Art That Inspires Me · Celtic and Irish Art · Manuscripts

What’s So Special About the Book of Kells?

Book of Kells, Folio 292r.
The Book of Kells, folio 292r. Irish (probably Iona, Scotland or Kells, Ireland), c. 800 CE. Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

I got some confused questions yesterday while unboxing my deluxe The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012). Questions like: “What is a Kell?” “Can you read Latin?” “Is that book full of strange gods?” I thought that everybody was familiar with the Book of Kells, but I now see that’s not true. I can’t stand for people not to know about this great work of art, so let me explain what the Book of Kells is and why it’s so special. Follow along with Trinity College Library’s complete digital facsimile of the manuscript. I haven’t included many photos here, since the available Public Domain images aren’t of very high quality.

The Book of Kells is a medieval illuminated manuscript handwritten and decorated by Irish monks living in the British Isles around 800 CE. It contains the Latin texts of the four Christian gospels, but that’s actually its least noteworthy feature. Instead, the book is highly valued today as a work of art and a symbol of Irish cultural achievement.

What makes the Book of Kells fascinating to so many people today – Meehan says that more than half a million people come to see it every year – is its incredibly dense and masterful decoration. The Book of Kells contains pages and pages of intricate, colorful artwork. There are several illustrations of stylized human figures, but most of the decoration centers on the letters themselves. For example, a single capital letter might transform into an owl, or the word “et” could become part rabbit. There are whole pages filled with just a few letters so elaborately decorated that they more closely resemble intricately-woven carpets than text in a book. They’re called “carpet pages” for that very reason. Miles of twisted and tangled interlace, which comes from the rich Irish metalworking tradition, mesmerizes the eye almost everywhere. Animal forms such as mice, rabbits, moths, fish, lions, funny little bird heads, and more appear amidst all this interlace.

The decoration is so dense that much of it is essentially hidden from view unless you look long and hard. You could stare at one page forever and still continue to discover new features. This trait makes the Book of Kells seem mysterious, magical, and whimsical. You feel that you can’t ever fully understand its secrets, but what you see makes you happy and light-hearted all the same. The reasons for the profuse decoration in general and the symbolism behind many particular elements are lost on us today, further enhancing the book’s allure. All of this together makes the Book of Kells a strong candidate for the title of World’s Most Famous Book, which it’s frequently claimed to be.

As I said before, the text contained in the Book of Kells isn’t what’s most important. You don’t view the Book of Kells for its verbal content any more than you visit the Roman Colosseum because of the entertainments once performed inside. If your goal is to read the gospels, there are much better books to do it in. Even if you can and want to read them in Latin, you would still turn elsewhere, because all the decoration seriously obscures parts of the text. For example, the page shown at the top of this article reads “In principio erat verbum” (“In the beginning was the word”), but that’s not too obvious, is it? Most pages are more user friendly than this example, but even still, the Book of Kells was probably intended more for presentation than intense reading.

What is highly important, however, is the Book of Kells’s well-deserved status as a symbol of Irish culture. It may have been created in Kells, County Meath, where it was located and named later in the Middle Ages, in a monastery on the Scottish island of Iona, or partially in both places. Regardless, it was definitely made by Irishmen, who populated both monasteries. And it was created during the so-called “Dark Ages”, when Ireland had the skill, resources, or learning to make something so spectacular and the rest of Western Europe didn’t. Therefore, it’s an unparalleled source of pride to the Irish, whose culture (unfairly) isn’t usually given credit for such artistic and intellectual greatness.

The Book of Kells is presently owned by Trinity College Dublin, where it’s displayed in the Old Library. I look forward to one day travelling there to see it for myself. Since it will not be on display for the next few months due to renovations, I’ll have to wait and enjoy all the high-quality, enlarged photographs in Meehan’s book in the meantime. I really hope that some more people will become interested in this gorgeous artwork now that they know what it is and why it’s special.

If one of those people is you, these resources will teach you more.
  • Information about seeing the manuscript in Dublin when it comes back on display in the spring of 2020.
  • Trinity College Library’s complete digital facsimile of the manuscript.
  • The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece. A free, four-week online course produced by Trinity College Dublin and available through FutureLearn. It’s very informative and lots of fun.
  • Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995.
  • de Hamel, Christopher. “The Book of Kells” in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. P. 96-139.
  • Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Kells. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2012.

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