The book of Kells (c. 800 CE) is one illuminated manuscript of the four gospels the the Christian new Testament, currently housed at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. The job-related is the most famed of the middle ages illuminated manuscripts because that the intricacy, detail, and majesty the the illustrations. The is assumed the publication was created as a showpiece because that the altar, not for everyday use, because more attention was obviously provided to the artwork than the text.

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The beauty beauty of the lettering, portraits the the evangelists, and also other images, frequently framed by complex Celtic knotwork motifs, has actually been praised by writers with the centuries. Scholar cutting board Cahill note that, “as late as the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was compelled to conclude that the publication of Kells was “the work-related of an angel, not of a man” owing to that majestic illustrations and also that, in the current day, the letters depicting the Chi-Rho (the monogram the Christ) are concerned as “more presences than letters” top top the page for their beauty (165). Unlike various other illuminated manuscripts, where message was written and also illustration and also illumination added afterwards, the creators the the publication of Kells concentrated on the impression the work-related would have visually and so the artwork to be the focus of the piece.

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Origin & Purpose

The publication of Kells was created by monks that St. Columba"s bespeak of Iona, Scotland, yet exactly wherein it to be made is disputed. Theories concerning composition selection from its production on the island the Iona come Kells, Ireland, come Lindisfarne, Britain. It to be most most likely created, at least in part, at Iona and also then lugged to Kells to store it safe from Viking raiders who an initial struck Iona in 795 CE, quickly after their raid on Lindisfarne Priory in Britain.

A Viking raid in 806 CE killed 68 monks in ~ Iona and also led come the survivors abandoning the abbey in favor of an additional or their order at Kells. The is most likely that the publication of Kells traveled through them at this time and may have been completed in Ireland. The oft-repeated case that it to be made or very first owned through St. Columba (521-597 CE) is untenable together the book was developed no earlier than c. 800 CE; however there is no doubt that was created by later on members of his order.

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The job-related is generally regarded together the greatest illuminated manuscript of any type of era owing to the beauty of the artwork and also this, no doubt, had actually to perform with the function it was made for. Scholars have concluded that the book was produced for use during the celebration event of the mass yet most most likely was not check out from so lot as presented to the congregation.

This concept is supported by the reality that the text is often carelessly written, has a number of errors, and at points absolutely seems one afterthought come the illustrations on the page. The priests who would have used the book most likely currently had the biblical passages memorized and so would recite lock while hold the book, having actually no have to read native the text.

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Scholar Christopher de Hamel note how, in the existing day, “books are really visible in churches” yet that in the Middle eras this would certainly not have actually been the instance (186). De Hamel describes the rough outline of a middle ages church service:

There to be no pews (people usually stood or satellite on the floor), and there would probably have actually been no publications on view. The priest check out the fixed in Latin from a manuscript inserted on the altar and the choir chanted their part of the day-to-day office indigenous a volume visible just to them. Members of the congregation were not intended to join in the singing; some might have carried their publications of hrs to assist ease themselves right into a suitable frame the mind, yet the solutions were conducted by the priests. (186)

The publication of Kells is assumed to have actually been the manuscript ~ above the altar i beg your pardon may have been an initial used in services on Iona and also then certainly was at the abbey that Kells. The brightly-colored illustrations and also illumination would have actually made it an exceptionally superior piece come a congregation, including a visual focus to the indigenous the priest recited if being displayed to the people; lot in the means one this day would read a photo book to a small child.

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Appearance & Content

The publication measures 13x10 customs (33x25 cm) and is made of vellum pages decorated in painted pictures which space accompanied by Latin message written in insular script in various colors the ink. It has the finish gospels the Matthew, Mark, and also Luke, and part of John as well as indexes and also cross-references, summaries, and commentary. The was initially bound by a cover of gold and also jewels i beg your pardon was shed when the manuscript to be stolen indigenous the abbey in 1007 CE. The ornate binding, front and also back, was torn off by the thieves, which additionally resulted in the ns of several of the folios at one of two people end, and this may have actually been once the latter component of the Gospel of man was lost.


Book of Kells, Folio 292r
Larry Koester (CC BY)

It is additionally possible, however, the John may never have actually been totally copied. There is proof that the publication of Kells is an loose manuscript. There are blank pages, for example, and also some lacking illustrations; although this may have actually been lost rather than never completed. The occupational was excellent by three different anonymous scribes that are figured out in the existing day just as Hand A, Hand B, and Hand C. The was usual for an ext than one scribe to work on a manuscript – also on a solitary page of a publication – come proofread and correct another"s errors or come illuminate a text currently copied.


Monks created illuminated manuscripts in between the 5th and 13th centuries CE. After the 13th century CE, expert book-makers arised to meet the cultivation demand because that literary works. It was a organic outgrowth the the monastic life that monks must be the very first copyists and also creators the books. Each monastery was compelled to have a library as dictated through the rule of St. Benedict that the sixth century CE. Even though the is clear that part monks arrived on these places with their own books, that is equally noticeable that numerous others were obtained from elsewhere and copied.

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Monks who functioned on books were recognized as scriptores and worked in rooms called scriptoriums. The scriptorium was a lengthy room, lit just by the light from the windows, v wooden chairs and also writing tables. A monk would sit hunched end these tables, i m sorry angled upwards to organize manuscript pages, work after day to finish a work. Candle or oil lamps to be not enabled in the scriptorium to keep the security of the manuscripts together fire to be an obvious and far-ranging threat.

Monks were involved in every element of book-making native the growing of the animals whose skin would be offered for the pages, to handling that skin right into vellum, and also on additional to the finished product. When the vellum was processed, a monk would begin by cutting under a paper to size. This practice would define the shape of publications from the time under to the existing day; books are longer than castle are vast because the monks needed a taller page to job-related on.

Once the vellum sheet to be prepared, lines would certainly be drawn throughout it to serve as rules for text and blank spaces left open on the sides and borders because that illustrations. The message was written first in black ink between these rule lines by one monk and also then would certainly be provided to another to proofread. This second monk would then add titles in blue or red ink and also then happen the web page on come the illuminator that would include images, color, and the silver or yellow illumination. Monks wrote through quill pens and boiled iron, tree bark, and also nuts to make black ink; other ink colour were created by grinding and boiling different natural chemicals and also plants.

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The images in the publication of Kells (and various other illuminated manuscripts) are referred to as miniatures. Scholar Giulia Bologna explains:

The hatchet miniature is derived from miniare, which means `to colour in red"; minium is the latin surname for cinnabar or mercuric sulphide. This red, offered in wall-paintings at Pompeii, was put to common use colouring the initials of early codices, for this reason its name came to be the term supplied to indicate pictures in manuscript books. (31)

The artists that painted these works were recognized as miniaturists however later as illuminators. The illuminator would start with a sheet of vellum on which text had usually already been written. The ar of the page to be functioned on would be rubbed by the monk through clay or isinglass or with "a mixture the ox-bile and egg-albumen or by rubbing the surface with cotton-wool dipped in a diluted glue-and-honey solution" (Bologna, 32). Once the surface ar was prepared, the monk readied his pen - which to be made of the hair of squirrel tails pressed right into a manage - and also his pens and also paints and set to work. Errors in the image were erased by rubbing them away v chunks the bread.


Book that Kells, Folio 5
Larry Koester (CC BY)

According come Bologna, "we discover of the methods of illumination from two sources: indigenous uncompleted manuscripts that permit us to watch the interrupted step of the work and from the direction compiled by medieval authors" (32). The illuminator would begin by sketching picture and then tracing that onto the vellum page. The an initial layer of paint would be used to the image and then left come dry; afterwards, other colors to be applied. Gold or gold leaf was the very first on the web page to carry out the illumination highlighted by the colors i m sorry followed. In this way, the great Book the Kells was produced.


Although the is clear how the manuscript was probably made, no consensus has ever been got to on wherein it to be created. Christopher de Hamel writes:

The book of Kells is a problem. No examine of manuscripts have the right to exclude it, a giant among giants. Its decorate is of excessive lavishness and also the imaginative quality of its workmanship is quite exceptional. It was probably this book which Giraldus Cambrensis, in about 1185, dubbed “the work of one angel, no of a man”. However in the general background of medieval publication production the publication of Kells has actually an uncomfortable position because really very little is known about its beginning or date. It may be irish or Scottish or English. (21)

However that might be, many scholars agree on one of two people a Scottish or Irish origin for the work and, since the monks the Iona were originally from Ireland, Irish affect is thought about most prominent. The book of Durrow (650-700 CE), absolutely created in Ireland and also predating the book of Kells by an ext than century, shows numerous of the same techniques and stylistic choices. Cutting board Cahill, composing on the advancement of literacy and book-making in Ireland, comments:

Nothing carried out irish playfulness more than the copying of the books themselves…they discovered the forms of letters magical. Why, castle asked themselves, go a B look at the means it did? could it look some other way? to be there critical B-ness? The an outcome of together why-is-the-sky-blue inquiries was a new kind the book, the ireland codex; and also one after ~ another, Ireland started to create the most spectacular magical publications the civilization had ever before seen. (165)

Cahill goes on come note exactly how the ireland monks an unified the letter of the roman alphabet v their own Ogham script and also whatever fancies their creative thinking leaned castle to produce the opening capital letters ~ above the page, the headings, and the boundaries which framed the miniatures. Where the publication of Kells was began or finished, the ireland touch is unmistakable throughout the work.

As noted, it most likely involved Kells native Iona in 806 CE following the worst of the Viking raids top top the island and is known to have actually been steal in 1007 CE as soon as its cover to be lost; the text itself was uncovered discarded. That is thought about most likely the same publication Giraldus Cambrensis so admired at Kildare in the 12th century CE but, if that is correct around this location, that was back at the abbey the Kells in the exact same century together land charters pertaining to the abbey were written on few of the pages.


It continued to be at the abbey until the 17th century CE when Oliver Cromwell got into Ireland (1649-1643 CE) and also stationed a part of his pressure at Kells; right now the manuscript was lugged to Dublin because that safe-keeping. The came into the hands of the bishop Henry Jones (1605-1682 CE), an alumnus that Trinity College, and also Jones donated it come the college"s library in 1661 CE in addition to the book of Durrow. The manuscript has been housed at the Trinity library ever before since. In 1953 CE the book was fag in four separate quantities to assist preserve it. 2 of this volumes space on permanent screen at Trinity College; one mirroring a page of text and the other a page of illustration.

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In 2011 CE the city of Kells mounted a petition to have at least one of these quantities returned. Suggesting that they are the original owners that the manuscript, and citing the end 500,000 tourists who involved Trinity each year to view the work, the town claims that they worthy to share in several of the benefits of tourism the Trinity has appreciated so long.

The request was denied, however, citing the breakable nature the the manuscript and the inability of Kells to care for it and Trinity College. Facsimiles have actually been made of the publication of Kells because that scholars, art historians, and other fields of study yet the manuscript itself is no much longer loaned or allowed to be handled. The work-related remains at Trinity wherein it is displayed in an exhibit featuring extr information on the most well known of the illuminated manuscripts.