The Book of Kells: An Immortal Cultural Heritage of the Gaels
Over the centuries, from its earliest beginnings, Christianity was the inspiration for some truly stunning art. From early frescoes, to illuminated manuscripts , magnificent churches and abbeys, Christian art knew no bounds. And one such piece of art is the iconic and famed Book of Kells.
A historic heritage of early Christianity in Ireland, this magnificently illustrated gospel book is a clear glimpse into the unique art style and identity of the Gaelic peoples. Adorned with intricate details and a dazzling array of colors, this manuscript really shows the result of Christian tradition mixing with the art of the Gaels. And the result is truly stunning.
Dating from the 9th century AD, the manuscript luckily survived to the present day largely unscathed, and it withstood the wheel of time. Today we are bringing you the history of this marvelous art piece and getting you closer to the origins of Christianity in Ireland and the identity of the Gaelic nations. Join us!
Born From the Spirit: The Early Origins of the Book of Kells
When we consider early Christian art and illuminated gospels, there is hardly anyone who has not heard about the famed Book of Kells. Its reputation precedes it, and rightly so, as this is, to date, one of the finest and intricate pieces of illuminated gospels that we know of today. It is also the chief representation of the so called insular art style, and also its culmination.
Insular art refers to the unique form of art that originated on the islands of Ireland and Britain, and its name comes from Latin insula (island). Also known as Hiberno Saxon art, it flourished from 6th to 9th century AD. It is characterized by iconic features of Irish art which is today a chief part of Celtic Christianity, and its main features are truly stunning and complex knotwork interlace designs, La Tène Celtic art elements such as spirals, triskelions, knots, and symbols, Saxon animal motifs, and so on.
All of these elements of insular art are perfectly combined in the Book of Kells, making it a crowning representative of the style.
The exact origin and creation period of the Book of Kells is still largely debated, with several main versions existing. On the basis of the fully developed insular art style that encompasses all the features from the previous centuries, most scholars place the Book of Kells into the 9th century.
Now, the gospel itself is often brought into connection with Saint Columba, as being created by Columban monks, i.e. his followers. Saint Columba (orig. Irish - Colm Cille - “church dove”) died long before the 9th century, in 597 AD. He was an Irish missionary who is credited with successfully spreading Christianity among pagan Gaels and the Picts.
Saint Columba converting King Brude of the Picts to Christianity. (Kim Traynor / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The original, old belief was that the Book of Kells was created during his lifetime, or even by Columba himself. But this tradition is usually dismissed on the basis of the complexity of the art style, which much more realistically belongs in the 9th century.
The other scholarly debate relates to the place of its creation. Most likely it was made on the island of Iona (Scottish: Ì Chaluim Chille ), a small island in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. The island is the site of the historic Iona Abbey and was the very center of Gaelic monasticism and the spread of Christianity for roughly three centuries. This was the place of the followers of Saint Columba, and if the Book of Kells was created there in the 9th century, it would coincide with the arrival of Vikings and the beginning of their raids.
Why is this important? Well, the manuscript is not called the Book of Iona, but the Book of Kells. Kells is a town in County Meath , Ireland, and the place of the Abbey of Kells.
Quite far from Iona, the abbey was created in the late 8th and early 9th centuries and was most likely a refuge for Iona monks who fled from the Viking raiders , bringing the Book of Kells with them. As the manuscript spent the longest period of time in this abbey, it was named the Book of Kells.
In summary, there are currently several proposed theories as to the origins of this manuscript. It is possible that it was created in the 8th century at Lindisfarne, and with the onset of Viking raids, was brought to Iona, and from there to Kells. It could have also been started at Iona and then finished at Kells.
But even at the Abbey of Kells, this magnificent manuscript was not entirely safe. In the 10th century, the place was repeatedly ransacked by Vikings, and at one point the manuscript was stolen. It was recovered later on, but not without loss – the gold and jewel adorned cover was not recovered. Even in that period, the worth and splendor of the manuscript was clear.
In the 1007 AD the Annals of Ulster , the book was named as the chief relic of the Western World . It then successfully survived in Kells and remained there until 1654. To preserve it from Oliver Cromwell’s troops, that arrived at the abbey in that year, the officials sent the book to Dublin, and from there it was given to Dublin’s Trinity College by the Bishop of Meath, in 1661. The Book of Kells remained there ever since.
Manuscript of the Annals of Ulster. (Frukost the Viking / Public Domain )
Spread the Word – Contents of the Manuscript
The Book of Kells consists of 340 sheets of fine vellum, which in turn totals 680 pages. It is comprised of the Four Gospels, and it is written in majuscule insular script, in yellow, red, purple, and black ink. The dimensions are 13 by 8.7 inches (330 by 220 millimeters), but these are the dimensions that resulted in a 19th century rebinding.
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The Book of Kells is written in majuscule insular script, in yellow, red, purple, and black ink. ( Warren Rosenberg / Adobe Stock)
Interestingly, the Book of Kells seems to have never been finished. Several of the illuminations and decorations still remain only as outlines and were never filled and colored.
This ties in with the version that the manuscript’s completion was disturbed with the appearance of Viking raids. Either way, it is clear that this book was accomplished by a skilled team of monks in a scriptorium that was modern for its time, and that it most likely took them several years to accomplish.
It is written on a very fine vellum – aka animal skin or in this case the skin of a calf. It is thought that to produce the full Book of Kells, around 185 animals had to be killed to produce the vellum. Either way the quality is remarkable, although not all the pages are of same thickness – several are so fine that they are almost translucent.
The Book of Kells consists of preliminary writings and the Four Gospels – of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and John. The latter, Gospel of John, is incomplete, and goes only up to John 17:13 (And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves.) The missing parts are generally attributed to the theft of the gold cover pages, which were torn off in the 10th century.
The Book of Kells showing the lavishly decorated text that opens to the Gospel of John. (Dsmdgold / Public Domain )
Of the preliminary writings, there are the Breves Causae (the Summaries of the Gospels), the Eusebian canons, and short biographies of the evangelists. All the writings are based from the Vulgate, a 4th century translation of the Bible into Latin. The Vulgate was completed by Saint Jerome in 384 AD.
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The Book of Kells contains the symbols of the Four Evangelists (Clockwise from top left): a man (Matthew), a lion (Mark), an eagle (John), and an ox (Luke). (Magnus Manske / Public Domain )
As mentioned, there was a team of highly skilled scribes and artists from the abbey that worked on the book. All the big decorations were most likely produced by only three artists. There are subtle differences between each of the three, even though their names are unknown.
There were particular artists who did the major ornamental and interlaced knotwork designs such as the famous Chi Rho page. The stunning attention to detail and the mind dazzling intricacy of the woven lines is really amazing for the time period and is counted among the finest examples of Gaelic Celtic art.
The text was copied by four chief scribes. Slight differences can be observed through detailed studying of the writings, showing characteristic style shifts among the four.
It is observed that a particular scribe tended to repeat passages in order to fill up blank spaces on the page, as well as to use bright colors in the text itself. Another scribe did only the letters, avoiding decorations and leaving them to one of the artists.
Tedious Homework – Errors and Repetitions
An interesting glimpse into the trade network of the period can be seen from the many colors used in the Book of Kells. Most of these pigments had to be imported from abroad, often from quite far away, yet they still found their way to the small islands of Iona, Lindisfarne, and the Hebridean hermitages. The pigments were used for yellow, red, green, indigo, and blue.
Blue was made from woad, which was native to northern Europe, so that wasn’t such a problem to acquire. But the ochre for red and yellow, the verdigris green copper pigment, and lapis lazuli, all had to be imported from the Mediterranean. And in the case of ultramarine (lapis lazuli) it had to be acquired as far as Afghanistan.
Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned - shows the vibrant colors used in the creation of the Book of Kells. (PKM / Public Domain )
One surprising aspect of the Book of Kells is the seeming careless transcription, with numerous mistakes present throughout the manuscript. Granted, copying a manuscript takes a ton of concentration and dedicated effort, so mistakes can happen. Still, such a number of silly mistakes either tells us that the book had a more ceremonial use – not for daily use – or the Gaelic monks weren’t perfect masters of either the Latin language or insular script.
Words were skipped, pages repeated, and transcriptions wrong.
For example, the page 218 is a duplicate. It was clearly reproduced by mistake, but rather than discard it (it was a lot of hard work to produce even a single page) the monks chose to keep it in the book, nonetheless. The only thing that was done was the addition of numerous red crosses and red lines to indicate that the page should be ignored – as it was a mistake.
Also, there are plenty of errors in the text. A notable example is Matthew 10:34 (I came not to send peace, but a sword.) The original phrase in Latin should be: “Non veni pacem mittere, sed gladium.” But the scribe mixed gladium with gaudium, which means joy. Thus, the passage wrongly states: ”I came not to send peace, but joy.”
But in the end, the acceptance of such mistakes by the monks and the order tell us that it was really the aesthetics of the Book of Kells that were praised, rather than the written content itself. With almost all of the population at the time being illiterate, it was of no consequence that a word or two was wrongly written.
It was the grandiose look that had the purpose – to leave a lasting impression on the common folk, and to kindle belief in the hearts of the flock. And with the magnificent illustrations, with the mind boggling intricacy of the details, and the splendor of colors, we can safely assume that every common man of the time would be awestruck upon seeing the Book of Kells.
A Heritage to Last Centuries
Even though it is Christian in purpose and origin, the Book of Kells is still singlehandedly one of the most important insights into Irish and insular Gaelic art and culture. With numerous complex illustrations in this book, one certainly stands out. It is the page 34, with the full page illustration of the Chi Rho . Such an amazing level of detail, so many incredibly complex twists and interlaced designs, an abundance of La Tène Celtic art elements, bold colors, and endless depth, all tell us that the creation of even this single page could have taken many years.
The Book of Kells contains the Chi Rho monogram. Chi and rho are the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek. (Soerfm / Public Domain )
And the whole of the Book of Kells was surely a product of much hard labor, dedication, and tedious transcription that was done by the monks. Those same monks who dedicated their lives to spiritual matters, and who so desperately yearned to secure their place in the imagined afterlife by carefully creating this immortal piece of Gaelic art.
Top image: The Book of Kells. Source: Warren Rosenberg / Adobe Stock.
Carroll, M. Date Unknown. Emblems of Ireland:The Book of Kells . Irish Culture and Customs. [Online] Available at: https://www.irishcultureandcustoms.com/AEmblem/BooKells.html
Helbig, I. 2017. Scientific mistakes and the Book of Kells . Beyond the Ion Channel. [Online] Available at:
Trinity College Dublin. Date Unknown. The Book of Kells . Trinity College Dublin. [Online] Available at:
Trinity College Dublin. Date Unknown. The Book of Kells – Flaws and imperfections . Future Learn. [Online] Available at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/book-of-kells/0/steps/50076