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What is the Book of Kells? - History, Art & Symbols

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Ireland's Book of Kells is considered to be one of the greatest examples of an illustrated manuscript. The lavishly decorated book has been around since 800 A.D.

What is an Illuminated Manuscript?

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript. What this means is that the illustrations of a book, often a Bible or the Gospels, are decorated with gold or silver leaf in addition to vibrant colors in their illustrations. These manuscripts were usually created by monks to be used in religious services in the Middle Ages, but were later created by craftsmen as more common people became literate. Those that were literate were usually rich and sometimes commissioned illuminated manuscripts for themselves.

Where and When was the Book of Kells created?

Even though it's considered one of Ireland's greatest treasures, the book has Scottish origins. Most scholars agree that the book was begun in a monastery in the northern Scottish city of Iona around 800 A.D. The monastery was founded about 561 A.D. by an Irish monk called Columba, who later became a saint. So why isn't the book called the Book of Iona?

Vikings Force a Move

After one too many attacks by raiding Vikings, the monks decided to leave Iona in 804 A.D. They fled to the Kells monastery in Meath, a city in Ireland. They tried to return to Iona many times, but by 849 A.D. all the sacred objects of the monastery at Iona had been brought to Kells, including the manuscript. The Viking raids didn't stop, though. One story has the Vikings taking the manuscript in 1007 A.D. The jeweled cover was taken, but the book itself was later discovered in a ditch, only missing a few sections. The book would be at the Kells monastery until 1539 A.D. when the monastery was surrendered to the British crown. Eventually, the book made its way to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland in 1653 A.D., where it is today. While the book was never finished, scholars are still able to study its intricate pages.

What's in the Book of Kells?

Nearly all of the book's 680 vellum, or dried calfskin pages, contain Celtic designs. The four Biblical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are written in Latin. Other writings in the book (also in Latin) are items such as concordances and summaries.

Symbols

The book is famous because of its lavish decorations. There are symbols representing the four evangelists, as well as illustrations of different scenes in the gospels. There is even an illustration of the Virgin Mary. The first letters of paragraphs often include an illustrated first letter.

The page illustrating the four evangelists contains four symbols. Matthew is the man, Mark is the lion, Luke is the calf, and John is the eagle. The Chi Rho page is considered the most famous page in medieval art and introduces Matthew's account of the Nativity.

The Chi Rho page
chi

The Four Evangelists
four

Christ Enthroned
christ

The Virgin Mary and the Christ Child
mary

A Selection from the Gospel of Luke
gospel

Other symbols include dragons, birds, and other people. These are often in corners and margins. Margins also included intricate Celtic knots. Even alphabet letters are heavily decorated.

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