The Book of Kells and Illuminated Manuscripts

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript from the eighth century. It is currently located at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The images and icons in this book of gospels are Christian; however, the decorative style of the work is pre-Christian in origin. Since the decorations show both Irish and Germanic influences, they are referred to as Hiberno-Saxon art. The Book of Kells is called an insular manuscript, because its script is in a style known as “Insular majuscule,” a style which was common in Ireland between the seventh and ninth centuries. The Book of Kells represents a high point in the development of Hiberno-Saxon illumination.  In the words of the art historian Carl Nordenfalk, the manuscript is a work of “exquisite perfection. This paper will discuss the Book of Kells in an effort to determine its artistic and historic contribution.

In the sixth century, the Christian Church began spreading its influence by establishing monasteries throughout Europe. The people of Ireland had begun converting to Christianity as early as the fifth century and, by the seventh century, the nation had become an integral part of the Church’s international monastic system.  The monks of the Irish monasteries look religious texts and decorated them, thereby creating what are today known as illuminated manuscripts.  The decorations of these texts included large, ornate initial letters, interlace patterns, human, animal and religious figures, and various symbolic and iconographic motifs.

In addition to the Book of Kells, the Irish illuminated books of this period included the Book of Durrow, the Book of Lindisfaren, the Book of Armagh, the Durham Gospels and the Book of Ceolfrid.  However, of all these illuminated manuscripts, the Book of Kells “is the most lavishly decorated.”

Often, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were chosen as the text for illumination. The Book of Kells, for example, is a Latin version of the four gospels. The monasteries produced some illuminated gospel books which were relatively small and could be carried around by priest and monks on their missionary work.  Other illuminated versions of the gospels, such as the Book of Kells, were quite large and were “designed for use on the altar. Although the Book of Kells is Christian in theme and purpose, its illuminated decorations show a pre-Christian, pagan origin.

The Irish monks who produced the illuminated manuscripts hired local artists to do the decorations.  Before the arrival of the Christian Church, these artists had worked for the local pagan chieftains. The designs and motifs that these recently converted artists used were similar to those used by traditional metalworkers and goldsmiths.  Therefore, many of the decorations of Christian manuscripts have a likeness to the adornments found on helmets, shields and other ancient pagan artifacts.  It is interesting to note that the manuscript artists did not use real-life models to create their designs and images; rather they copied these elements from earlier works. According to Jonathan J. G. Alexander, a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, the work of the medieval illuminator was one of “obedience to authority, in the sense of copying images from an exemplar.”  In this way, a tradition of decorative art was carried forth from one generation of artists to the next. It can also be said that the illumination techniques used in the medieval Irish monasteries were the “last flowering of prehistoric art.”8  Although the Christian Church came to dominate medieval culture, the decorative techniques of the illuminated manuscripts show a continuity of the earlier pagan culture. Thus, ironically, adaptation to Christianity was one of the ways in which some of the elements of the earlier culture were preserved.

Scholars are in dispute over the issue of where and when the Book of Kells was originally produced.  Many art historians have attributed the work to St. Colum Cille, the head of a monastery at Iona, a small island located between Ireland and Scotland. The Iona monastery was founded in the middle of the sixth century.  However, at the turn of the ninth century, Viking raids on the British Isles forced the monks to temporarily relocate at Kells on the mainland of Ireland.

Not everyone agrees that St. Colum Cille created the Book of Kells by his own hand. However, there is general agreement that the Book of Kells was produced by someone (or a group of people) associated with either the Iona monastery or its refuge at Kells. The closest estimate that scholars can make about the exact date of the manuscript is that it was probably created around the time that the monk of Iona made their “migration” to Kells. As noted by Bernard Meehan, curator at Trinity College in Dublin, an important clue lies in the fact that the Book of Kells is missing pages at the end and was thus evidently left unfinished.10  This indicates that the work on the manuscript may have been interrupted by the Viking

raids. The first Viking raid on the monastery at Iona occurred in about 795, and the refuge at Kells began experiencing a period of relative calm after 814.  Therefore, the Book of Kells was probably created sometime between these two dates.  Scholars have been unable to pinpoint the exact date of the manuscript, and as such it has been impossible to say with certainty whether it was produced at Iona or Kells. In the words of Bernard Meehan, “the date ‘ c, 800; cab be cited as a suitable compromise, and the manuscript attributed to the Iona scriptorium, whether working at Iona or at Kells or partially at both locations.”

The size of the Book of Kells is 33 centimeters by 25 centimeters, and it consists of 340 folio pages. The start of the first gospel (St. Matthew) is on the 29th page.The first 28 pages consist of introductory material, of which some pages are evidently lost. These pages include a list of Hebrew names, summaries of the four gospels, and descriptions of the four evangelists.  The introductory pages also include a series of “canon tables,” which were lists for the purpose of cross-referring to various passages within the gospels. There is a great deal of decoration on the canon table pages. In the words of George Henderson, professor of Medieval Art at the University of Cambridge, the decoration of the canon tables is “very sumptuous, with heavy semi-architectural members, bases, block capitals, columns, and arches over the individual numbered lists, as well as a main arch placed over all four lists.” In addition, the pages of the canon tables introduced symbolic images for the four evangelists. These images of a man, lion, bull and eagle are also found throughout the rest of the manuscript.

There are two main decorative elements found in the Book of Kells. These are the small decorative illustrations that occur throughout the book, and the full page illustrations which are used introduce important sections. The decorations found throughout the book do not exist merely for the purpose of ornamentation.  According to Meehan, these decorative schemes serve to elucidate certain sections of text. Thus, “important words and phrases are emphasized and the text is enlivened by an endlessly inventive range of decorated initials and interlinear drawings.” Nordenfalk points out that the basic style of Hiberno-Saxon decoration is linear in nature. This means that there is a great deal of movement of line to be found in the illustrations. This linear quality is seen, for example, in the decorative borders surrounding many of the pictures, and also in the geometric shapes and patterns that are featured throughout. The most frequently used geometric shape seems to be the spiral.

Another patterning effect is created by the technique of interlace. This refers to the ribbon-like, weaving patterns that surround key words and phrases. The use of interlace is highly sophisticated in the Book of Kells. As noted by Meehan, with the Book of Kells the ancient art of interlace “reached a high order of ingenity.” Often, tiny human or animal figures are incorporated into the interlace patterns. There is a wide range of animal figures used in the manuscript, including cats, dogs, mice, chickens, rabbits, lizard, wolves, deer, doves, and even some fantastic creatures that do not exist in real life.  Some of the animal figures are symbolic of Christ, such as the fish, the lion, the snake and the peacock.  There are also angels and other religious figures and symbols. As a general rule, the human and animal figures are depicted in a stylized way. This results in them having a distorted, or “grotesque” appearance, which is similar to the style found in later Gothic period art.

Nevertheless, despite this and the linear two-dimensional quality of the work, “the animal and human forms retain an almost startling vitality.” This point of view is also expressed by Luisa Marcucci and Emma Micheletti in their book Medieval Painting. According to these authors, a great deal of originality can be found in “the expressive vitality of the outline in the case of both the human figures and animals which, although they are stylized, do not have the dry, emblematical eastern shapes.” Overall, the decorative patterns in the Book of Kells are highlighted by an efficient use of color, which further helps to bring the illustrative features to life.

A focus for much of the decoration in the Book of Kells is the large initial letters that precede important passages of the text.  In addition to serving a decorative purpose, these initial letters help draw the reader’s eye into the wording of the text.  As indicated by Nordenfalk, these large letters “in fact ‘held up’ the reading of the script.” This treatment of initial letters shows two decorative elements which were unique to the Hiberno-Saxon style. The first is the use of red dots around the outline of the letter, “for the purposes of highlighting it,” and the second is the use of “diminuendo,’ a technique in which “the letters of words introducing a new section are formed in decreasing sizes.”

Another notable feature of the Book of Kells is the full-page decorative illustrations found in certain parts of the book. These complexly decorated pages are, in fact, the element “upon which the book’s celebrity mainly rests.”  These pages include the canon tables, and a portrait of the Virgin and Child which is surrounded by angels and an ornate border. There is also a portrait of Christ and “a page wholly of decoration depicting a double-armed cross with eight roundels embedded in a frame.” There are also decorative pages known as the evangelist portraits and the evangelist symbol pages.  It appears that the original plan of the Book of Kells was to have four evangelist portrait pages, one for each evangelist; however, the portraits of St. Mark and St. Luke are now missing. These pages were placed at the beginning of each of the respective evangelist’s gospels.  In addition, there are four evangelist symbol pages, one each at the start of each gospel. These pages depict the four symbolic images of the evangelists:  the man, the calf, the lion and the eagle. The artist of the Book of Kells did not merge these four symbols into one figure, as in some other early medieval interpretations.  Rather, each evangelist symbol page shows all four symbols as separate but equal entities.  According to Henderson, the constant repetition of these four symbols throughout the Book of Kells serves to unite the text. Thus, “they are, in their plentiful appearances, like a primitive litany of spell that evokes their four names, over and over.”

Two decorative pages of special interest in the Book of Kells are the those that illustrate the temptation of Christ and the arrest of Christ. Meehan points out that these “narrative scenes” are “the earliest to survive in gospel manuscripts.”  Although they are described as narrative scenes, these pages are done in the flat, iconographic style which is characteristic of the Book of Kells as a whole.  The temptation scene shows Christ within a decorative border, standing over an ark or small temple with angels floating over his halloed head. A dark, demonic figure stands to the right of Christ, and crowds of people stand behind him to the left and underneath the temple. Henderson points out that the artist of this page took the trouble to place different colors in the hair and eyes of the figures in the crowd.  As such, the figures “might, but not very convincingly, represent the populace of the world over whom Christ is offered control.” The dominance of Christ in this image is created by his placement at the top  of the picture, and also by the fact that he is larger in size than the temple building and the rest of the figures.  The other major narrative scene in the Book of Kells is that which shows Christ’s arrest. As in the scene of the temptation, the images on this page are done in  a stylized, flat style. In addition, the figures of Christ and the two arresting officers are somewhat distorted in size and shape. Despite this stylization and distortion, however, the figures have a great deal of vibrancy and life. This is partly due to the use of bright color in the image. It is also partly due to the way in which the artist has treated the figures’ eyes, which are very expressive with their strange, staring effect.

In comparing the Book of Kells with the other insular manuscripts of the time, it is important to bear in mind that many of the design elements were copied from one text to another. As a result, there are more similarities than differences to be found in comparing these works. For example, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Landisfarne, both of which predate the Book of Kells, also feature the canon tables, gospel introductions, spiral patterns, decorated initial letters, and incorporation of animal forms that are found in the Book of Kells.  A notable difference in these earlier works can be seen in the use of carpet-like patterns to introduce important sections of text.  Basically, these decorative pages feature abstract, ornamental patterns which are reminiscent of carpet designs from the Middle East. The outline of a cross is generally built into the pattern.  This outline is carefully incorporated into the overall pattern, and thus “the background to the cross is very finely drawn, with shifts of colour from block to block of interlace.”  The main difference to be seen in comparing the Book of Kells to its predecessors is that the Book of Kells represents a very high level in the development  of illuminated art. More so than the earlier works, the Book of Kells displays “a wonderful harmony between the painting, the writing and the composition of the page.” Compared to the earlier manuscripts, the decorative style of the Book of Kells is more detailed, livelier, and shows greater perfection of technique.

The Book of Kells and the other insular manuscripts of its times played were important in the development of art. Although the decorations of these books were based on merging Christian an pagan motifs, the end result was the creation o fan entirely new art form. In the words of George Henderson, the art of these early gospel books “has an imaginative quality, a mental involvement and commitment which renders difficult the search for specific visual exemplars, and which amounts to a re-thinking of the entire genre.” In this way, the Book of Kells and other insular gospels of the time made an important contribution to the further development of illuminated manuscripts. Marcucci and Micheletti claim that “the Irish invented the decoration of the medieval book,” because the use of claborate geometric motifs was adopted by subsequent illuminators in the medieval period.  In fact, the artistic style created by the Irish illuminators persisted until the fifteenth century, when the invention of the printing press caused a decline in the production of illuminated manuscripts. Thus, it is apparent that the Book of Kells had an important influence on later artists. In addition, because the Book of Kells provided an artistic treatment of the Christian gospels, it helped further the spread of Christianity in Europe. The merging of pagan and Christian elements in the manuscript resulted in “a strange paradox,” by which “this heathen art served the cause of the new religion and in fact went far to body forth the sanctity and transcendence of the Word of God.” Because of the important role played by the Book of Kells and the other Irish insular manuscripts, it can be said that “they are among the greatest products and memorials of their time.”



1 Bernard Meehan, The Book of Kells:  An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994), 9.

2 Carl Nordenfalk, “Book  Illumination,” Early Medieval Painting from the Fourth to the Eleventh Centuries, Andre Grabar and Carl Nordenfalk (Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1957), 118.

3 Meehan, 9

4 Ibid., 10.

5 Nordenfalk, 109.

6 Ibid.

7 Jonathan J. G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 72.

8 Nordenfalk, 109.

9 Meehan, 10.

10 Ibid., 24.

11 Ibid., 91.

12 George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel-Books, 650-800 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), 131.

13 Meehan, 9.

14 Henderson, 131-132.

15 Meehan, 9.

16 Nordenfalk, 113.

17 Meehan, 17.

18 Ibid., 50.

19 Nordenfalk, 114.

20 Ibid.

21 Luisa Marcucci and Emma Micheletti, Medieval Painting (New York: Studio Books/Viking Press, 1960), 28.

22 Nordenfalk, 118.

23 Meehan, 17.

24 Ibid., 9.

25 Ibid., 22.

26 Ibid.

27 Henderson, 153.

28 Meehan, 22.

29 Henderson, 168.

30 Ibid., 99.

31 Marcucci and Micheletti, 28.

32 Henderson, 17.

33 Marcucci and Micheletti, 28.

34 Nordenfalk, 118.

35 Henderson, 17.


Alexander, Jonathan J. G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Henderson, George. From Durrow to Kells:  The Insular Gospel-Books,

650-800.  London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

Marcucci, Luisa, and Emma Micheletti.  Medieval Painting.  New York:

Studio Books/Viking Press, 1960.

Meehan, Bernard.  The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the

Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin.  London: Thames and Hudson,


Nordenfalk, Carl.  “Book Illumination.”  Early Medieval Painting from

the Fourth to the Eleventh Centuries.  Andre Grabar and Carl

Nordenfalk.  Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions d’Art Albert Skira,

1957, pp. 87-218.

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