Book of Kells (Latin: Codex Cenannensis; Irish: Leabhar
Cheanannais; Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I. , sometimes
known as the
Book of Columba) is an illuminated manuscript
in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the
New Testament together
with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban
monastery in either Britain or Ireland and may have had contributions
from various Columban institutions from both Britain and Ireland. It
is believed to have been created c. 800 AD. The text of the
Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes
several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as
the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of
Western calligraphy and
represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is also widely
regarded as Ireland's finest national treasure.
The illustrations and ornamentation of the
Book of Kells surpass that
of other Insular
Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The
decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate
swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and
mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns
in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these
minor decorative elements are imbued with
Christian symbolism and so
further emphasise the themes of the major illustrations.
The manuscript today comprises 340 folios and, since 1953, has been
bound in four volumes. The leaves are on high-quality calf vellum, and
the unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation that covers them includes
ten full-page illustrations and text pages that are vibrant with
decorated initials and interlinear miniatures and mark the furthest
extension of the anti-classical and energetic qualities of Insular
Insular majuscule script of the text itself appears to be the
work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron
gall ink, and the colours used were derived from a wide range of
substances, many 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 Trinity
College Library, Dublin. The Library usually displays two of the
current four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and
the other showing typical text pages, and the entire manuscript can be
viewed on the Library's Digital Collections Repository.
1.2 Medieval period
Book of Kildare
1.3 Modern period
2.2 Text and script
2.2.1 Errors and deviations
5 In film
8 Further reading
9 External links
Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly
decorated text that opens the
Gospel of John
Folio 27r from the
Lindisfarne Gospels contains the incipit Liber
generationis of the
Gospel of Matthew. Compare this page with the
corresponding page from the
Book of Kells (see here), especially the
form of the Lib monogram.
Book of Kells is one of the finest and most famous, and also one
of the latest, of a group of manuscripts in what is known as the
Insular style, produced from the late 6th through the early 9th
centuries in monasteries in Ireland, Scotland and England and in
continental monasteries with Hiberno-Scottish or Anglo-Saxon
foundations. These manuscripts include the Cathach of St. Columba,
the Ambrosiana Orosius, fragmentary
Gospel in the Durham Dean and
Chapter Library (all from the early 7th century), and the
Durrow (from the second half of the 7th century). From the early 8th
century come the Durham Gospels, the Echternach Gospels, the
Lindisfarne Gospels (see illustration at right), and the Lichfield
Gospels. Among others, the St. Gall
Book belongs to the late
8th century and the
Book of Armagh
Book of Armagh (dated to 807–809) to the early
Scholars place these manuscripts together based on similarities in
artistic style, script, and textual traditions. The fully developed
style of the ornamentation of the
Book of Kells places it late in this
series, either from the late 8th or early 9th century. The
Kells follows many of the iconographic and stylistic traditions found
in these earlier manuscripts. For example, the form of the decorated
letters found in the incipit pages for the Gospels is surprisingly
consistent in Insular Gospels. Compare, for example, the incipit pages
Gospel of Matthew in the
Lindisfarne Gospels and in the
Kells, both of which feature intricate decorative knot work patterns
inside the outlines formed by the enlarged initial letters of the
text. (For a more complete list of related manuscripts, see: List of
Hiberno-Saxon illustrated manuscripts).
Abbey of Kells
Abbey of Kells in
Kells, County Meath
Kells, County Meath had been founded, or
refounded, from Iona, the building taking from 807 until the
consecration of the church in 814. The manuscript's date and place
of production have been the subject of considerable debate.
Traditionally, the book was thought to have been created in the time
of Columba, possibly even as the work of his own hands. This
tradition has long been discredited on paleographic and stylistic
grounds: most evidence points to a composition date c. 800,
long after St. Columba's death in 597. The proposed dating in the 9th
century coincides with Viking raids on Iona, which began in 794 and
eventually dispersed the monks and their holy relics into Ireland and
Scotland. There is another tradition, with some traction among
Irish scholars, that suggests the manuscript was created for the 200th
anniversary of the saint's death. Alternatively, as is thought
possible for the Northumbrian
Lindisfarne Gospels and also the St
Cuthbert Gospel, both with Saint Cuthbert, it may have been produced
to mark the "translation" or moving of Columba's remains into a shrine
reliquary, which probably had taken place by the 750s.
There are at least five competing theories about the manuscript's
place of origin and time of completion. First, the book, or perhaps
just the text, may have been created at Iona, and then taken to Kells.
Second, the book may have been produced entirely at Iona. Third,
the manuscript may have been produced entirely in the scriptorium at
Kells. Fourth, it may have been produced in the north of England,
perhaps at Lindisfarne, then brought to
Iona and from there to Kells.
Finally, it may have been the product of Dunkeld or another monastery
in Pictish Scotland, though there is no actual evidence for this
theory, especially considering the absence of any surviving manuscript
from Pictland. Although the question of the exact location of the
book's production will probably never be answered conclusively, the
first theory, that it was begun at
Iona and continued at Kells, is
widely accepted. Regardless of which theory is true, it is certain
Book of Kells was produced by Columban monks closely
associated with the community at Iona.
Kells Abbey was plundered and pillaged by Vikings many times in the
10th century, and how the book survived is not known. The earliest
historical reference to the book, and indeed to the book's presence at
Kells, can be found in a 1007 entry in the Annals of Ulster. This
entry records that "the great
Gospel of Columkille, (Columba) the
chief relic of the Western World, was wickedly stolen during the night
from the western sacristy of the great stone church at Cenannas on
account of its wrought shrine". The manuscript was recovered a
few months later—minus its golden and bejewelled cover—"under a
sod". It is generally assumed that the "great
Columkille" is the
Book of Kells. If this is correct, then the
book was in Kells by 1007 and had been there long enough for thieves
to learn of its presence. The force of ripping the manuscript free
from its cover may account for the folios missing from the beginning
and end of the
Book of Kells. The description in the Annals of the
book as "of Columkille"—that is, having belonged to, and perhaps
being made by Columba—suggests that the book was believed at that
time to have been made on Iona.
Regardless, the book was certainly at Kells in the 12th century, when
land charters pertaining to the
Abbey of Kells
Abbey of Kells were copied onto some
of its blank pages. The practice of copying of charters into important
books was widespread in the medieval period, and such inscriptions in
Book of Kells provide concrete evidence about its location at the
Abbey of Kells
Abbey of Kells was dissolved due to the ecclesiastical reforms of
the 12th century. The abbey church was converted to a parish church in
Book of Kells remained.
Folio 27v contains the symbols of the
Four Evangelists (Clockwise from
top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John) and an ox
Book of Kildare
The 12th-century writer Gerald of Wales, in his Topographia Hibernica,
described seeing a great
Kildare which many have since
assumed was the
Book of Kells. The description certainly matches
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 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 so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colours so
fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an
angel, and not of a man.
Since Gerald claims to have seen this book in Kildare, he may have
seen another, now lost, book equal in quality to the
Book of Kells, or
he may have misstated his location.
Book of Kells remained in Kells until 1654. In that year,
Cromwell's cavalry was quartered in the church at Kells, and the
governor of the town sent the book to Dublin for safekeeping. Henry
Jones, who later became bishop of Meath after the Restoration,
presented the manuscript to Trinity College in Dublin in 1661, and it
has remained there ever since, except for brief loans to other
libraries and museums. It has been on display to the public in the Old
Library at Trinity since the 19th century.
Over the years, the
Book of Kells received several additions to its
text. In the 16th century, one Gerald Plunkett of Dublin added a
Roman numerals numbering the chapters of the Gospels
according to the division created by 13th-century Archbishop of
Canterbury Stephen Langton. The prominent Anglican clergyman James
Ussher counted and numbered its folios in 1621, shortly after James VI
and I named him Bishop of Meath.
The manuscript's rise to worldwide fame began in the 19th century. The
association with St. Columba, who died the same year Augustine brought
Christianity and literacy to Canterbury from Rome, was used to
demonstrate Ireland's cultural primacy, seemingly providing
"irrefutable precedence in the debate on the relative authority of the
Irish and Roman churches".
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were
invited to sign the book in 1849. The book's artistry was
influential on the Celtic Revival; several Victorian picture books of
medieval illuminations featured designs from the book which were in
turn extensively copied and adapted, patterns appearing in metalwork,
embroidery, furniture and pottery among other crafts.
Over the centuries, the book has been rebound several times. During an
18th-century rebinding, the pages were rather unsympathetically
cropped, with small parts of some illustrations being lost. The book
was also rebound in 1895, but that rebinding broke down quickly. By
the late 1920s, several folios had detached completely and were kept
separate from the main volume. In 1953, bookbinder Roger Powell
rebound the manuscript in four volumes and stretched several pages
that had developed bulges. Two volumes can normally be seen
displayed at Trinity, one opened at a major decorated page, and one
opened to show two text pages with smaller decorations.
In 2000, the volume containing the
Gospel of Mark was sent to
Canberra, Australia, for an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts.
This was only the fourth time the
Book of Kells had been sent abroad
for exhibition. Unfortunately, the volume suffered what has been
called "minor pigment damage" while en route to Canberra. It is
thought that the vibrations from the aeroplane's engines during the
long flight may have caused the damage.
Book of Kells contains the four Gospels of the Christian
scriptures written in black, red, purple, and yellow ink in an insular
majuscule script, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and concordances of
Gospel passages. Today, it consists of 340 vellum leaves, or
folios. The majority of the folios are part of larger sheets, called
bifolios, which are folded in half to form two folios. The bifolios
are nested inside of each other and sewn together to form gatherings
called quires. On occasion, a folio is not part of a bifolio but is
instead a single sheet inserted within a quire. The extant folios are
gathered into 38 quires. There are between four and twelve folios (two
to six bifolios) per quire; the folios are commonly, but not
invariably, bound in groups of ten. Some folios are single sheets, as
is frequently the case with the important decorated pages. The folios
had lines drawn for the text, sometimes on both sides, after the
bifolios were folded. Prick marks and guide lines can still be seen on
some pages. The vellum is of high quality, although the folios
have an uneven thickness, with some being close to leather while
others are so thin as to be almost translucent.
The book's current dimensions are 330 by 250 mm. Originally, the
folios were of no standard size, but they were cropped to the current
size during a 19th-century rebinding. The text area is approximately
250 by 170 mm. Each text page has 16 to 18 lines of text. The
manuscript is in remarkably good condition considering its great age,
though many pages have suffered some damage to the delicate artwork
due to rubbing. The book must have been the product of a major
scriptorium over several years, yet was apparently never finished, the
projected decoration of some pages appearing only in outline. It is
believed that some 30 folios of the original manuscript have been lost
over the centuries. Ussher counted 344 folios in 1621, but several
leaves had already been lost by then. The overall estimate is based on
gaps in the text and the absence of certain key illustrations.
The extant book contains preliminary matter, the complete text of the
Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the
Gospel of John through John
17:13. The remainder of John and an unknown amount of the preliminary
matter is missing and was perhaps lost when the book was stolen early
in the 11th century. The remaining preliminary matter consists of two
fragmentary lists of Hebrew names contained in the Gospels, Breves
Gospel summaries), Argumenta (short biographies of the
Evangelists), and Eusebian canon tables. It is probable that, like the
Lindisfarne Gospels and the Books of Durrow and Armagh, part of the
lost preliminary material included the letter of
Jerome to Pope
Damasus I beginning Novum opus, in which
Jerome explains the purpose
of his translation. It is also possible, though less likely, that the
lost material included the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus, in which
he explains the use of the canon tables. Of all the insular
Gospels, only the
Lindisfarne manuscript contains this letter.
Folio 5r contains a page of the Eusebian Canons.
There are two fragments of the lists of Hebrew names; one on the recto
of the first surviving folio and one on folio 26, which is currently
inserted at the end of the prefatory matter for John. The first list
fragment contains the end of the list for the
Gospel of Matthew. The
missing names from Matthew would require an additional two folios. The
second list fragment, on folio 26, contains about a fourth of the list
for Luke. The list for Luke would require an additional three folios.
The structure of the quire in which folio 26 occurs is such that it is
unlikely that there are three folios missing between folios 26 and 27,
so that it is almost certain that folio 26 is not now in its original
location. There is no trace of the lists for Mark and John.
The first list fragment is followed by the canon tables of Eusebius of
Caesarea. These tables, which predate the text of the Vulgate, were
developed to cross-reference the Gospels. Eusebius divided the Gospel
into chapters and then created tables that allowed readers to find
where a given episode in the life of Christ was located in each of the
Gospels. The canon tables were traditionally included in the prefatory
material in most mediaeval copies of the
Vulgate text of the Gospels.
The tables in the
Book of Kells, however, are almost unusable because
the scribe condensed the tables in such a way as to make them
confused. In addition, the corresponding chapter numbers were never
inserted into the margins of the text, making it impossible to find
the sections to which the canon tables refer. The reason for the
omission remains unclear: the scribe may have planned to add the
references upon the manuscript's completion, or he may have
deliberately left them out so as not to spoil the appearance of
Folio 19 contains the beginning of the Breves causae of Luke.
The Breves causae and Argumenta belong to a pre-
Vulgate tradition of
manuscripts. The Breves causae are summaries of the Old Latin
translations of the Gospels and are divided into numbered chapters.
These chapter numbers, like the numbers for the canon tables, are not
used on the text pages of the Gospels. It is unlikely that these
numbers would have been used, even if the manuscript had been
completed, because the chapter numbers corresponded to old Latin
translations and would have been difficult to harmonise with the
Vulgate text. The Argumenta are collections of legends about the
Evangelists. The Breves causae and Argumenta are arranged in a strange
order: first come the Breves causae and Argumenta for Matthew,
followed by the Breves and Argumenta for Mark, then, quite oddly, come
the Argumenta of both Luke and John, followed by their Breves causae.
This anomalous order mirrors that found in the
Book of Durrow,
although in the latter instance, the misplaced sections appear at the
very end of the manuscript rather than as part of a continuous
preliminary. In other insular manuscripts, such as the Lindisfarne
Book of Armagh, and the Echternach Gospels, each Gospel
is treated as a separate work and has its preliminaries immediately
preceding it. The slavish repetition in Kells of the order of the
Breves causae and Argumenta found in Durrow led scholar T. K. Abbott
to the conclusion that the scribe of Kells had either the
Durrow or a common model in hand.
Text and script
Book of Kells contains the text of the four Gospels based on the
Vulgate. It does not, however, contain a pure copy of the Vulgate.
There are numerous differences from the Vulgate, where Old Latin
translations are used in lieu of Jerome's text. Although such variants
are common in all the insular Gospels, there does not seem to be a
consistent pattern of variation amongst the various insular texts.
Evidence suggests that when the scribes were writing the text they
often depended on memory rather than on their exemplar.
Folio 309r contains text from the
Gospel of John written in Insular
majuscule by the scribe known as Hand B.
The manuscript is written primarily in insular majuscule with some
occurrences of minuscule letters (usually e or s). The text is usually
written in one long line across the page.
Françoise Henry identified
at least three scribes in this manuscript, whom she named Hand A, Hand
B, and Hand C. Hand A is found on folios 1 through 19v, folios 276
through 289, and folios 307 through the end of the manuscript. Hand A,
for the most part, writes eighteen or nineteen lines per page in the
brown gall-ink common throughout the West. Hand B is found on
folios 19r through 26 and folios 124 through 128. Hand B has a
somewhat greater tendency to use minuscule and uses red, purple and
black ink and a variable number of lines per page. Hand C is found
throughout the majority of the text. Hand C also has greater tendency
to use minuscule than Hand A. Hand C uses the same brownish gall-ink
used by hand A and wrote, almost always, seventeen lines per page.
Luke's genealogy of Jesus (extends over three pages)
Errors and deviations
There are a number of differences between the text and the accepted
Gospels. In the genealogy of Jesus, which starts at Luke 3:23, Kells
names an extra ancestor.
Matthew 10:34b The canonised Bible reads "I came not to send peace,
but a sword," but the manuscript reads gaudium ("joy") where it should
read gladium ("sword") and so translates as "I came not [only] to send
peace, but joy."
The lavishly decorated opening page of the
Gospel according to John in
Book of Kells had been deciphered by George Bain as: "In principio
erat verbum verum" [In the beginning was the True Word].
Incipit is a free translation into
Latin of the Greek
original λογος rather than a mere copy of the Roman version.
The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, while smaller
painted decorations appear throughout the text in unprecedented
quantities. The decoration of the book is famous for combining
intricate detail with bold and energetic compositions. The
characteristics of the Insular manuscript initial, as described by
Carl Nordenfalk, here reach their most extreme realisation: "the
initials ... are conceived as elastic forms expanding and contracting
with a pulsating rhythm. The kinetic energy of their contours escapes
into freely drawn appendices, a spiral line which in turn generates
new curvilinear motifs...". The illustrations feature a broad
range of colours, with purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow
being the colours most often used. Earlier manuscripts tend toward
more narrow palettes: the
Book of Durrow, for example, uses only four
colours. As is usual with Insular work, there was no use of gold or
silver leaf in the manuscript. The pigments for the illustrations,
which included red and yellow ochre, green copper pigment (sometimes
called verdigris), indigo, and possibly lapis lazuli, would have
been imported from the Mediterranean region and, in the case of the
lapis lazuli, from northeast Afghanistan. Though the presence of
lapis lazuli has long been considered evidence of the great cost
required to create the manuscript, recent examination of the pigments
has proven that lapis lazuli was not used.
The lavish illumination programme is far greater than any other
Gospel book. There are ten surviving full-page
illuminations including two evangelist portraits, three pages with the
four evangelist symbols, a carpet page, a miniature of the Virgin and
Child, a miniature of Christ enthroned, and miniatures of the Arrest
of Jesus and the Temptation of Christ. There are thirteen surviving
full pages of decorated text including pages for the first few words
of each of the Gospels. Eight of the ten pages of the canon tables
have extensive decoration. It is highly probable that there were other
pages of miniature and decorated text that are now lost. In addition
to these major pages, there are a host of smaller decorations and
decorated initials throughout the text; in fact only two pages have no
Folio 2r of the
Book of Kells contains one of the Eusebian Canons.
The extant folios of the manuscript start with the fragment of the
glossary of Hebrew names. This fragment occupies the left-hand column
of folio 1r. A miniature of the four evangelist symbols, now much
abraded, make up the right-hand column. The miniature is oriented so
that the volume must be turned ninety degrees to view it properly.
The four evangelist symbols are a visual theme that runs throughout
the book. They are almost always shown together to emphasise the
doctrine of the four Gospels' unity of message.
The unity of the Gospels is further emphasised by the decoration of
the Eusebian canon tables. The canon tables themselves inherently
illustrate the unity of the Gospels by organising corresponding
passages from the Gospels. The Eusebian canon tables normally require
twelve pages. In the
Book of Kells, the makers of the manuscript
planned for twelve pages (folios 1v through 7r) but for unknown
reasons, condensed them into ten, leaving folios 6v and 7r blank. This
condensation rendered the canon tables unusable. The decoration of the
first eight pages of the canon tables is heavily influenced by early
Gospel Books from the Mediterranean, where it was traditional to
enclose the tables within an arcade (as seen in the London Canon
Tables). The Kells manuscript presents this motif in an Insular
spirit, where the arcades are not seen as architectural elements but
rather become stylised geometric patterns with Insular ornamentation.
The four evangelist symbols occupy the spaces under and above the
arches. The last two canon tables are presented within a grid. This
presentation is limited to Insular manuscripts and was first seen in
Book of Durrow.
Folio 7v contains an image of the Virgin and Child. This is the oldest
extant image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript.
The remainder of the book is broken into sections with the divisions
set off by miniatures and full pages of decorated text. Each of the
Gospels is introduced by a consistent decorative programme. The
preliminary matter is treated as one section and introduced by a
lavish decorative spread. In addition to the preliminaries and the
Gospels, the "second beginning" of the
Gospel of Matthew is also given
its own introductory decoration.
The preliminary matter is introduced by an iconic image of the Virgin
and Child (folio 7v). This miniature is the first representation of
the Virgin in a Western manuscript. Mary is shown in an odd mixture of
frontal and three-quarter pose. This miniature also bears a stylistic
similarity to the carved image on the lid of
St. Cuthbert's coffin
St. Cuthbert's coffin of
698. The iconography of the miniature may derive from an Eastern or
The miniature of the
Virgin and Child
Virgin and Child faces the first page of text and
is an appropriate preface to the beginning of the Breves Causae of
Matthew, which begins Nativitas Christi in Bethlem (the birth of
Christ in Bethlehem). The beginning page (folio 8r) of the text of the
Breves Causae is decorated and contained within an elaborate frame.
The two-page spread of the miniature and the text makes a vivid
introductory statement for the prefatory material. The opening line of
each of the sections of the preliminary matter is enlarged and
decorated (see above for the Breves causae of Luke), but no other
section of the preliminaries is given the same level of treatment as
the beginning of the Breves Causae of Matthew.
Folio 291v contains a portrait of John the Evangelist.
The book was designed so that each of the Gospels would have an
elaborate introductory decorative programme. Each
originally prefaced by a full page miniature containing the four
evangelist symbols, followed by a blank page. Then came a portrait of
the evangelist which faced the opening text of the
Gospel which was
given an elaborate decorative treatment. The
Gospel of Matthew
retains both its
Evangelist portrait (folio 28v) and its page of
Evangelist symbols (folio 27r, see above). The
Gospel of Mark is
Evangelist portrait but retains its Evangelist symbols
page (folio 129v). The
Gospel of Luke is missing both the portrait and
Evangelist symbols page. The
Gospel of John, like the
Matthew, retains both its portrait (folio 291v, see at right) and its
Evangelist symbols page (folio 290v). It can be assumed that the
portraits for Mark and Luke and the symbols page for Luke at one time
existed but have been lost. The use of all four of the Evangelist
symbols in front of each
Gospel is striking and was intended to
reinforce the message of the unity of the Gospels.
The decoration of the opening few words of each
Gospel was lavish.
These pages were, in effect, turned into carpet pages. The decoration
of these texts is so elaborate that the text itself is almost
illegible. The opening page (folio 29r) of Matthew may stand as an
example. (See illustration at left.) The page consists of only two
words: Liber generationis ("The book of the generation"). The lib of
Liber is turned into a giant monogram which dominates the entire page.
The er of Liber is presented as an interlaced ornament within the b of
the lib monogram. Generationis is broken into three lines and
contained within an elaborate frame in the right lower quadrant of the
page. The entire assemblage is contained within an elaborate
Folio 29r contains the incipit to the
Gospel of Matthew.
The border and the letters themselves are further decorated with
elaborate spirals and knot work, many of them zoomorphic. The opening
words of Mark, Initium evangelii ("The beginning of the Gospel"),
Luke, Quoniam quidem multi, and John, In principio erat verbum ("In
the beginning was the Word"), are all given similar treatments.
Although the decoration of these pages was most extensive in the Book
of Kells, these pages were decorated in all the other Insular Gospel
Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus. At Matthew
1:18, the actual narrative of Christ's life starts. This "second
beginning" to Matthew was given emphasis in many early
so much so that the two sections were often treated as separate works.
The second beginning begins with the word Christ. The Greek letters
chi and rho were normally used in mediaeval manuscripts to abbreviate
the word Christ. In Insular
Gospel Books, the initial Chi Rho monogram
was enlarged and decorated. In the
Book of Kells, this second
beginning was given a decorative programme equal to those that preface
the individual Gospels.
Folio 32 verso has a miniature of Christ
enthroned. (It has been argued that this miniature is one of the lost
evangelist portraits. However, the iconography is quite different from
the extant portraits, and current scholarship accepts this
identification and placement for this miniature.) Facing this
miniature, on folio 33 recto, is the only carpet page in the
Kells, which is rather anomalous; the
Lindisfarne Gospels has five
extant carpet pages and the
Book of Durrow
Book of Durrow has six. The blank verso of
folio 33 faces the single most lavish miniature of the early mediaeval
Book of Kells Chi Rho monogram, which serves as incipit
for the narrative of the life of Christ.
Folio 34r contains the Chi Rho monogram. Chi and rho are the first
two letters of the word Christ in Greek.
Book of Kells, the Chi Rho monogram has grown to consume the
entire page. The letter chi dominates the page with one arm swooping
across the majority of the page. The letter rho is snuggled underneath
the arms of the chi. Both letters are divided into compartments which
are lavishly decorated with knot work and other patterns. The
background is likewise awash in a mass of swirling and knotted
decoration. Within this mass of decoration are hidden animals and
insects. Three angels arise from one of the cross arms of the chi.
This miniature is the largest and most lavish extant Chi Rho monogram
in any Insular
Gospel Books and is the culmination of a tradition that
started with the
Book of Durrow.
Book of Kells contains two other full-page miniatures, which
illustrate episodes from the Passion story. The text of Matthew is
illustrated with a full-page illumination of the Arrest of Christ
(folio 114r). Jesus is shown beneath a stylised arcade while being
held by two much smaller figures. In the text of Luke, there is a
full sized miniature of the
Temptation of Christ
Temptation of Christ (folio 202v). Christ
is shown from the waist up on top of the Temple. To his right is a
crowd of people, perhaps representing his disciples. To his left and
below him is a black figure of Satan. Above him hover two angels.
The verso of the folio containing the Arrest of Christ contains a full
page of decorated text which begins "Tunc dicit illis". Facing the
miniature of the Temptation is another full page of decorated text
(folio 203r "Iesus autem plenus"). In addition to this page, five
other full pages also receive elaborate treatment. In Matthew, there
is one other full-page treatment (folio 124r, "Tunc crucifixerant Xpi
cum eo duos latrones"). In the
Gospel of Mark, there are also two
pages of decorated text (folio 183r, "Erat autem hora tercia", and
folio 187v, "[Et Dominus] quidem [Iesus] postquam"). The
Luke contains two pages of fully decorated text (folio 188v, "Fuit in
diebus Herodis ", and folio 285r, "Una autem sabbati valde"). Although
these texts do not have miniatures associated with them, it is
probable that miniatures were planned to accompany each of these texts
and have either been lost or were never completed. There is no
surviving full page of text in the
Gospel of John other than the
Incipit. However, in the other three Gospels, all the full pages of
decorated text, except for folio 188c, which begins the Nativity
narration, occur within the Passion narrative. However, since the
missing folios of John contain the Passion narrative, it is likely
that John contained full pages of decorated text that have been
Almost all of the folios of the
Book of Kells contain small
illuminations like this decorated initial.
The decoration of the book is not limited to the major pages.
Scattered through the text are decorated initials and small figures of
animals and humans often twisted and tied into complicated knots. Many
significant texts, such as the Pater Noster have decorated initials.
The page containing text of the
Beatitudes in Matthew (folio 40v) has
a large miniature along the left margin of the page in which the
letter B which begins each line is linked into an ornate chain. The
genealogy of Christ found in the
Gospel of Luke (folio 200r) contains
a similar miniature in which the word qui is repeatedly linked along
the left margin. Many of the small animals scattered throughout the
text serve to mark a "turn-in-the-path" (that is, a place where a line
is finished in a space above or below the original line). Many other
animals serve to fill spaces left at the end of lines. No two of these
designs are the same. No earlier surviving manuscript has this massive
amount of decoration.
The decorations of the
Book of Kells can be stunningly complex, as
seen in this small detail of the Chi Rho monogram page. (
The decorations are all high quality and often highly complex. In one
decoration, which occupies a one-inch square piece of a page, there
are 158 complex interlacements of white ribbon with a black border on
either side. Some decorations can only be fully seen with magnifying
glasses, although lenses of the required power are not known to have
been available until hundreds of years after the book's completion.
The complicated knot work and interweaving found in Kells and related
manuscripts have many parallels in the metalwork and stone carving of
the period. Since their gradual rediscovery from the 19th century on,
these designs have also had an enduring popularity. Many of these
motifs are used today in popular art including jewellery and tattoos.
The book had a sacramental rather than educational purpose. Such a
Gospel would have been left on the high altar of the
church and removed only for the reading of the
Gospel during Mass,
with the reader probably reciting from memory more than reading the
text. It is significant that the Chronicles of Ulster state the book
was stolen from the sacristy, where the vessels and other
accoutrements of the Mass were stored, rather than from the monastic
library. Its design seems to take this purpose in mind; that is, the
book was produced with appearance taking precedence over practicality.
There are numerous uncorrected mistakes in the text. Lines were often
completed in a blank space in the line above. The chapter headings
that were necessary to make the canon tables usable were not inserted
into the margins of the page. In general, nothing was done to disrupt
the look of the page: aesthetics were given priority over utility.
Faksimile-Verlag image of folio 32v "Christ Enthroned"
Some of the first faithful reproductions made of pages and elements of
Book of Kells were by the artist
Helen Campbell D'Olier
Helen Campbell D'Olier in the
1800s. She used vellum and reproduced the pigments used in the
original manuscript. Photographs of her drawings were included in
Sullivan's study of the
Book of Kells, first printed in 1913.
In 1951, the Swiss publisher Urs Graf Verlag Bern produced the first
facsimile of the
Book of Kells. The majority of the pages were
reproduced in black-and-white photographs, but the edition also
featured forty-eight colour reproductions, including all the full-page
decorations. Under licence from the Board of Trinity College Dublin,
Thames and Hudson
Thames and Hudson produced a second facsimile edition in 1974. This
edition included all the full-page illustrations in the manuscript and
a representative section of the ornamentation of the text pages,
together with some enlarged details of the illustrations. The
reproductions were all in full colour, with photography by John
Kennedy, Green Studio, Dublin.
In 1979, Swiss publisher Faksimile-Verlag Luzern requested permission
to produce a full-colour facsimile of the book. Permission was
initially denied, because Trinity College officials felt that the risk
of damage to the book was too high. By 1986, Faksimile-Verlag had
developed a process that used gentle suction to straighten a page so
that it could be photographed without touching it and so won
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
Folio 183r from the 1990 facsimile of the
Book of Kells contains the
text "Erat autem hora tertia" ("now it was the third hour").
Mario Kleff also reproduced folios from the
Book of Kells and together
with Faksimile-Verlag Publisher Urs Düggelin, curated an exhibition
Book of Kells which included these facsimile pages. These
facsimiles were created using the original techniques and were also
presented in the Diocesan Museum of Trier.
Celtworld heritage centre, which opened in Tramore,
County Waterford in 1992, included a replica of the
Book of Kells. It
cost approximately £18,000 to produce.
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. His 2012 book contained more than
80 pages from the manuscript reproduced full-size and in full
A digital copy of the manuscript was produced by Trinity College in
2006 and was made available for purchase through Trinity College on
DVD-Rom. It included the ability to leaf through each page, two pages
at a time or look at a single page in a magnified setting. There were
also a number of commentary tracks about the specific pages as well as
the history of the book. Users were given the option to search by
specific illuminated categories including animals, capitols and
angels. It retailed for approximately €30 but has since been
discontinued. The Faksimile-Verlag images are now online at Trinity
College's Digital Collections portal.
The 2009 animated film
The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells tells a fictional story of
the creation of the
Book of Kells by an elderly monk Aidan and his
young apprentice Brendan, who struggle to work on the manuscript in
the face of destructive Viking raids. It was directed by Tomm Moore
and nominated for the
Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in
2009. It was praised for sequences of animation drawing from the
^ a b c d e Henry 1974, 150.
^ All manuscripts and dates discussed in Henry 1974, 150–151.
^ Calkins discusses the major manuscripts in turn pp.30–92, as does
^ Meyvaert, 11
^ Sullivan 1952, 19–20.
^ Meehan 1994, 91.
^ Kennedy, Brian. "Celtic Ireland." The
Book of Kells and the Art of
Illumination. Ed. Pauline Green. Canberra, Australia: Publications
Department of the National Gallery of Australia. 2000. Print.
^ McCaffrey, Carmel; Leo Eaton (2002). In Search of Ancient Ireland:
The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the
English. Chicago: New Amsterdam Books. ISBN 1-56131-072-7.
^ Meyvaert, 12-13, 18
^ Dodwell, p. 84
^ Meyvaert, 12, note 26; Sharpe, Richard. "In quest of Pictish
manuscripts." The Innes Review . 59.2 (2008): 145–146.
^ Sir Edward Sullivan, p.4.
Book of Kells 1920
^ Columkille is the name by which St.
Columba is best known in
Ireland. "St. Columkille". Library Ireland. Retrieved 8 March
^ "The Annals of Ulster". CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts. Retrieved
8 March 2008.
^ O'Donovan, John. "The Irish Charters in the
Book of Kells".
University College Cork. Retrieved on 29 February 2008.
^ a b Banville, John (23 November 2012). "Let there be light: The
enduring fascination of Ireland's monastic masterpiece, the
Kells". ft.com. Retrieved 1 December 2012.
^ Dodwell, p. 84. As mentioned above,
Columba in fact lived before any
plausible date for the manuscript.
^ Henry 1974, 165.
^ Sullivan, The
Book of Kells 1920, Page 5.
^ De Hamel, p.133
^ De Hamel, p.134 They in fact signed a modern flyleaf which was then
bound with the book. The page bearing their signatures was removed
when the book was rebound in 1953.
^ De Hamel, p.134-5
^ Hoops, Johannes (ed.) "Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde".
Walter De Gruyter Inc, September 2001, 346. ISBN 3-11-016950-9
^ a b c d Henry 1974, 152.
^ "Library: The
Book of Kells". Trinity College Dublin. Archived from
the original on 13 September 2010. Retrieved 15 September 2010.
Book of Kells is damaged". The Guardian. 14 April 2000. Retrieved
16 June 2015.
^ Meehan 1994, 9.
^ a b c Henry 1974, 153.
^ Henry 1974, 153, n.28.
^ Calkins 1983, 79.
^ a b Henry 1974, 154.
^ Henry 1974, 155.
^ Sullivan, Edward (1920). The
Book of Kells. The Studio. p. 120.
^ Nathan, George Jean Nathan; Henry Louis Mencken (1951). The American
Mercury. p. 572. The compilers of the late seventh century
Book of Kells, refused to adopt St. Jerome's phrase "I
come not to bring peace but a sword." (" . . . non-pacem sed
^ Bain, George (1973). Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. Dover
Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-486-22923-8. , page 95, Plate 14.
^ Nordenfalk 1977, 13.
^ a b Fuchs and Oltrogge in O'Mahoney 1994, 134–135.
^ Meehan 1994, 88.
^ Nordenfalk 1977, 108.
^ a b Henry 1974, 167.
^ a b Calkins 1983, 79–82.
^ a b Calkins 1983, 82.
^ Henry 1974, 172.
^ Henry 1974, 172–173.
^ a b c Calkins 1983, 85.
^ Calkins 1983, 82–85.
^ Werner 1972, 129–139.
^ Nordenfalk 1977, 124.
^ Nordenfalk 1977, 123.
^ Calkins 1983, 92.
^ Strickland, Walter (1913). A dictionary of Irish artists. Dublin and
London: Maunsell & Co.
^ Sullivan, Edward (1920). The
Book of Kells. "The Studio" Limited.
^ Announcements. Speculum, Vol. 23, No. 3, July 1948. pp. 555–558.
^ McGill, Douglas. "Irelands's
Book of Kells is Facsimiled". New York
Times, 2 June 1987. Retrieved on 28 February 2008.
^ Noyer, Catherine (19 October 1997). "
Book of Kells". PAULINUS.
Trier. Archived from the original on 21 July 2010. Retrieved 16 August
^ John Murray, Tony Wheeler, Sean Sheehan. Ireland: a travel survival
kit. Page 198. Lonely Planet, 1994.
^ "The 82nd Academy Awards (2010) Nominees and Winners". Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 6
October 2014. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
^ Felperin, Leslie (25 February 2009). "Brendan and the Secret of
Kells". Variety Magazine. Retrieved 2 December 2009. ;Jeremy W.
Ain't It Cool News
Ain't It Cool News called its animation "absolutely
brilliant,"Kaufmann, Jeremy W. (17 July 2009). "An Early Look at
Distinctive Animated Film
The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells – US Premiere This
Weekend". Ain't It Cool News. Retrieved 2 December 2009. and
Starlog called it "one of the greatest hand drawn
independent animated movies of all time."Koller, Cameron and Riley (2
December 2009). "THE SECRET OF KELLS: The Little Movie That Should".
Starlog.com. Retrieved 4 December 2009. [permanent dead link]
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de Hamel, Christopher (2016). Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.
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800–1200. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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Book of Kells: Reproductions from the
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to
Book of Kells.
Trinity College Digital Collections images of complete manuscript
Trinity College, summary information on the manuscript
Exhibition information about
Book of Kells at Trinity College Library
Treasures of early Irish art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D., 1978, an
exhibition catalogue from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully
available online as PDF), which contains material on the
Book of Kells
(cat. no. 37-38)
More information at Earlier
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