Book of Kells Essay - Critical Essays

Book of Kells


Book of Kells c. 795-806

Irish illuminated manuscript.

Called the "chief relic of the western world," the Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript created by monks over a period of several years, dated to the end of the eighth and beginning of the ninth centuries, containing the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Believed to be the work of three scribes, it is written in Latin on calf vellum in Irish script, mostly in its majuscule form. The text is based on St. Jerome's Vulgate Bible but has much of the Old Latin translation as well. Painted by hand, the Book of Kells's colorful and detailed illustrations are considered among the finest representations of religious art. The Book of Kells contains many full-page illustrations, including portraits of Jesus, Matthew, John, and the Virgin Mary. The artwork includes elaborate designs, fine decorations that need to be magnified to be fully appreciated, and representations of foliage and animals, and of abstract and symbolic figures; Matthew is represented as a man, Mark as a lion, Luke as a calf, John as an eagle. Many of the capital letters are of great size, highly ornamented, surrounded by symbolic figures. The Book of Kells also contains a page of etymologies, numerous canon tables, and summaries of and prefaces to the gospels. The manuscript consists of 340 folios with relatively large pages, measuring about thirteen inches by nine-and-a-half. Scholars believe that some thirty folios originally in the Book are missing. In addition, its cover, decorated with gold, and its jeweled binding were forcibly removed by thieves when the book was stolen in 1007 and were no longer intact with the rest of the book when it was found a few months after the theft. The preface and some twelve leaves at the end were destroyed in the damage wrought by the thieves, experts have surmised.

The creation of the Book of Kells probably started in the monastery of Iona, an island in the Hebrides, off the shore of Scotland. It may have been originally intended as a commemoration in 797 of the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of St. Columba. While the Book of Kells was nearing completion, Vikings invaded Iona. The monks deserted their monastery, escaped with the Book, and made their new home in Kells, in County Meath, Ireland, establishing themselves in a new Columban monastery between 807 and 814. While the majority of the artwork is splendid, some of the pages have been finished sparingly and in a notably inferior style by another artist or artists. It is believed the inferior work was done at Kells.

The Book of Kells has been used and admired for more than a thousand years. The book has been rebound and repaired at various times in its history, including an 1830s attempt which resulted in extensive clipping damage. In 1953 an expert restoration occurred and the decision was made to separate it into four volumes, each containing one of the gospels and each bound separately. At the same time the vellum leaves were flattened and creases removed. The Book of Kells has resided in the immense Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin since the seventeenth century.

Areas of critical interest include determining the model or models on which Kells was based, narrowing the date of its creation, tracing its ownership throughout the centuries, and interpreting its symbolism. Most scholars believe it was largely based on a now-lost manuscript from the continent. Considering what such a prototype would have consisted of involves careful study of the decorations; for example, vegetation as ornamentation is rare in Celtic works but is found in abundance in the Book of Kells and the bold blues and yellows (but with an almost total absence of gold) contrast with the predominant colors of other early gospel manuscripts. Defects in the text, which are many, serve as other clues in speculating on the nature of its source. Francoise Henry has written that the painters of the Book of Kells "adapted, transformed, magnified or misunderstood their models." He considers the problem of what these models were and where they came from "one of the most vexed and fascinating questions concerning the Book."

Principal Editions

Book of Kells: A Selection of Pages Reproduced with Description (edited by G.O. Simms) 1961

The Book of Kells (edited by Francoise Henry) 1974

Book of Kells: Selected Plates in Full Color (edited by Blanche Cirker) 1982

The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin (edited by Bernard Meehan) 1994


Françoise Henry (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Book," "The Decoration," and "Conclusion" in The Book of Kells, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, pp. 149-62, 163-82, 213-21.

[In the following excerpt, Henry examines The Book of Kells's history, background, variations in scribal hands, the pigments used in its paintings, ornamentation, the relation between its text and decoration, and evaluates theories concerning its models.]

The Book

The Book of Kells is one of the most splendid Western manuscripts of the early Middle Ages. Its Gospel text is interspersed with large illuminated pages covered with an incredibly fine maze of brilliantly coloured ornaments and with strange, hieratic figures wrapped in the near geometric folds of their draperies. Through the text pages runs the constant coloured arabesque of animated initials made of the bent bodies of fantastic elongated beasts. The student engrossed in the exploration of all these unexpected patterns is soon overpowered by a feeling of both strength and mystery.

It is this very quality of the ornament, the way in which it is used in the manuscript, and its relationship to the text which will be the chief themes of this introduction, whose purpose is to accompany the reproduction in colour of all the large decorated pages in the Book and of many of its text pages and to make them more intelligible. The addition of a series of large details will allow the reader to study many hitherto overlooked patterns and figures which can only be grasped through the help of a magnifying glass when looking at the Book itself.

Controversial matter will be reduced to a minimum. In the last few decades, the Book of Kells and many similar manuscripts have been the subject of violent arguments, chiefly as to their country of origin—Ireland, northern England, Scotland—which have almost overshadowed the study of the books themselves. These arguments will be briefly summarized whenever necessary, for the sake of the reader unfamiliar with them, but, as far as possible, they will be left aside in favour of a purely objective treatment of the manuscript and its decoration. Earlier studies, from the brilliant description of Giraldus Cambrensis and the painstaking count of Ussher to Sullivan's monograph of 1914 and the text of the Urs Graf facsimile of 1951, have already summed up the essential data of this study. They have made my work easier, and I cannot sufficiently acknowledge my debt to them.1


Since the seventeenth century the Book of Kells has been in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

It originally came from Kells (in Co. Meath), where a monastery had been established in the early ninth century, at the time of the Viking invasions, by the monks of the monastery of Iona off the west coast of Scotland.2 Iona itself went back to the time when the Irish saint Columba (Columkille), fleeing his native land, settled there in the middle of the sixth century. The monastery became a missionary centre to the population of Irish origin of the west coast3 and the Picts of the east coast of Scotland, and remained always in close touch with Ireland. It was the headquarters of the Columban community which had many houses both in Ireland and Scotland. When the Viking raids made life on the island too precarious most of the monks moved over to Kells, which inherited Iona's primacy over the Columban monasteries.

It is generally assumed that the book mentioned in a well-known text of the Annals of Ulster4 is to be identified with our manuscript, and this establishes its presence in Kells in the early eleventh century. In the year 1006 (recte 1007) we are told that 'the great Gospel of Columkille, the chief relic of the Western World, was wickedly stolen during the night from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Cenannas (Kells) on account of its wrought shrine.'5 A few months later, it was found 'under a sod', deprived of its gold. This violent wrenching of the wooden and metalwork covers may well account for the missing leaves at the beginning and end of the Book.

The manuscript was still at Kells when, in the twelfth century, charters concerning property of the monastery were copied on some of its blank pages, according to a widespread medieval custom.6

As a consequence of the twelfth-century ecclesiastical reform in Ireland, the monastery of Kells ceased to exist and most of its property passed to the new bishopric of Meath.7 The old monastic church became the parish church of Kells and the Book remained there. In the early sixteenth century, Gerald Plunkett of Dublin wrote in it the numbers of the chapters of the Gospels according to the division established in the thirteenth century by Stephen Langton. In 1621 James Ussher, then bishop-elect of Meath, counted the leaves and wrote his findings in the Book.

In 1654, the Cromwellian cavalry having been quartered in the church of Kells, the governor of the town sent the Book to Dublin for safety. A few years later, after 1661, it was presented to Trinity College by Henry Jones, former bishop of Clogher, who became scoutmaster of Cromwell's army and, at the Restoration, bishop of Meath.8

Whether the Book was at Kells before the eleventh century and whether it was actually written in the monastery's scriptorium are questions which cannot be answered with any certainty. Many solutions have been proposed, ranging over a series of hypotheses: (a) the Book was written in Iona, brought still incomplete to Kells and never finished; (b) it was begun in Iona and completed in Kells; (c) it was written in Kells; (d) it was written and decorated in the north of England (in Lindisfarne?) and brought from there to Iona and then to Kells or directly to Kells; (e) it is the product of some monastery in the east of Scotland.9 The truth is that we do not know, though the Iona-Kells hypothesis seems to fit most easily with many outstanding features of the Book. It is true that the manuscript is unfinished, but then so are a number of other elaborately decorated vellum books and it would be unwise to deduce too much from such a common feature.

The background

All we can say with certainty is that the Book of Kells belongs to a distinctive group of decorated manuscripts whose connections are chiefly in Ireland, Scotland and in the monastery of Lindisfarne in the north of England.10 The group is often described as 'Insular', and though the word is sometimes cumbersome in its vagueness, I am going to use it in this study in order to keep as objective a view of these manuscripts as possible.11

Only a few of them are actually dated or signed, but many of them have long associations with monastic libraries in Ireland, Wales, Scotland or the north of England. Some also are connected with Irish or English foundations on the Continent, such as Bobbio, an Irish foundation of the early seventh century, or Echternach, an Anglo-Irish foundation of some eighty years later. The earliest seem to be the Cathach of St Columba12 (? late sixth century) and some manuscripts from Bobbio13 of the beginning of the seventh century. Then comes the Book of Durrow (second half of the seventh century).14 To the early eighth century belong such manuscripts as MS A. II. 17 in the Cathedral Library in Durham, the Echternach and Maihingen Gospels, the Book of Lindisfarne15 and the Lichfield Gospels. The contemporary Codex Amiatinus, written in uncial script a little farther south than Lindisfame, in the twin monasteries of Jarrow and Wearmouth, cannot be classified as an Insular manuscript but may have had its influence on the Insular group. To the latter part of the century belong probably the Gospel-book No. 51 in the Cathedral Library of St Gall16 and the Book of Mac Regol. Then come the Book of Armagh (dated 807-9),17 the burnt manuscript in the Turin Library, two manuscripts of the Grammar of Priscian and the Book of Mac Durnan which belongs to the middle or perhaps the end of the ninth century.

These manuscripts are mostly written in various forms of what is known as 'Irish script', some in its majuscule, some in its minuscule form. A few manuscripts closely allied to the group by their decoration are written in Anglo-Saxon script, or in some cases in uncial or in Continental script. The Irish script was elaborated in Ireland during the sixth and seventh centuries from various scripts of Roman books brought by missionaries into Ireland from the time of its conversion to Christianity in the fifth century.18 Later, the Anglo-Saxon script evolved from the Irish and remained very similar to it.

The texts of the Gospel-books belonging to this group are by no means all pure Vulgate. The earlier translations of the Gospels, the 'Old Latin' texts, were so well known in Ireland and Irish-trained monasteries that they became a strong disturbing element for the copyists of the Vulgate, who often trusted their memory more than the model they had been given. Some at least of the texts of the Vulgate were known in Ireland at an early date, already at the end of the sixth or in the early seventh century, as the Cathach, usually ascribed to that date, has the text of the second translation of the Psalms by St Jerome. So the various mixed versions, including the so-called 'Irish type', must have evolved during the course of the seventh century.

In consequence, the Insular Gospel-books offer a variety of Gospel texts ranging from the Book of Armagh, which is considered as typical of the 'mixed Irish text' and has a considerable admixture of Old Latin or pre-Vulgate readings, to the Book of Durrow, which is a relatively straightforward Vulgate. The Lindisfarne Gospels belong to the same category as the Amiatinus, which presents a remarkably pure Vulgate.

The decoration of the manuscripts of this group fits in with metalwork from Ireland and Scotland, and with the north English and Irish stone crosses and the Scottish carved slabs, all monuments and objects closely inter-related in spite of local variants.

The late stage of development shown in most of its ornaments and some details of its decoration tend, as we shall see, to mark the place of the Book of Kells amongst the later of the manuscripts enumerated, and seem to date it to the late eighth or early ninth century. But it is essential to remember that such a complex work took of necessity a number of years to complete.

However, much as a manuscript may belong to its own local background, it is related also to the other books of its time. Books are essentially mobile objects, which travel easily over vast distances, primarily on account of their text, but often influencing also ornament and its disposition. In this respect it becomes more arduous to outline the connections of our manuscript, and it is only after studying it in detail that we shall be able to attempt to place it in the art of its time.

Description of the manuscript

The Book of Kells goes in the Library of Trinity College by the old shelfmark A. I. 6, and is listed in its catalogue under the number 58.19

It is a Latin copy of the four Gospels, accompanied by some of the preliminaries usual at the time.

It is written on calf vellum.20 The quality of the vellum is generally good, but its appearance is very uneven, some folios being thick and nearly leather-like, while others are soft and pliable.21

It is a large volume. At present its pages measure on an average 330 x 240 mm (13 x 91/2"), but they have been badly clipped by one of the binders and must have been originally about 370 x 260 mm (14Y2 x 101/4"). This is more than the average dimensions of earlier Insular Gospel-books such as the Book of Lichfield, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Rawlinson MS G. 167 or the Book of Mac Regol, which had a height, unclipped, of from 330 to 350 mm. But even so it fits into this group of Evangeliars fairly well and appears simply as a slightly larger example than most. The St Gall Gospel-book and the Turin manuscript were of a smaller size (about 255 mm in height).

The Book is incomplete. It consists now of 340 folios22 (680 pages). When Ussher examined it in 1621 it had 34423 But already at that time a good number of pages had been lost. Their number can be roughly estimated from the amount of text missing here and there: there is one folio missing after f 177, another after f. 239 and two or three after f. 330. In addition, slightly more than the four last chapters of St John are missing (from John XVII, 13), which amounts probably to thirteen folios. It is harder to evaluate the loss at the beginning but it may amount to anything between six and ten folios. It seems also that at least three decorated folios are missing: a 'portrait' in St Mark's Gospel, a four-symbols page and a 'portrait' in St Luke. So, altogether, we are deprived of roughly thirty folios, and the whole book must have consisted of about 370 folios, considerably more than the Lindisfarne Gospels' 258 folios or the 169 folios of the Gospels of Mac Regol and the 134 folios of the St Gall manuscript. The disappearance of folios from the beginning and the end of the manuscript is, as we have seen, readily explained by the theft in 1007 and the subsequent tearing off of the jewelled binding and its adjacent pages. The decorated pages may have been abstracted deliberately at some time or other. The others probably got loose from the stitching and went astray as a consequence; the case of one page which was found and inserted again in the eighteenth century is typical.24

The Book has been re-bound several times. In the eighteen-thirties a binder clipped the pages severely, cutting into the illumination in several places. The last but one of the bindings was in 1895. This broke down fairly quickly, and when I first saw the Book in the late twenties 22 folios at the beginning were kept loose under separate cover. In 1953 the Book was bound again by Roger Powell. The pages were then very gently stretched so as to bring back to normal flatness surfaces which had developed bulges and glossy slopes. Quires of plain vellum were inserted to allow the perfect balance of the pages and the Book was bound into four volumes corresponding roughly to the four Gospels.

Mr Powell was able at that time to examine the quires.25 As in the Book of Durrow, they are of varying numbers of folios. Ten (five bifolia) is frequent but by no means the general rule; anything from four or six to eight or twelve appears also. A good number of pages were in single leaves and had been mounted with a slight folding.

The folios of the Book were ruled after folding, sometimes on both sides. Prickings and guiding lines can often still be seen. As we shall see, the number of lines to the page is very variable. In part of the Preliminaries (up to f. 20) it is nineteen, with an occasional eighteen; in the Gospel of St John it is eighteen and in a few cases nineteen. Elsewhere, seventeen is the most common number, but there are variations, generally explicable in terms of text or space. As the problem is closely linked with that of the script, or in other places with that of the decorative structure of the manuscript, we shall have to come back to it again.

The text

The text of the Book, for the purpose of this study, can be divided into the preliminaries and the Gospels proper.

The text of the Gospels is by no means a pure Vulgate text. Its variants have been listed several times, first by Ussher, then by Abbott in 1884, by Wordsworth and White and recently by Dr. G. 0. Simms.26 They are considerable in number and some of them are also of great importance, such as the famous sentence on the Holy Ghost.

Textual studies of Insular manuscripts have not reached the stage where it would be possible to evaluate the connections of this text of the Book of Kells. It is clear that it differs greatly from that of the Lindisfarne Gospels which have a comparatively pure Vulgate text.

But whether it is possible to compare it closely with other manuscripts of the group would at present be hard to say.

The preliminaries belong definitely to two different textual traditions. The canon-tables are the usual introduction to a Vulgate text. They had preceded its existence, as they were established by Eusebius of Caesarea in 320 but they became a regular accompaniment of St Jerome's translation of the Gospels made some sixty years later. They are based on a division of the text itself into sections which should be numbered in the margin for easy reference. Here we come to one of the first major inconsistencies of the Book: through the tables of comparison are given a prominent place, the numbering of the sections in the text has been omitted (except on two pages in the beginning of St John's Gospel), so that the tables are, for all practical purposes, entirely useless. Whether the relevant references would have been added in the margins had the Book been completely finished, or whether, as has been suggested, a fastidious purist decided not to mar the appearance of the pages by their addition, is impossible to decide.

When the Book was complete, the canon-tables were probably preceded by the letter of St Jerome to Pope Damasus explaining the aim of his translation (Novum opus), as in the Books of Durrow, Lindisfarne and Armagh. It may also, though this is less likely, have had the letter of Eusebius explaining the use of the canon-tables (Pluresfuisse), which is found in the Book of Lindisfarne, but not in any of the other Insular manuscripts.

The other preliminary matter is of different origin and goes back to an Old Latin tradition. It consists of Breves causae, which are summaries of the Gospels, Argumenta, strange collections of lore and legend concerning the Evangelists, and lists of Hebrew names with their interpretation.

The Breves causae should correspond to a division of the text into chapters. Like the Eusebian sections, these references have been omitted. But here the reason is different: the Breves causae as they stand in the Book are summaries of an Old Latin text and would be hard to reconcile with St Jerome's text. This irrelevance is found also in the Book of Durrow. In fact, the Breves causae and Argumenta are practically identical in the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. The similarity is not only in text, but it extends also to the rather absurd order in which they are presented. Both books start with the Breves causae and Argumentum of Matthew and the Breves causae and Argumentum of Mark; then come the Argumenta of Luke and John, and then, as a sort of afterthought, the Breves causae of Luke and John. In the Book of Durrow, the misplaced Breves causae are at the end of the volume, while all the rest is at the beginning; in the Book of Kells, the series is continuous. Dr Luce has pointed out that the scribes of Durrow and Kells are of one mind when they avoid intruding on the Gospel text by the insertion of the relevant preliminaries at the beginning of each Gospel.27 In contrast, the Codex Amiatinus, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Echternach Gospels and the Book of Armagh all treat each Gospel as a separate book with its own preliminaries preceding it. In fact the similarity between Kells and Durrow in this respect is such as to have made Abbott assume that the scribe of Kells actually had Durrow in his hands. This is possible, but it may be also that both scribes used the same model, now lost.

The preliminaries of the Book of Kells include also two fragments of lists of Hebrew names contained in the Gospels, with commentaries and explanations. These lists appear, complete or nearly complete, in the Book of Durrow and the Book of Armagh. In the Book of Kells, the first surviving folio (f. Ir) has the end of the list for the Gospel of St Matthew. Further (f. 26r-v) there is part of the list for St Luke, following the Breves causae of John. This hardly makes sense, but not having the beginning of the preliminaries, it is difficult to understand what happened.28

In fact, it may be only one example of the extraordinary carelessness with which the text has been handled. The copying has a more than normal share of errors, even by the standards of the time. The treatment of the canon-tables, as we shall see, is unbelievably irresponsible, and if the painters show a great resourcefulness in hiding the errors, they are all the same occasionally thrown off their balance by them. Part of this may be due to faulty models followed too closely, as in the case of the Breves causae; but a clever scribe tries to make good the shortcomings of his predecessors. It looks as if the Kells scribe did not care very much, knowing that nobody was going to use the volume for reference, and that it had, first of all, to be a beautiful object.

This is a point which cannot be over-emphasized: the fantastic lavishness of the decoration and the unusually large size of the Book show clearly that it was an altar-book, made to be used for liturgical reading, and probably intended to be displayed open as a sumptuous ornament during ceremonies when pomp was especially required.29 From this point of view it fits in with the large books of the Insular group written in majuscules, while the smaller ones—Book of Mulling, Stowe St John, Book of Dimma, Book of Armagh, all written in minuscules and of small size—are 'pocket-books' meant for study and easy transport.30 It is significant that the 'Great Gospel of Columkille' was stolen not from the library of the monastery of Kells but from the sacristy of its church.

The script

The Book is written in long lines,31 in a most imposing form of Insular majuscule which includes occasionally some minuscule forms, mostly e and s. The letters are firmly modelled, with thick downstrokes. They are written 'between two ruled lines as in other manuscripts de luxe' (Lowe) and this is emphasized by the treatment of the upper part of the script which follows the top line by massive triangular enlargements of the vertical strokes and a quantity of long, thin horizontal endings. The letters march across the page, deliberate and steady, and would be enough in themselves to make the Book a great work of art.

Lowe notes: 'written by several scribes'. It is certainly possible to distinguish at least three different hands, very close to each other and at times nearly merging into each other. If they are due to three different scribes, which is likely, these scribes were certainly trained in the same school and must have worked in some kind of accord in the same scriptorium. There are no fundamentally different features, either in treatment of letters or in punctuation, simply a slightly different handling of the same type of writing.

Hand A is found in the beginning of the Book, in ff Ir and 8v-19v and again in the greater part of the Gospel of St John.32 To this hand is due the most massive and compact of the three scripts in the Book. The letters are definitely lower than those of Hand C. The scribe is inclined to use more majuscule forms and fewer conceits such as superscribed letters. He writes with the brownish gall-ink usual in the West at the time. Throughout his part of the prefaces he uses pages of nineteen lines. In the Gospel of St John, there are eighteen lines to a page, except for f. 312 (recto and verso) which has nineteen lines. This scribe feels like an extremely sedate and careful person, not especially inclined to encourage exuberance and fancy in text initials, though in the prefaces he expected a painter to give an elaborate beginning to each of his chapters.

Hand B on the contrary is an extrovert. He starts on f. 20r certainly with an effort at conforming with the preceding pages as far as the script proper is concerned. But from the start he uses a brilliant array of coloured inks: purple, red and an intense black made of carbon. Purple ink had been used by Hand A for the titles of Breves causae and Argumenta, but so far it had not intruded into the text proper, and black ink is a novelty, perhaps indicative of Mediterranean contacts.33 The scribe is inclined to use more minuscule forms than does Hand A and most of his end-lines are in a compressed writing suggestive of the appearance of minuscule and sometimes including minuscule as well as majuscule A.34 These lines have very ornamental flourishes of the lower limbs of letters. Twice, Hand A had used such compressed end-lines (ff IIV and 12V), but in a constrained and timid way. The brilliant display of colours goes on until the end of the second list of Hebrew names. The illuminated capitals in that part are of a completely different type from the elaborate cartouches of the earlier prefaces. The Breves causae of John start with a purple and green erect cat (forming a capital I) and the list of Hebrew names by an A made of large ribbons of purple with dishevelled snakes as endings. In those few pages (ff. 20r-26v) the number of lines to the page is by no means constant and oscillates from seventeen to eighteen or nineteen.

The same hand reappears in the last pages of the Gospel of St Matthew (ff. 124ff.) without the previous display of various inks, but with a title (Vespere autem) in the same style as the I and the A of the prefaces. Though less pronounced, the tendency to minuscule end-lines is still perceptible.

Hand C is that of the greatest part of the Book. The letters are slightly higher than those of Hand A, but as this part of the text is practically all in pages of seventeen lines, the intervals are hardly smaller. There is something freer in the whole appearance of the script and perhaps a slight tendency to use more minuscule forms than did Hand A. But the ink is again brownish gall. With only one or two exceptions there are no minuscule end-lines. Except when there is a modification for decorative reasons, all of this script is in pages of seventeen lines as far as f. 260r where a sudden change to sixteen lines takes place, which lasts to the end of the Gospel of St Luke (f. 289r). There are certainly differences of height of letters in this part of the Book. But the treatment of the letters remains so much the same that it would be hard to attribute them to a different hand.

Here and there, on the reverse of some of the Introductory pages or of pages of ornamented text, there may be a change of hand carefully disguised. One such is to be found on f. 188v, the reverse of the Quoniam. Though the scribe is trying to imitate the writing of Hand C almost to the point of caricature, it seems due to Hand B, and there is a large initial F in his characteristic style.

The affinities of these various scripts are interesting. None of them shows a very close resemblance to the tight and slightly cramped aspect of the Lindisfame-Maihingen scripts. The work of Hand A has an extraordinary kinship with the script of the Lichfield Gospels. Though it could obviously not be the same hand, it is a hand trained in the same tradition. Hand B, especially in the end-lines, has all the tendency to decorative writing found in the Book of Armagh. As for Hand C, when one has allowed for Mac Regol's very individual idiosyncrasies, such as the slanting backwards of the letters S and E, his beautiful and free script offers a good parallel to it, as does the script of Rawlinson MS G. 167, or indeed the few examples of majuscule script in the Book of Armagh. But even a later manuscript such as the tenth-century Cotton Psalter Vitellius F.XI still shows some kinship. On the whole, it looks as if Script A was a slightly archaic one, while B and C are more up to date and have parallels in the early ninth century.

This said, it remains that there is in the script of the Book of Kells taken as a whole something very individual. It has its own marked decorative tendencies which include the use of a number of conceits. For example, the scribe will superscribe letters which he has omitted in the text, not because he has forgotten them, nor because he had not quite enough room for them, but because they constitute an ornament, and in fact very often they will be the excuse for an embellishment of the text in the form of a little animal curled around them. The habit of turning an end-of-line M or N sideways proceeds from the same attitude.35 The use of what the Irish scribes call 'turn-in-the-path' (cor fa casan) or 'head-under-the-wing' (ceann fa eitil) becomes in the Book a sort of game, a feat of ingenuity: ends of lines are thrown up or down, as is convenient, and instead of the usual single or double slanting stroke indicating them,36 a whole crowd of little figures or animals gesticulates directions to the reader. Then there are the drawn-out letters, often filled with colour, which give such a surprising aspect to some pages. M, N or R chiefly suddenly spread over a space big enough for four or five letters or more, elongating themselves into lovely undulating curves.

Corrections are few in the Book, though a great number would have been called for. Whenever they occur, the new letter has been superscribed and a dot in its centre marks the wrong one, but this is rare and it looks as if no corrector had gone systematically through the text. On f. 146v a dotted cross acts as a reference mark for two lines at the bottom of the page supplying part of a sentence which had been omitted in the text. Then there is f. 218v whose text is duplicated on the following page. Whether, as has been surmised, it has been cancelled by adding crosses and sprays of foliage in its margins, or whether this decoration of the story of Mary Magdalene so absorbed the scribe's attention that he absent-mindedly started the same text again, is not clear, but I would incline towards the second hypothesis.

The techniques of painting

The techniques employed by the painters who worked on the Book present some problems which are peculiar to it as well as others which are common to most Insular manuscripts with painted decoration.

Among the general problems are those concerning the implements used by the painters.37 A quill is usually mentioned, not only in connection with the writing, but also with the drawing of the lines in the illuminations. This must have been used in Kells, but the remarkably even width of lines and especially straight lines in the full-page illuminations may point to a less flexible instrument, perhaps of wood. In addition, the painters were certainly using mechanical aids, such as rulers, set-squares and compasses. Circles drawn with compasses can be seen very clearly on ff. 28r and 291r, but there are many cases when the centres have left no visible trace. It is not impossible also that they used what modern draughtsmen call 'French curves' as these would greatly facilitate the drawing of the irregular curves which seem always to have such perfect balance, as for example in the bodies or wings of animals.

From the very faint outlines of the frame sketched in on ff. 30v and 31r it seems that very diluted ink may have been used for tracing the contours of the patterns, though a stylus or silver-point may have been used in some cases. The painter then filled this in with colour and finally drew the containing lines and the details in the usual gall-ink of the script. In this way, the drawing kept its sharpness.

There is no means of knowing what kind of brush the painters were using, but it must have been a very fine one, coming neatly to a point; marten is the one fur which answers these requirements.

The pigments must have been dissolved with water to which a binding medium, probably white of egg or sometimes glue, was added. The various pigments used in the Book have been studied by microscopic examination with the aid of fluorescent light by H. Rosen-Runge and A. E. A. Werner, head of the Laboratory of the British Museum.38 The list includes some mineral pigments such as white and red lead, orpiment (yellow), verdigris (green) and ultramarine from lapis-la-zuli (blue) and a good number of vegetable or animal extracts, such as folium (shades from blue and pink to purple), indigo or woad (blue) and kermes (carmine red). These are the colours extensively used at the time, whose preparation is described in several manuscripts, especially that at Lucca (eighth century) or the later writings of the German monk Theophilus (twelfth or thirteenth century). Ultramarine remained during all the Middle Ages the most expensive pigment in existence, ranking with gold in the contracts made with painters. Its price in the eighth century, before the secret of its preparation was transmitted to Europe through Sicily in the twelfth century, was fantastic, as after being imported from the only known source on the confines of Afghanistan, it was submitted to an elaborate preparation by the Arabs who then sold it at the highest possible price. Kermes and folium had also to be imported but were very much cheaper. Locally grown woad is likely to have been used instead of imported indigo (they cannot be distinguished in microscopic examination). White and red lead were probably prepared locally. The green is not malachite, as has often been suggested, but verdigris (basic copper acetate) which is obtained from copper. Some vinegar was generally added to the binding medium in using it, which explains why it eats deeply into the vellum to the point of being visible on the reverse of the page.

The range of colours in the Book is not the same as that used in the earliest decorated Insular manuscripts such as the Bobbio Orosius and the Book of Durrow. The painters of these manuscripts did not use blue, possibly because ultramarine was either unobtainable or too expensive. They both used red lead, orpiment, verdigris, white lead and perhaps ox-gall and, in addition, the Orosius has carmine.

The more varied list of pigments in Kells agrees with that of the Book of Lindisfarne and the Lichfield Gospels. But in the Book of Lindisfarne the colours all consist of simple washes of one pigment. In the Lichfield Gospels and the Book of Kells a complicated system of washes of one colour over another develops. In the Book of Kells, for example, ultramarine or verdigris are found covered by a translucent glaze of folium rubeum, ultramarine may receive a glaze of indigo or verdigris a thin layer of ultramarine. Also the Kells painters make extensive use of white applied thickly as a pigment, instead of reserving the bare vellum as a white as does the painter of Lindisfame.

The complete absence of gold is one of the striking features of these manuscripts. It is found in only one initial of Lindisfarne. But the painters of the Book of Kells seem especially sensitive to its absence and use the bright opaque yellow of orpiment as a substitute.

The Decoration

General characteristics

Two outstanding features single out the decoration of the Book of Kells. One is the importance of full-page illustrations. Some of these are 'portraits'—of Christ, of the Evangelists, of the Virgin—each large, haunting, staring at us. But there are also some pages which illustrate a passage of the Gospels, and more seem to have been planned which were never painted.

Full-page portraits of the Evangelists or representations of their symbols are a normal element in the decoration of Insular Gospel-books, found already in the Book of Durrow and the Lichfield Gospels. Illustrations, though rarer, can be traced from the early part of the eighth century. The Codex Amiatinus has a full-page picture of the Apocalyptic Vision which is clearly imitated from some imported manuscript. Durham MS A. II. 17, which may have been in the library of Lindisfarne, has a representation of the Crucifixion whose style is much more definitely Insular. The Commentary of Cassiodorus on the Psalms at Durham (MS A. II. 20) has full-page portraits of David. Towards the end of the century, St Gall MS 51 has pictures showing the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment; a little later, the Turin Gospel-book has two strange hieratic pages, one of them combined with relevant text, a Last Judgment and an Ascension. In later Insular psalters,39 the Cotton manuscript Vitellius F. XI in the British Library and the 'Southampton Psalter' in St John's College, Cambridge, each of the 'Fifties'—the sections into which these Insular Psalters are divided—is prefaced by a full-page illustration of a scene of David's life, or indeed, in one case, of the Crucifixion. From internal evidence those books are likely to belong to the tenth and eleventh centuries. So these full-page illustrations remain a feature of Insular manuscripts over three centuries, suggesting that an existing fashion has only been brought to greater development in the Book of Kells.

The other striking feature of the decoration of the Book of Kells is the profusion of ornament which accompanies the text so closely that only two pages amongst the surviving ones are devoid of it. This decoration consists mostly of initials at the beginning of paragraphs or even in the beginning of some sentences inside paragraphs. But there is also a whole fauna of agile little animals indicating a 'turn-in-the-path', a correction or an addition below the text, or simply filling an empty space.

Decorated initials are frequent in Insular manuscripts, as they are also in pre-Carolingian Continental manuscripts, but nowhere are they so numerous and varied as in the Book of Kells, never do they form such a constant accompaniment to the script. In other books they are added to the text and remain foreign to it. In the Book of Kells they belong to it, grow out of it, mix with it freely. Amongst Insular manuscripts some pages of the Barberini Gospel-book and the abbreviated psalter included in the Prayer-book of Ceme alone show the same intrusion into the text itself of animals and plants, though in a clumsier way.

But in fact we are perhaps at a disadvantage in making comparisons with initials in other Insular manuscripts. The kind of book where a great number of initials is generally found is the psalter, where there is at least one for each of the hundred and fifty psalms, and no Insular psalter of the eighth or ninth century has survived apart from the imperfect psalter in the Book of Cerne. A comparison with the Cotton Psalter Vespasian A. I, an eighth-century manuscript from Canterbury which has strong ornamental affinities with the Insular group, will show immediately what is missing in our information: it has, for each psalm, an elaborate initial often including spirals and little animals, a series which was probably paralleled in eighth- and ninth-century Insular psalters.

Perhaps outside influences also played their part here. There is a group of northern French manuscripts different from most of the contemporary Merovingian and early Carolingian manuscripts which have some kinship with the Insular group. They also show an unusually rich development of decorated and animated initials, and if pages of, for example, the Amiens Psalter (Amiens, Municipal Library, MS 18) are put beside the text pages of the Book of Kells the arrangement of the animals fitting into the shape of the letters is often seen to be practically the same. But this is again a psalter. Other manuscripts, however, show the same tendency, for instance the Sacramentary of Gellone, that perpetual puzzle among pre-Carolingian manuscripts, which is now considered as having been written in the north of France in the eighth century. It too has initials of an infinite variety in which animals and even angels or human figures are bent and combined into letter forms.

But whatever its connections, there is no doubt that the Book of Kells towers above all the surviving manuscripts of the same group from the point of view of decoration. In profusion, variety, perfection of minute execution, it leaves them all very far behind. This quality of uniqueness is one of the great difficulties of its study: there is nothing to which it can be compared on a footing of complete equality. One may put side by side isolated features. But for that massive bulk of ornament one does not know where to turn. As far as one can judge from its ruins, the Turin manuscript, though smaller, may have been conceived on the same lavish scale, but its execution was certainly coarser.

A famous passage of the Topographia Hiberniae of Giraldus Cambrensis40 may relate to another book, kept in the twelfth century at Kildare, but if he slightly mixed up his notes it may be a description of the Book of Kells. Enough doubt remains to open up the possibility that another book of the same type once existed. What he says, however, sounds like an inspired description of the Book of Kells:

This book contains the harmony of the four Evangelists according to Jerome, where for almost every page there are different designs, distinguished by varied colours. Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists, each with wings, now six, now four, now two; here the eagle, there the calf, here the man and there the lion, and other forms almost infinite. Look at them superficially with the ordinary casual glance, and you would think it is an erasure, and not tracery. Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. 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. For my part, the oftener I see the book, and the more carefully I study it, the more I am lost in ever fresh amazement, and I see more and more wonders in the book.

Relation between the text and decoration

Before we examine is various elements in detail, it will be useful to go through the Book to see how this decoration which so staggered Giraldus Cambrensis is distributed and how it is related to the text it accompanies and illustrates.


f. Ir As has been noted, the Book now starts incongruously with a composite page containing on the left the end of a list of Hebrew names and on the right the four symbols of the Evangelists. The page itself and its two sections are surrounded by an elaborate frame and however difficult it is to judge its purpose now that the preceding folios have vanished, it appears as a sort of preface to the canon-tables which are displayed on the next pages and where the symbols of the Evangelists play such an essential part—'the harmony of the four Evangelists' as Giraldus describes it. The iconography of these symbols will be studied later. Suffice here to note than on / Ir they are presented in a most disconcerting way. The page has really to be turned sideways in order to see them properly. Then, from left to right they appear as Luke and John, Mark and Matthew. One is tempted to read from the right, but even thus the list remains odd: Matthew and Mark, John and Luke.41 It is worth noting also that the three animal symbols are partly anthropomorphic, having human arms and hands though the rest of their bodies is completely animal.


The canon-tables consist of parallel lists of numbers of Eusebian sections where the same episode of the life of Christ is related in several of the Gospels. As we have seen, the sections have not been indicated in the margin of the text, so that we have here, in fact, not a serviceable tabulating device, but the occasion for a lyrical outburst on the part of the illuminators. Giraldus is certainly right in his insistence on the importance of the symbols right through the Book and one may assume that this was pointed out to him by somebody who had a long acquaintance with the manuscript. The unity and correspondence of the four texts relating to the life and teaching of Christ is the kernel of all the decoration, which is in accord with the reluctance to break up the sacred text by the insertion of preliminaries before each of the Gospels.

As far as we know, Insular tradition did not compel the painters to use such a sumptuous introduction. Several of the Insular Gospel-books have lost their preliminaries (Lichfield, Durham A. II. 17, Rawlinson G. 167). Of the more complete ones, however, the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels have their lists framed simply by ornamental bands. In the Trier and Maihingen Gospels, the canons, it is true, are under arcades, but these are of such pure Mediterranean style that one may wonder if they are not insertions or a very faithful copy. Not until we come to the Lindisfarne Gospels do we find an example of architectural framing of the canon-tables translated into an Insular idiom. In the Book of Kells, not only are the lists framed by arcades but they are usually topped by the symbol of the relevant Evangelist. To accommodate the Eusebian lists under arcades may seem at first sight a very attractive scheme, but in fact, it is highly unpractical owing to the changing numbers of entries to be compared and the variable length of the lists. It is generally accepted that a minimum of twelve pages is necessary to accommodate the lists without too many difficulties. It is possible that twelve pages were originally earmarked for the displaying of the canons in the Book of Kells, but the last two pages remained blank and, as we shall see, all sorts of catastrophes occurred in compressing the text within ten pages. Moreover, the presence of the symbols of the Evangelists above the lists is another source of worry, constantly raising the problem of making them correspond to the lists below. These symbols above canon-tables are not of very common occurrence, possibly on account of the difficulties in handling them. Among Insular manuscripts they occur, in very imperfect form, in the Maeseyck manuscript and the Barberini Gospel-book. It is not known where that type of canons arose. It is often assumed to be of Byzantine origin, but no Byzantine example has survived. It is found also in some Carolingian manuscripts and in a group of Spanish manuscripts somewhat later, though the link between these various...

(The entire section is 19447 words.)

Suzanne Lewis (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Sacred Calligraphy: The Chi Rho Page in the Book of Kells," Traditio, Vol. XXXVI, 1980, pp. 139-59.

[In the following essay, Lewis investigates possible meanings and allusions found in the metaphorical images of the Chi Rho page, and explores how this page relates to other illuminations in the Book of Kells.]

The Book of Kells was probably made at the monastery of Iona at the end of the eighth century. Sometime between 807 and 814, in the wake of a series of devastating raids on the island sanctuary, 'the giant Gospel of Columkille, chief relic of the Western world,' was taken to the new headquarters of the Columban community at Kells.1 Intended as...

(The entire section is 10810 words.)

Isabel Henderson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Pictish Art and the Book of Kells" in Ireland in Early Mediaeval Europe: Studies in Memory of Kathleen Hughes, edited by Dorothy Whitelock, Rosamond McKitterick, David Dumville, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 79-105.

[In the following essay, Henderson examines the many similarities in composition and decoration between Pictish monuments and the art of the Book of Kells.]

The relevance of the great Gospel Books of the seventh and eighth centuries illuminated in the Celto-Saxon style to the understanding of Pictish sculpture has always been recognized.1 The national type of monument, the cross-slab, has often been described as...

(The entire section is 13839 words.)

Paul Meyvaert (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Book of Kells and Iona," The Art Bulletin, Vol. LXXI, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 6-19.

[In the following essay, Meyvaert examines three recent arguments that suggest the Book of Kells originated at the monastery of Hy, later known as lona.]

The genealogy of Christ in Luke's Gospel occupies five pages (fols. 200r-202r) in Dublin, Trinity College MS 58, better known as the Book of Kells. The most remarkable page of this genealogy is fol. 201r, which, unlike any of the other four pages (for example, fol. 200v), has a series of figures inserted in a vertical line down the center between the column of "fuit"s and the column of Old Testament names. In...

(The entire section is 12051 words.)

Bernard Meehan (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: The "Book of Kells": An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994, pp. 9-43, 89-92.

[In the following excerpt, written in 1993, Meehan discusses the Book of Kells's historical background, decorative plan, influences, symbolism, themes, and purpose.]

The Book and its background

It has always been difficult to write about the Book of Kells without resorting to hyperbole. Those who have tried to describe it betray almost a sense of disbelief, as though it had emerged from another world: 'the work, not of men, but of angels', as the thirteenth-century historian...

(The entire section is 10050 words.)

Further Reading

Brown, Michelle P. "Echoes: The Book of Kells and Southern English Manuscript Production." In "The Book of Kells": Proceedings of a Conference at Trinity College Dublin, 6-9 September 1992, pp. 333-43. Hants, Eng.: Scolar Press, 1994.

Investigates the relationship between the Book of Kells and the southern English Tiberius group of manuscripts, and considers the implications of their parallels and similarities in discussing the origin of the Book of Kells.

Farr, Carol A. "Textual Structure, Decoration, and Interpretive Images in the Book of Kells." In "The Book of Kells": Proceedings of a Conference at Trinity College Dublin, 6-9 September...

(The entire section is 630 words.)