The Book of Kells by Laura King
Throughout all of art history, one of the most distinct styles
and types has been that of the Irish, or Celtic art.
Celtic art is set apart from other kinds of art based upon the
heavy use of the various knotwork patterns and designs, by the
usage of the colors violet, brown, yellow, blue and green, and
particularly in the Book of Kells, the angular runic
styles of font. And perhaps the most representative piece of
Celtic and Irish art is the Book of Kells, an ornately decorated,
very unique copy of the New Testament of the Bible. The Book
of Kells has become such a national symbol and so a part of
the Irish culture that it even appears on the Irish currency.
What is curious and interesting about all this, is that twelve
hundred years after it is known that the Book has been in existence,
there is still controversy over its exact origins. In this paper
the history of the Book of Kells will be examined, as well as
the materials used to make the Book.
To this day there is still debate and controversy over
where exactly the highly considered Irish, Book of Kells originates
from. The theories of present are that the Book of Kells was
created in either Kells, an island between Ireland and Scotland
called Iona, or from a church in Northumberland. Another theory
says that it may have been begun in Iona, but finished in Kells.
While no one can be precisely sure where it was created,
the calligraphy and illuminations can all be traced to
Ireland and its Gaelic past. Something that is known
for sure is that the monks who created the Book of Kells were
Columban monks, who were originally from Iona,
but had relocated to Kells by the early 9th century,
the same time that the Book of Kells was known to have first
appeared. From this time to 1653 the Book of Kells was actually
in Kells until it was decided that it ought to be moved to Dublin
for safe-keeping. Then in 1661 the Book was given to Trinity
College Library and has been on display there since the
The Book of Kells is in fact a copy of the New Testament
of the Bible. Its pages, or as they are called,
folios are made from vellum. Vellum is made from
the skin of calves, sheep or less frequently, goat kids,
but in the case of the Book of Kells, calfskin was predominantly
used. Completing all the folios of the Book of Kells
required the skins of more than 185 calves.
The colors of the inks used in the Book of Kells
are not only of wide variety, but there are many shades
of the present colors made from many different techniques
from many different materials. The basic pigments used
to write and illustrate the Book of Kells are yellow,
red, green, purple, blue, brown, black, and white. One
of the main, and most important pigments of yellow used
in the Book of Kells is orpiment, the other, though
less used shade yellow came from yellow ochre, which
is a naturally occurring mineral. The foremost red color
used comes from the inorganic pigment from red lead,
and the other red ink comes from, like the yellow, red
ochre. The green shades used in the Book of Kells comes
from a copper pigment, to be exact the mineral malachite.
However, not all the copper used in the Book of Kells
came from this naturally occurring mineral, but from
artificially produced green copper. Another, more dull
green color that was used is veragut, which is
mixed from the yellow orpiment, and the blue
There are several shades of purple used in the Book
of Kells, brownish purple, deep red purple, and bluish
purple, this last one was often mixed with white ink
to create pink and mauve. There are several materials
that the purple dyes were made from, they include the
purple shellfish, folium from Crozophora, dye
from elderberries, blueberries, brazil wood, and also
from various lichens. Another color of which there are
many shades in the Book of Kells is blue, which has
four separate shades used, very light blue, azure, dark
blue, and greenish blue. This last shade comes from
indigo from the Imdigofera tinctura plant. The
other three shades are made from mixtures, in different
particular ratios of lapis lazuli (which could
only be obtained from Afghanistan or Persia),
indigo, and chalk.
The brown color used, an iron gall ink, was made from
crushed oak galls and sulfite of iron suspended in a mixture
of gum and water.
The black ink that is used throughout the Book of Kells was
created from lamp black, or from soot, and sometimes soot
from burned bones.
The Book of Kells is one of the most beautiful, intricate
and ornate documents in existence. It originated twelve hundred
years ago, most likely in Iona, a small island between Scotland
and Ireland, and was soon moved to the town of Kells
in Ireland. After spending eight hundred and fifty
years there it moved to Dublin, and shortly after that to
its current home in the Trinity College Library where it was
put on display and can still be seen today. Many different
types of dyes were used to create the artwork, or illumination
of the Book of Kells, and they came from many different sources,
several of which were very far from where the book was created.
It took lots of precise and painstaking work to create and
it truly sets off and defines Celtic art.
Fuchs, Robert and Doris Oltrogge. "Colour
Material and Painting Technique in the Book of Kells."
The Book of Kells. Ed. Felicity O’Mahony. Vermont:
Ashgate Publishing Company. 1994.
The Book of Kells and the Art of
Illumination. Ed. Brian Kennedy. Seattle: University
of Washington Press. 2000.
Megaw, Ruth and Vincent. Celtic
Art: From its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. New
York: Thames & Hudson Inc. 2001.