of the daily office from a volume visible only to them. Members of the congregation were not expected to join in the singing; some might have brought their Books of Hours to help ease themselves into a suitable frame of mind, but the services were conducted by the priests. (186)
The Book of Kells is thought to have been the manuscript on the altar which may have been first used in services on Iona and then certainly was at the abbey of Kells. The brightly-colored illustrations and illumination would have made it an exceptionally impressive piece to a congregation, adding a visual emphasis to the words the priest recited while being shown to the people; much in the way one today would read a picture book to a small child.
Appearance & Content
The book measures 13x10 inches (33x25 cm) and is made of vellum pages decorated in painted images which are accompanied by Latin text written in insular script in various colors of ink. It includes the complete gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and part of John as well as indexes and cross-references, summaries, and commentary. It was originally bound by a cover of gold and jewels which was lost when the manuscript was stolen from the abbey in 1007 CE. The ornate binding, front and back, was torn off by the thieves, which also resulted in the loss of some of the folios at either end, and this may have been when the latter part of the Gospel of John was lost.
It is also possible, however, that John may never have been completely copied. There is evidence that the Book of Kells is an unfinished manuscript. There are blank pages, for example, and some missing illustrations; although these may have been lost rather than never completed. The work was done by three separate anonymous scribes who are identified in the present day only as Hand A, Hand B, and Hand C. It was common for more than one scribe to work on a manuscript – even on a single page of a book – to proofread and correct another's errors or to illuminate a text already copied.
Monks produced illuminated manuscripts between the 5th and 13th centuries CE. After the 13th century CE, professional book-makers emerged to meet the growing demand for literary works. It was a natural outgrowth of the monastic life that monks should be the first copyists and creators of books. Each monastery was required to have a library as dictated by the rules of St. Benedict of the 6th century CE. Even though it is clear that some monks arrived at these places with their own books, it is equally evident that many others were borrowed from elsewhere and copied.
Monks were involved in every aspect of book-making from the cultivation of the animals whose skin would be used for the pages to the finished product.
Monks who worked on books were known as scriptores and worked in rooms called scriptoriums. The scriptorium was a long room, lit only by the light from the windows, with wooden chairs and writing tables. A monk would sit hunched over these tables, which angled upwards to hold manuscript pages, day after day to complete a work. Candles or oil lamps were not allowed in the scriptorium to maintain the safety of the manuscripts as fire was an obvious and significant threat.
Monks were involved in every aspect of book-making from the cultivation of the animals whose skin would be used for the pages, to processing that skin into vellum, and on further to the finished product. Once the vellum was processed, a monk would begin by cutting down a sheet to size. This practice would define the shape of books from that time down to the present day; books are longer than they are wide because the monks needed a taller page to work on.
Once the vellum sheet was prepared, lines would be drawn across it to serve as rules for text and blank spaces left open on the sides and borders for illustrations. The text was written first in black ink between these ruled lines by one monk and then would be given to another to proofread. This second monk would then add titles in blue or red ink and then pass the page on to the illuminator who would add images, color, and the silver or gold illumination. Monks wrote with quill pens and boiled iron, tree bark, and nuts to make black ink; other ink colors were produced by grinding and boiling different natural chemicals and plants.
The images in the Book of Kells (and other illuminated manuscripts) are called miniatures. Scholar Giulia Bologna explains:
The term miniature is derived from miniare, which means `to colour in red'; minium is the latin name for cinnabar or mercuric sulphide. This red, used in wall-paintings at Pompeii, was put to common use colouring the initials of early codices, hence its name became the term used to indicate pictures in manuscript books. (31)
The artists who painted these works were known as miniaturists but later as illuminators. The illuminator would begin with a sheet of vellum on which text had usually already been written. The section of the page to be worked on would be rubbed by the monk with clay or isinglass or with "a mixture of ox-bile and egg-albumen or by rubbing the surface with cotton-wool dipped in a diluted glue-and-honey solution" (Bologna, 32). Once the surface was prepared, the monk readied his brushes - which were made of the hair of squirrel tails pressed into a handle - as well as his pens and paints and set to work. Errors in the image were erased by rubbing them away with chunks of bread.
According to Bologna, "we learn of the techniques of illumination from two sources: from uncompleted manuscripts that allow us to observe the interrupted stages of the work and from the directions compiled by medieval authors" (32). The illuminator would begin by sketching an image and then tracing it onto the vellum page. The first layer of paint would be applied to the image and then left to dry; afterwards, other colors were applied. Gold or gold leaf was the first on the page to provide the illumination highlighted by the colors which followed. In this way, the great Book of Kells was produced.
Although it is clear how the manuscript was probably made, no consensus has ever been reached on where it was created. Christopher de Hamel writes:
The Book of Kells is a problem. No study of manuscripts can exclude it, a giant among giants. Its decoration is of extreme lavishness and the imaginative quality of its workmanship is quite exceptional. It was probably this book which Giraldus Cambrensis, in about 1185, called “the work of an angel, not of a man”. But in the general history of medieval book production the Book of Kells has an uncomfortable position because really very little is known about its origin or date. It may be Irish or Scottish or English. (21)
However that may be, most scholars agree on either a Scottish or Irish origin for the work and, since the monks of Iona were originally from Ireland, Irish influence is considered most prominent. The Book of Durrow (650-700 CE), certainly created in Ireland and predating the Book of Kells by more than century, shows many of the same techniques and stylistic choices. Thomas Cahill, writing on the development of literacy and book-making in Ireland, comments:
Nothing brought out Irish playfulness more than the copying of the books themselves…they found the shapes of letters magical. Why, they asked themselves, did a B look the way it did? Could it look some other way? Was there an essential B-ness? The result of such why-is-the-sky-blue questions was a new kind of book, the Irish codex; and one after another, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular magical books the world had ever seen. (165)
Cahill goes on to note how the Irish monks combined the letters of the Roman alphabet with their own Ogham script and whatever fancies their imagination leaned them to produce the opening capital letters on the page, the headings, and the borders which framed the miniatures. Wherever the Book of Kells was started or finished, the Irish touch is unmistakable throughout the work.
As noted, it most likely came to Kells from Iona in 806 CE following the worst of the Viking raids on the island and is known to have been stolen in 1007 CE when its cover was lost; the text itself was found discarded. It is considered most likely the same book Giraldus Cambrensis so admired at Kildare in the 12th century CE but, if he is correct about this location, it was back at the abbey of Kells in the same century as land charters pertaining to the abbey were written on some of the pages.
It remained at the abbey until the 17th century CE when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland (1649-1643 CE) and stationed a part of his force at Kells; at this time the manuscript was brought to Dublin for safe-keeping. It came into the hands of the bishop Henry Jones (1605-1682 CE), an alumnus of Trinity College, and Jones donated it to the college's library in 1661 CE along with the Book of Durrow. The manuscript has been housed at the Trinity library ever since. In 1953 CE the book was rebound in four separate volumes to help preserve it. Two of these volumes are on permanent display at Trinity College; one showing a page of text and the other a page of illustration.
In 2011 CE the town of Kells mounted a petition to have at least one of these volumes returned. Arguing that they are the original owners of the manuscript, and citing the over 500,000 visitors who come to Trinity each year to see the work, the town claims that they deserve to share in some of the benefits of tourism that Trinity has enjoyed so long.
The request was denied, however, citing the delicate nature of the manuscript and the inability of Kells to care for it as well as Trinity College. Facsimiles have been made of the Book of Kells for scholars, art historians, and other fields of study but the manuscript itself is no longer loaned or allowed to be handled. The work remains at Trinity where it is displayed in an exhibit featuring additional information on the most famous of the illuminated manuscripts.
Sofie Hoff – Book of Kells
My initial impression was that the Book of Kells is art. After realizing the weight of the types, the symbols and lettering I felt an urge to call it design. But after I studied the book closer, really looked close up at the metaphorical detailing and the extremely thoughtful composition and being amazed by the craftwork behind it, I would like to correct myself by rather calling it both art and design. Knowing more about the meaning behind it, why it was made and how it was used instinctively and frivolously makes me wanting to call it art. But just like the discussion about what art truly is, so will this discussion about whether this first illuminated manuscript known to us today is art or not go on for eternity. It is an endless discussion that will vary just as greatly and for as long as there are people having an opinion about it. Because what is art really and what is really design? Simply put design has a purpose and art provokes emotional responses. In order to better determine what the Book of Kells might be more or less of, allow me to start off by breaking down a few terms a little so that this complex discussion can become slightly easier to grasp. Let us look closer at the origin of the book, the purpose and its use and the obvious visual. Let us further compare this to the use, the purpose and the differences between art and design and let us not forget about the differences between now and then. I will support my theories and statements about art and design by mainly referencing to Hume and Kant’s thoughts on philosophy of art from Theodore Gracyk’s analysis of “Hume and Kant: Summary and Comparison”.
Way before the art of printmaking was discovered in Europe, the Book of Kells was made and so by hand. A piece like the Book of Kells, made by hand, was and still is being considered an art form today. Without a doubt, it would not have been handmade today. The book would not have been art if it would have been done today. It would have been designed and mass-produced. In my opinion, this mass-producing society that we are a part of today does not produce significantly many pieces of high-quality fine art.
The fact that the Book of Kells was made over a thousand years ago adds an intriguing history to a dead object. Since the history is not entirely known to us, this consequently adds a level of mystery to the concept of the book. The book’s purpose was to simply convert pilgrims to Christianity, by enlighten them with an illuminated manuscript. The book’s recognizable Celtic symbols, iconic drawings and pictorial structure caught the attention of the pilgrims and the sacred beauty of the illustrations was purposefully made in order to sweep them off their feet. “There is nothing that makes its way more directly to the soul than beauty,” emphasizes Thomas Gracyk by quoting Joseph Addison in his analysis.
In similarity to pure art, a certain degree of sacredness was intentionally applied to the object. The purpose of art is many but besides representing the real world, feelings or pure beauty, the conceptual elements of art can also be viewed as a form of religion. Art and especially good art provokes emotions and touches one deeply. Without the additional level of sacredness and mystery the magic of the art will be lost and that is where I personally believe design steps in. Design has a single purpose much more simple, straight forward and obvious than art. It has rules to be followed in order to ease the connections of the invisible dots and to increase the possibility for as many as possible to understand what is being visually presented. For me, design is something that follows rules of what works or not much stricter than art, if not completely. As expressed in Thomas Gracyk’s analysis, “imagination is stifled once we grasp the organizing concept or rule.” In other words, the artist makes art outside the box while the designer stick to the rules and guidelines inside the box, metaphorically speaking. Thus by using the rules of basic design, I fully believe it is possible expand the purpose and the design’s use and to create a piece of art. I believe that as soon as there is a hint of magic to the piece, whatever the object, concept or context might be, it automatically gives it a potential to be art. Ultimately, it is all about the individual and for people to decide for themselves what magic, beauty and art truly is.
As mentioned before, what art respective design is truly is a question that can be discussed and argued endlessly since “art does not depend on any inferences we make from established rules” (Gracyk). There are no rights or wrongs when it comes to art, due solely to the individual’s experiences. Hume elaborates on the complication emphasizing that the beauty of art is just as unique and complex as the interpretations of our feelings and emotions and the response that those creates. What the Book of Kells was doing was to draw attention from a certain group of people and by offering them extraordinary beauty and enlightening knowledge. The fact that the knowledge on its hand was designed to distort their beliefs and to convert their faiths has little to do with the actual discussion whether the Book is design or art. I believe it is the visual beauty and how to interpret that beauty in its pure form that is the key in this matter. To once again refer to Hume and Kant, the “aesthetic properties [of art] are not objective” and therefore “seem beyond debate or discussion.” Though from my personal point of view and put in a perspective of today’s values and ordinariness, the Book of Kells is both art and design. Due to its concept, its historical meaning and applied mystery, I decide to believe it is more art than design.
Book of Kells, Art or Design? Alecia Weiterschan History of Visual Communications Professor Aievoli 09/22/2014 Abstract In this essay I examined the debate between whether the Book of Kells is represented as a work of art or design. I defined the context of.
Assignment One Read and review visual communications from antiquity – Book of Kells for example. Decide if it is truly art or design. Other examples from the text and within the prescribed timeline are acceptable. Read a synopsis of Hume and Kant’s theories of beauty.
Book of Kells: History of world’s most famous medieval manuscript rewritten after dramatic new research
New research is rewriting the history of the world’s most famous early medieval manuscript – a lavishly illustrated 1,200-year-old copy of the Gospels known today as the Book of Kells.
It had always been assumed that the work – which includes 150 square feet of spectacular coloured illustrations – was conceived and created as one book, containing all four Gospels.
But a detailed analysis of the texts has led a leading expert on early medieval illuminated manuscripts, Dr Bernard Meehan of Trinity College, Dublin, to conclude that the book was originally two separate works that were, in the main, created up to half a century apart.
Dr Meehan's new hypothesis suggests that the last part of the Book of Kells (namely St John’s Gospel) and the first few pages of St Mark’s Gospel were created by a potentially quite elderly scribe on the Scottish island of Iona sometime during the last quarter of the eighth century.
But he believes the rest of St Mark’s Gospel and the Kells copies of the Gospels of St Luke and St Matthew were created up to 50 years later in Ireland – in Kells itself.
It was previously thought by many that work on all four books had started on Iona and had been fairly rapidly completed in Kells, all as one continuous project.
Dr Meehan now thinks that it is more likely that the first work – St John’s Gospel – had originally been intended as a stand-alone single Gospel book .
Historical evidence suggests that, in the very late eighth century and at the beginning of the ninth, a series of political and other events disrupted Iona’s Gospel book production activity.
Their troubles started in 795 AD, when Viking raiders attacked the monastery.
it is also probable that the community was hit by some sort of major epidemic – possibly smallpox. Seven abbots at major monasteries in Ireland and western Britain all died in 801 and 802 – including two abbots (and one ex-abbot) of Iona.
A secon d Viking raid on the com munity took place in 802 and four years later, a third saw 68 monks and others were slaughtered.
Battered by the violence and the scourge of epidemic disease, much of the community decided to relocate by establishing a successor monastery in a safer place – an inland site across the sea at Kells in Ireland.
It was there that Dr Meehan believes that scribes ultimately finished off the copy of St Mark’s Gospel and set to work making their copies of St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospels.
These, he said, were then combined with the St John’s Gospel manuscript to create the Book of Kells as it survives to this day.
Handwriting evidence suggests that the Iona monk who created his spectacular copy of St John’s Gospel was, stylistically, a very traditional scribe who had learned his craft at some stage in the mid eighth century. His scribal activity appears to have ceased abruptly, after he completed verse 26 of the fourth chapter of St Mark’s Gospel.
He may well have been one of the three very senior monks who died on Iona in 801 and 802 – either the newly appointed abbot, Bresal mac Ségéni, who died 801, or his successor Connachtach who died 802. It could also be the former abbot, Suibne who died in 801. He had resigned as head of the community 30 years earlier.
But why did that stylistically very traditional scribe decide to produce the fourth Gospel - that of St John - first rather than last? That decision potentially helps shed important light on the early history of Christianity in Ireland and Scotland.
Of the four Christian gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) only the fourth (John) was, and still is, traditionally believed to have been written by somebody who actually knew Jesus – namely, John, one of Jesus twelve most senior disciples.
His gospel was therefore privileged by some above the others in the very early Christian church. What’s more, according to tradition, John emigrated from Palestine to Ephesus (in what is now Turkey) around a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion. Traditionally, he was said to be the disciple Jesus was closest to.
At roughly the same time another disciple, St Peter, went to Rome where he became the first Pope.
Although all early Christians recognised the authority of successive popes (Peter’s successors) in Rome, some – because of John’s role in Ephesus – regarded Asia Minor (modern Turkey) as an equally key original Christian epicentre. The Irish recognised Rome as the home of the papacy – but the city’s past imperial glories had no resonance for them because Ireland had never been politically or culturally part of the Roman Empire.
Because they were less impressed by Rome’s glorious past, they were therefore more inclined to privilege John – a disciple who was not in any way associated with it.
What’s more, back in the third to seventh centuries, there had been, throughout the Christian world, ferocious disagreements as to the best way of calculating the correct date for Easter, for the anniversary date of Jesus’ resurrection. Again the Irish church’s view on that issue had been partly based on information specifically from John’s Gospel. That may have been another reason why the fourth gospel had such a special place in the hearts of Celtic Christians.
St John’s Gospel was therefore particularly relevant to Celtic Christian monks – like those on Iona.
“We know of four Celtic tradition St John’s Gospel books that survived into early modern or modern times – and I suspect that originally there must have been literally hundreds produced in the seventh and eighth centuries – an indication of just how important that particular gospel was from their perspective,” says Dr Meehan, who, through the London publishers Thames & Hudson, is this week publishing a new official guide to the Book of Kells.
Today, the great 680-page illuminated manuscript itself (now divided into four volumes) is owned by Trinity College, Dublin. It is on public display there – and every three months the pages are turned and four new pages are put on view.
This unparalleled treasure has been at Trinity for around 350 years (and for half of that time it has been on public display).
But its earlier history was substantially more dramatic. Almost 200 years after its completion, thieves stole it (and probably its gold and jewel-encrusted container) and buried the book itself under a sod of grass, almost certainly in a nearby field. Fortunately, after almost three months, its hiding place was revealed to the monks of Kells who then succeeded in retrieving it. It is not known whether the community had to pay a ransom to learn of its whereabouts.
Today, the first 10 pages and the last 12 pages of the original Gospel book are missing – and it’s very likely that they were so badly damaged by being buried in the ground, that they were disposed of after recovery, but never replaced. Indeed, on the surviving current first and last pages of the book, one can still see water damage that would be consistent with that brief, yet destructive, period of burial.
More than six centuries later, during a major Irish rebellion against English rule, Kells and its ancient abbey were partially destroyed. A few years later, the great gospel book was removed by the English to the more secure environment of the ecclesiastical authorities in Dublin. The Irish capital’s Welsh-born Anglican bishop, a fervent Protestant called Henry Jones, who had studied at Trinity and had subsequently become its vice-chancellor (but had also been Oliver Cromwell’s head of military intelligence!), then donated the book to the college, where it still resides.
Book of Kells
This manuscript’s date or place of production has been the subject of considerable debate, yet it is acknowledged as the most famous illuminated Manuscript from the Medieval era. It is lavishly Illustrated with Celtic Motifs plus has deep symbolism.
It was possibly produced circa 800 CE partly in Iona, Scotland by St. Columba with his Monks. It was purported to have been transferred to Kells in Ireland for safekeeping during 809 CE when Viking raids occurred on Iona. It was stolen from Kells during 1007 CE with the resultant loss of the cover plus some folios. The Book of Kells was again transferred during the 17 th century invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell to Dublin. The main purpose of the Book was for Liturgical practice commemorating the Four Gospels. They were six – hundred individual pages of three – hundred folios. According to Thomas Cahill ‘The Irish Monks combined the Roman alphabet with their own Ogham script to produce the opening capital letter, the headings or to frame the miniatures.’ Bishop Henry Jones (1605 – 1682 CE), an alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin, donated it to the college’s library during 1661 CE where it remains to this present day. It has been restored several times i.e. in 1953 Robert Powell was responsible for its rebounding in four separate volumes to help its preservation. Two of these volumes are on permanent display at Trinity College one showing a page of text also a page of illustration. (Joshua J. Mark 30 January 2018) [i]
The Book of Kells was written on Vellum, (a parchment made from the skin of lambs or calves) it was the most durable material available at that era. The skin was initially soaked with the hair removed, folded then stretched over a frame with a tool (a lunellum.) It was left to dry out then cut into sheets. The size of the skin determined the size or the shape of the eventual manuscript. The sheets were folded in half prior to the scribe’s work. First the parchment was smoothed with pumice, the margins were ruled as guidelines. Instruments used were quills. [ii]
‘The actual lettering of the Book of Kells is in itself the embodiment of an early Irish School of Calligraphy, which sprang into being in circumstances for which it would be difficult to find a parallel in the history of handwriting in any part of the world.’ The lettering was written with iron gall ink. Dr. Kelly believed that the early Irish quills were made from geese, swans, crows or other birds feathers. There were occasional deviations from the standard forms of the Roman half – uncial letters. There were two forms of ‘S’ used: the round Capitol & the tall half – uncial. A preference was shown for the Capitol ‘R’. Three forms of ‘a’ plus ‘b’ & ‘l’ were always bent. The ‘d’ was penned with both the perpendicular stroke and with the stroke thrown back. (Sir Edward Sullivan) [iii] The pages of the Books of Kells were put in order, then stacked into an unbound book shape. Pages were hand sewn to one another. The whole manuscript was given a protective cover of wood or leather. [iv]
As many as ten different colours were used in these illuminations, many were rare expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. [v] The ornamentation of the Book of Kells when broken up into compositions was made of four main divisions: Geometrical combinations ie. Spiral interlacing, Zoomorphic / animal forma, Phyllomorphic or leaf plant forms, Figure representations. According to Professor Hartley in his published paper on ‘Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society N S Vol 1V 1885: ‘a very careful examination of the work shows that the pigments used were mixed with gum, glue or gelatine laid on somewhat thickly. There is however a painting of blue over a ground of green. The black is lamp black or possibly fish – bone black, the bright red is realgar (arsenic disulphide), the yellow is orpiment (arsenic tersulphide) the emerald green madachite, the deep blue is possibly lapis lazuli., the reddish – purple was either a finely ground glass coloured with gold or a preparation obtained from a solution of gold by the action of tin. Other colours are lilac, pale blue, a neutral green and a tint that resembled burnt sienna.’ (Sir Edward Sullivan) [vi]
Scholar Guilia Bologna explained the term ‘miniture is derived from mininare, which means to colour in red.’ The artists painted those works were known as miniaturists, later as illuminators. The Illuminators began with a sheet of vellum, on which text had been written previously. The section for work was rubbed with clay or isinglass or with ‘a mixture of ox -bile and egg – albumen or else by rubbing the surface with cotton – woo dipped in a diluted glue – and – honey solution.’ Once the surface was prepared, the monk set to work previously he would have readied his brushes made of the hair of squirrel tails pressed into a handle – as well as his pens or paints. The illuminator would begin by sketching an image prior to it being traced onto the vellum page. The first layer of paint of gold or gold leaf would be applied to the image, left to dry then afterwards other colours were applied. Errors in the image were erased by rubbing them away with chunks of bread. (Joshua J. Mark 30 January 2018) [vii] Thirteen of the pages were solely covered with illustrations, whilst the rest contained both text and illustrations. Many unusual depictions may be seen on pages that tell the story of Christ’s incarnation. The whole scene was extravagantly decorated with Celtic loops plus spirals but hidden among or between were scenes of cats or mice fighting over food, an otter with a fish, also rows of angels, etc. There was also a full-page portrait of Christ with an unfinished sketch of what would have been a magnificent crucifixion scene. In addition to incidental character illuminations, there were entire pages of primarily decorations. These included: portrait pages, “carpet” pages plus partially decorated pages with just a line or so of text. The workmanship was so fine that several details may only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass. [viii]
Scholar Thomas Cahill noted: ‘as late as the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was forced to conclude that the Book of Kells was ‘the work of an angel, not of a man’ owing to its majestic illustrations, in the present day, the letters illustrating the Chi-Rho (the monogram of Christ) are regarded as ‘more [living] presences than letters’ on the page for their beauty. (Joshua J. Mark 30 January 2018) [ix] Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hiberniae (ca. 1185) stated that ‘Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists. . . . You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man’ (Cirker Blanche) [x]
Many of the folios of larger sheets called bifolios, were folded in half to form two folios. The bifolios were nested inside of each other. These were sewn together to form gatherings called quires, (the measurements of the quantity of paper used.) On occasions perhaps a folio was not part of a bifolio but was instead a single sheet inserted within a quire. The extant folios were gathered into thirty – eight quires. Between four or twelve folios (two to six bifolios) per quire the folios were commonly bound in groups of ten. Several folios were single sheets, especially in the case of the important decorated pages. The folios had lines drawn for the text, sometimes on both sides, after the bifolios were folded. [xi]
The Manuscript in its present state consists of three hundred – thirty – nine leaves of thick, finely glazed vellum, that measures thirteen by nine & a half inches. The number of lines of text to a page of the Gospels is in general less than seventeen or not more than nineteen, the space occupied by the writing is ten by seven inches. [xii] The Book of Kells is still in remarkably excellent condition today. It is now three hundred – thirty mm x two – fifty mm. Each page has sixteen to eighteen lines of text, with three hundred & forty folios. (Thirty pages have been mislaid over the years) [xiii]
During the 1980’s a facsimile of the Book of Kells as a Project was held between the Fine Art Facsimile Publisher of Switzerland with Trinity College, Dublin. Faksimile -Verlag Luzern produced more than one thousand – four hundred copies of the first colour reproduction of the manuscript in its entirety. [xiv]
The World’s most famous Medieval illuminated Manuscript is viewable online at: https://mymodernmet.com/book-of-kells-digitized/
There are a series of seven videos of a Documentary available on this site: https://ireland-calling.com/book-of-kells-videos/
This ‘Book of Kells’ includes an extended introduction plus its historic or linguistic background. Included are high resolution scans of the illustrations. 1920 Sullivan Edward, The Studio London / New York. It may be seen at this link: https://sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/bok/index.htm
The following books pertaining to the subject are
‘Exploring The Book of Kells’ 2015 Simms George Otto, illustrated by Rooney David / O’Brien Eoin 3 rd Edition O’Brien Press.
‘The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience’ (British Library Studies in Medieval Culture) 1998 Farr Carol Ann, University of Toronto, Scholarly Publishing Division.
‘The Book of Kells and the Art of Illumination’ 2000 Kennedy Brian, Meehan Bernard, Meehan Manion, National Gallery of Australia. [xv]
A paperback edition of ‘The Book of Kells’ was published during 1920 by Sullivan Sir Edward, Kessinger Publishing London / New York. [xvi]
D. Illustrations and Ornamentations
The Book of Kells is mostly composed of illustrations and decorations. It was thought that the book is created to be displayed or venerated, not entirely read as a church manuscript. This explains the plethora of majestic images in the book.
Early Christian iconography is prevalent throughout The Book of Kells. The insular art style is also seen, as this is the common style used in the post-Roman British period. Swirling Celtic-inspired motifs typical of Insular art are incorporated with the icons to produce rich images of Jesus, Mary, and other Biblical figures.
Abstract decorations, Celtic symbols, and various images of animals, plants, and humans adorn most of the Book of Kells’ folios. Vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and rich symbolism characterize the illustrations in the book. Continuous Celtic knotwork motifs can be seen in several designs.
The coloring ink materials used in the book were taken from several natural sources. Some of which include the following:
- Black – Soot, and lampblack, also occasionally uses soot taken from burnt bones
- Brown – Iron gall ink made from a combination of iron sulfite, crushed oak galls, gum, and water
- Yellow – Orpiment (a sulfide mineral found in hot springs) and yellow ochre
- Green – Malachite mineral and a mixture of blue indigo and yellow orpiment
- Red – Red ochre and inorganic pigment from red lead
- Purple – Dyes coming from Brazilwood, Crozhopora folium, elderberries, blueberries, purple shellfish, and lichens
- Blue – Indigofera tinctura plant and mixtures of chalk, indigo, and the semi-precious stone Lapis lazuli
All these natural materials are used in varying degrees to create different levels of shades for each color. This is especially the case for yellow, purple, green, and blue pigments.
Now, The Book of Kells is believed to be the work of four artists, in addition to the three scribes who may have been in charge of the calligraphy.
Carroll, M. Date Unknown. Emblems of Ireland:The Book of Kells . Irish Culture and Customs. [Online] Available at: https://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/AEmblem/BooKells.html
Helbig, I. 2017. Scientific mistakes and the Book of Kells . Beyond the Ion Channel. [Online] Available at:
Trinity College Dublin. Date Unknown. The Book of Kells . Trinity College Dublin. [Online] Available at:
Trinity College Dublin. Date Unknown. The Book of Kells – Flaws and imperfections . Future Learn. [Online] Available at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/book-of-kells/0/steps/50076
I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most. Read More
An Irish Treasure:
The Book of Kells is a beautiful Irish treasure that draws thousands of visitors to the Trinity College Library in the hopes of getting a glimpse of the two volumes on display.
But why is the Book of Kells an important part of Irish cultural heritage?
Here’s a list of why I believe it is so treasured by Irish people all over the world.
- It’s a masterpiece of intricate and ornate calligraphy, and an example of Insular illustration.
- It provides evidence of the artistry and skills of Irish monks and scholars in centuries past.
- It’s among Ireland’s top ten tourist attractions.
- Many regard it as the finest national treasure of Ireland.
- It’s a gift from Ireland’s medieval and monastic past.
- Created by a team of master illustrators, it’s a testament to cooperative planning, implementation and sheer talent.
- Lettering variations are clearly evident, revealing the subtle individual styling of each scribe.
- It combines Christian and Celtic symbolism in an iconic work of art, and is evidence of the fusion of these two traditions after Saint Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity.
And so, if you choose to visit Trinity College to see this magnificent manuscript, remember as you gaze at it’s ornate and colorful pages, that this is truly an Irish and European cultural treasure.
However, if you do visit the Library, be sure to check out the other important, but lesser-known Irish treasures it holds, including the Brian Boru Harp, Ireland’s oldest surviving harp and a rare original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
Intrigued? You should be! Learn more about these other medieval manuscripts in this article!
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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Book of Kells
The Book of Kells  is an illuminated manuscript in Latin of the four Gospels of the New Testament together with some extra texts and tables.
It was created by Celtic monks about 800 AD or slightly earlier. The text of the Gospels is mostly taken from the Vulgate bible, and it has several passages from earlier versions of the Bible, such as the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of Western calligraphy. and Ireland's finest national treasure.
The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells are outstanding. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of the art of the British Isles. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, and Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these minor decorative elements have Christian symbolism.
The manuscript today is 340 folios (separate sheets, written on one side). Since 1953, it has been bound in four volumes. The leaves are on high-quality calf vellum. There are ten full-page illustrations, and text pages that are vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures. The writing of the text itself appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The colours used were gathered from many substances, some of which were imports from distant lands.
The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells which was its home for centuries. Today, it is on permanent display at the library of Trinity College, Dublin. The library usually displays two of the four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing a typical text page.
In 1951, the Swiss publisher Urs Graf Verlag Bern produced the first facsimile of the Book of Kells.  Most of the pages were reproduced in black-and-white photographs, and the edition also had 48 colour reproductions, including all of the full-page decorations.
Under licence from the Board of Trinity College Dublin, the art publishers Thames and Hudson produced a second facsimile edition in 1974. This edition had all the full-page illustrations in the manuscript and a section of text page ornamentation, with some enlarged details of the illustrations. The reproductions were all in full colour.
By 1986, Swiss publisher Faksimile-Verlag had a process that used gentle suction to straighten a page so that it could be photographed without touching it. They got permission to publish a new facsimile.  After each page was photographed, a single-page facsimile was prepared so the colours could be carefully compared to the original and adjustments made where necessary. The completed work was published in 1990 in a two-volume set containing the full facsimile and scholarly commentary. One copy is held by the Anglican Church in Kells, on the site of the original monastery.
In 1994, Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, produced an introductory booklet on the Book of Kells, with 110 colour images of the manuscript. 
A digital copy of the manuscript was produced by Trinity College in 2006. A rare copy of the Book of Kells can also be seen for free at The Little Museum of Dublin. 
8 Oldest Books that ever Existed
Humans began to develop writing systems sometime in the 30th century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia, which included the Sumerian, Akkadian, and ancient Egyptian civilizations. While the earliest examples of written text date back to around 2600 BCE, these early writings were written on stone tablets and depending on who you ask, don’t count as books.
For the purposes of this article, we have not included these early texts and instead covered what are considered to be the oldest books (bound pages or tablets) in the world that still exist today.
8. Gutenberg Bible – c. 1450 – 1455
Author: printed by Johannes Gutenberg
Country of Origin: Mainz, Germany
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Although the Gutenberg Bible is not as old as other books that have survived throughout history, it is being included on this list for its significance as the first book to be printed using mass produced movable-type and when people think of what a book traditionally is, the Gutenberg Bible is the oldest example of this. The book was printed by Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press and started the Printing Revolution, around 1450 – 1455.
There is early documentation showing that 200 copies of the Bible were scheduled to be printed on cotton linen paper and 30 copies on velum animal skin – the actual number of copies made is unknown. Today, only 22 copies are known to exist and the Gutenberg Bibles are the world’s most rare and valuable printed material.
7. Book of Kells – c. 800 AD
Author: Unknown (possibly monks from Iona, Scotland)
Country of Origin: Ireland
photo source: Wikipedia
The Book of Kells or the Book of Columba, is one of Ireland’s greatest treasures as it is an illuminated manuscript dating back to about 800 AD. Prior to the recent dating of the book to about 800 AD, scholars believed that the book may have been the Great Gospel of Columba, an Irish monk from the 6th century. The book was named for the Abbey of Kells, where it was housed for many centuries – it is currently on permanent display at Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland.
The book features complex and extravagant ornamentation and is one of the best examples of an illuminated manuscript. It features four Gospels from the New Testament and consists of 340 folios made from calfskin vellum.
6. St. Cuthbert Gospel – c. 7th century AD
Author: Unknown (possibly monks from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey)
Country of Origin: England
photo source: Wikipedia
The St. Cuthbert Gospel is the oldest surviving European book and dates back to around the 7th century. The book is a copy of the Gospel of St. John and was named for St. Cuthbert, whose coffin the book was placed in sometime after his death in 687. It was rediscovered in 1104 at Durham Cathedral where St. Cuthbert’s coffin was moved by his monastery to escape Viking raids.
After the book was rediscovered, it was privately owned until it was donated to a Jesuit community in Belgium in 1769. The book has been on loan to the British Library in London since 1979 and they are now the current owners as they managed to raise about $14 million to buy the book from the Jesuits.
5. Garima Gospels – c. 330 – 650 AD
Author: Abba Garima (according to legend from Abba Garima Monastery)
Country of Origin: Ethiopia
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Garima Gospels are two gospel books from the Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia and are the oldest known complete illuminated Christian manuscripts. Until the last decade, scholars had always believed that both books dated back to the 11th century, but recent carbon-testing shows that the books date back to between 330 – 650 AD.
According to the monks at the Abba Garima Monastery, the books have been guarded and house at the monastery since their inception. They also believe that the books were written by Abba Garima, a Byzantine royal who founded the monastery. Both books were restored sometime in the last decade by a British bookbinder with money from the Ethiopian Heritage Fund, a British charity that helps preserve the artifacts found in Ethiopia’s monasteries.
4. Nag Hammadi Library – c. 3rd – 4th century AD
Author: Unknown (possibly Pachomian monks)
Country of Origin: Nag Hammadi, Egypt
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of thirteen codices buried in a sealed jar that were found in 1945 by a farmer named Muhammed al-Samman in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. The writings found in the codices are mostly about Gnostic treatises, but also contain works belonging to the Corpus Hermitcum as well as a partial translation/alteration of Plato’s Republic. One of the codices contains the only known complete text of the Gospel of Thomas.
The codices are believed to date back between the 3rd and 4th century and are thought to have been buried and hidden after Saint Athanasius banned the use of non-canonical books in 367 AD. Since their discovery, the codices have influenced modern research into early Christianity and Gnosticism.
3. Codex Sinaiticus (Sinai Bible) – c. 330 – 360 AD
Author: Copied by various scribes
Country of Origin: Sinai, Egypt
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Codex Sinaiticus, commonly called the Sinai Bible, is one of the world’s most important and treasured books as it is the only early manuscript of the Christian Bible that is still largely intact. The book is a handwritten copy of the Bible in the ancient Greek text of Septuagint, which was originally made by four scribes sometime in the 4th century.
The book is considered to be one of the best Greek texts of the New Testament and been useful in aiding biblical text research. Although large portions of the Old Testament are missing from the book, scholars believe that the book originally contained both Testaments.
2. Pyrgi Gold Tablets – c.500 BCE
Author: Thefarie Velianas, Kinng of Caere
Country of Origin: Pyrgi, Italy (modern-day Santa Severa)
Script: Etruscan and Phoenician
photo source: Wikimedia Commons
The Prygi gold tablets were found during an excavation of the ancient port town of Pyrgi, Italy in 1964 and date back to around 500 BCE. Although the tablets aren’t exactly a book, each tablet has holes around the border suggesting that they were once bound together. The tablets are notable because they are written in two different languages, two of the tablets are written in ancient Etruscan and the third one is written in Phoenician.
Due to the bilingual text, researchers have been able to use their knowledge of Phoenician to interpret the Etruscan tablets.
1. Etruscan Gold Book – c.600 BCE
Country of Origin: Bulgaria
photo source: BBC News
Although not much is known about the Etruscan Gold Book, it is believed to be oldest book in the world as it dates back to around 600 BCE. The entire book is made out of 24 carat gold and consists of six sheets bound together, which have illustrations of a horse-rider, a mermaid, a harp, and soldiers. The book was found sometime in the late 1950s in a tomb uncovered during digging for a canal along the Strouma river in Bulgaria.
In 2003, the finder of the book, who has asked to remain anonymous, donated the book to the Bulgaria’s National History Museum. According to the museum’s director at the time, Bojidar Dimitrov, the book’s authenticity was verified by two experts in Sofia, Bulgaria and London, England.