The Book of Kells by Christie Burwell

Book of Kells
The Book of Kells, twelve hundred years after its creation, remains a continuing mystery for religious scholars and artists alike. Giraldus Cambrensis, a scholar in the thirteenth century, in reference to the book, once wrote, "you might believe it was the work of an angle rather than a human being"(1). Although it was indeed created by humans, no one is quite sure who they were. "There is no list of credits, not even an account book"(2). There are, however, several theories that currently exist on this matter. Those who have been able to closely examine the manuscript have found "only four distinct hands in the calligraphy"(2). Others, sighting the use of self in medieval art, believe that there were nine people at work, giving the portrayal of the nine apostles on page 202 of the manuscript as evidence. If one abides by this theory, there were four "masters" and five "apprentices," and it is these "apprentices" who are responsible for the lighter aspects of the manuscript (2).


So what is known about the book? It was hand copied by monks circa eight hundred A.D. It is likely that most of it was created on the island of Iona, which lies between Ireland and Scotland. Yet, it retains its name from the Abbey of Kells in Ireland were it was said to be taken after "Viking raids on Iona forced the monastery to retreat" (2). Regardless of whether or not this story is true, the book was held at Kells from the ninth century to 1541. In 1661 it was moved to Dublin.
Book of Kells


The Four Evangelists
So what is it? It is a work of illumination art done on the basis of the four Gospels in Latin. However, the interest it holds for most people goes beyond religion, though certainly that is part of the appeal. It was never intended for daily use, but rather only for use "on the alter for very special occasions"(2). Unlike some religious art and symbolism, which is often more simplistic artistically in order to draw heavier attention to the religious imagery, the Book of Kells uses explicit detail to convey its message of faith. Some of the intricate designs cannot even be seen without the aid of a high power magnifying glass, which of course was not invented at the time of the book's creation. However, the artistic draw of the manuscript does not seem to draw attention from the religious aspect of it. Rather it seems that the monks were able to give a beautiful visual manifestation of their particular faith and in doing enhance both the artistic and religious meaning of the work.


  1. "The Book of Kells facsimile in the Fine Arts Library," Oct 12, 2001
  2. Lincecum, Jerry B. "Book of Kells," 12/13/2001
  3. "The Book Of Kells," 12/11/2001
back to 2001 projects - home - next