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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells: content, history, and description

book of kells What is the Book of Kells? The Book of Kells is a richly ornate book, written in Latin, which contains the four Gospels of the Christian New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (as well as other explanatory passages meant to assist the reader). It's early history isn't well known: the book's country of origin is either Britain or Ireland; its date of origin is approximately the 9th century A.D.; and many believe that its place of origin is a Comumban monastery, although it was eventually moved elsewhere.

What does the word "Kells" refer to? Kells is the name of a town in Ireland (about 40 miles northwest of Dublin) and home to the monastery where the book was kept for a period of time, called "Kells Abbey." Today, the town of Kells, Ireland, is home to about 5,000 people. The book was removed from the abbey in the 17th century for safe keeping and taken to Trinity College in Dublin, where it has been kept free from harm ever since. (A link at the bottom of this page will take the reader to actual images of the Book of Kells on Trinity College Library's website.) The book is considered Ireland's greatest national treasure.

What's so special about its decor? The book's artwork combines what many consider the best of Irish art along with sacred imagers of the Christian religion (e.g. "Christ enthroned"; above, right), which are so important to Irish history. The images are of Bible stories and characters. The handwriting, and especially the calligraphy, are considered some of the finest work of its kind in history. Many of the materials used to color the images where imported from other countries (see more below).

The Book of Kells

Its content, form, and purpose

What version of the Gospels does the Book of Kells contain?

The four Gospels are from a Bible translation called "the Vulgate"; that is, the Bible that Christian scholar Jerome translated in the 4th century, which was used by the Christian church for a millennium. There are mistakes in the Book of Kells, likely made by the copier (or copiers). There are even places in the book where lines that were originally missed, were later inserted into white spaces on the page.

How does the book exist today?

The Book of Kells is made up of 340 "folios"; a folio is a large page that is folded once, effectively making two pages. The book now exists in four volumes. Only two volumes are displayed at a time at Trinity College Library. One shows an illustration and the other shows an example of the text. The folios are made of vellum, which is a fine parchment often made from the skins of calf or lamb. The text area is approximately 250 by 170 mm. Each page has 16 to 18 lines of text.

What was the Book of Kells made for?

While its early history is unclear, many historians believe it was probably a book made for Gospel readings during Mass. However, others argue that the book is more about form that function, and that it was simply intended to be a work of art, meant to reflect the importance of the Gospels and the life of Christ, and was never intended for regular use.

Its ornamentation

How did the creators decorate the book?

four evangelists The book is decorated with artistic colors, images, and writing. The most used colors are purple, lilac, red, pink, green, and yellow. Some of the pigments would have been imported from countries around the Mediterranean Sea where they are more commonly found. Unlike other highly valued, ornate books from the time period, the Book of Kells doesn't contain gold or silver leaf.

How did the creators highlight each evangelist?

The four evangelists (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) permeate the book. They are mostly shown together (e.g. the image to the right), likely because the creators wanted to emphasize the unity of the four books. The Gospels each have unique, highly-decorated introductions, including an image, and the first line of their respective texts are emphasized in ornate writing.

What images did the creators emphasize?

There are 10 full-page illustrations. The images include portraits of the evangelists, Jesus Christ, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and scenes from the Gospel stories.

mary, book of kells What is significant about Folio 7v?

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is one of the most important figures in the four Gospels, so it isn't surprising that images of her receive prominent place in the Book of Kells. Upon the folio sheet called "7v," is an image of Mary with the infant Jesus (pictured to the left).

This is the oldest existing image of Mary in all of Western literature and art.

How old is the Book of Kells?

Its date of origin is unclear, but historians estimate that it was created in the late 8th or early 9th century. Its art is consistent with popular styles at the time.

What is known about its creation?

The historical record isn't clear. Some theories suggest that the text and the images were two separate works, which were later fused together. There is also not agreement on where the work on it began. Many speculate that the work was begun at Iona, Scotland and continued at Kells.

Was the book finished?

No. Some illustrations are only outlined.


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Images of the Book of Kells at Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland

The New Testament

The Old Testament

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