Book of Kells

Book of Kells ChiRho Folio 34 R, Page C 800 AD

Ireland’s Treasured Manuscript

This manuscript’s date or place of production has been the subject of considerable debate, yet it is acknowledged as the most famous illuminated Manuscript from the Medieval era.  It is lavishly Illustrated with Celtic Motifs plus has deep symbolism.

It was possibly produced circa 800 CE partly in Iona, Scotland by St. Columba with his Monks.  It was purported to have been transferred to Kells in Ireland for safekeeping during 809 CE when Viking raids occurred on Iona.  It was stolen from Kells during 1007 CE with the resultant loss of the cover plus some folios.  The Book of Kells was again transferred during the 17th century invasion of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell to Dublin.  The main purpose of the Book was for Liturgical practice commemorating the Four Gospels.  They were six – hundred individual pages of three – hundred folios.  According to Thomas Cahill; ‘The Irish Monks combined the Roman alphabet with their own Ogham script to produce the opening capital letter, the headings or to frame the miniatures.’  Bishop Henry Jones (1605 – 1682 CE), an alumnus of Trinity College, Dublin, donated it to the college’s library during 1661 CE where it remains to this present day.  It has been restored several times i.e. in 1953 Robert Powell was responsible for its rebounding in four separate volumes to help its preservation.  Two of these volumes are on permanent display at Trinity College; one showing a page of text also a page of illustration.  (Joshua J. Mark  30 January 2018)  [i]


The Book of Kells was written on Vellum, (a parchment made from the skin of lambs or calves) it was the most durable material available at that era.  The skin was initially soaked with the hair removed, folded then stretched over a frame with a tool (a lunellum.)  It was left to dry out then cut into sheets.  The size of the skin determined the size or the shape of the eventual manuscript.  The sheets were folded in half prior to the scribe’s work.  First the parchment was smoothed with pumice, the margins were ruled as guidelines.  Instruments used were quills.  [ii]


‘The actual lettering of the Book of Kells is in itself the embodiment of an early Irish School of Calligraphy, which sprang into being in circumstances for which it would be difficult to find a parallel in the history of handwriting in any part of the world.’  The lettering was written with iron gall ink.  Dr. Kelly believed that the early Irish quills were made from geese, swans, crows or other birds feathers.  There were occasional deviations from the standard forms of the Roman half – uncial letters.  There were two forms of ‘S’ used: the round Capitol & the tall half – uncial.  A preference was shown for the Capitol ‘R’.  Three forms of ‘a’ plus ‘b’ & ‘l’ were always bent.  The ‘d’ was penned with both the perpendicular stroke and with the stroke thrown back. (Sir Edward Sullivan)  [iii] The pages of the Books of Kells were put in order, then stacked into an unbound book shape.  Pages were hand sewn to one another.  The whole manuscript was given a protective cover of wood or leather.  [iv]


As many as ten different colours were used in these illuminations, many were rare expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. [v]  The ornamentation of the Book of Kells when broken up into compositions was made of four main divisions: Geometrical combinations ie. Spiral interlacing, Zoomorphic / animal forma, Phyllomorphic or leaf plant forms, Figure representations.  According to Professor Hartley in his published paper on ‘Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society N S Vol 1V 1885: ‘a very careful examination of the work shows that the pigments used were mixed with gum, glue or gelatine laid on somewhat thickly.  There is however a painting of blue over a ground of green.  The black is lamp black or possibly fish – bone black, the bright red is realgar (arsenic disulphide), the yellow is orpiment (arsenic tersulphide) the emerald green madachite, the deep blue is possibly lapis lazuli., the reddish – purple was either a finely ground glass coloured with gold or a preparation obtained from a solution of gold by the action of tin.  Other colours are lilac, pale blue, a neutral green and a tint that resembled burnt sienna.’ (Sir Edward Sullivan)  [vi]

Scholar Guilia Bologna explained the term ‘miniture is derived from mininare, which means to colour in red.’  The artists painted those works were known as miniaturists, later as illuminators.  The Illuminators began with a sheet of vellum, on which text had been written previously.  The section for work was rubbed with clay or isinglass or with ‘a mixture of ox -bile and egg – albumen or else by rubbing the surface with cotton – woo dipped in a diluted glue – and – honey solution.’  Once the surface was prepared, the monk set to work; previously he would have readied his brushes made of the hair of squirrel tails pressed into a handle – as well as his pens or paints.  The illuminator would begin by sketching an image prior to it being traced onto the vellum page.  The first layer of paint of gold or gold leaf would be applied to the image, left to dry then afterwards other colours were applied.  Errors in the image were erased by rubbing them away with chunks of bread. (Joshua J. Mark 30 January 2018)   [vii]   Thirteen of the pages were solely covered with illustrations, whilst the rest contained both text and illustrations.  Many unusual depictions may be seen on pages that tell the story of Christ’s incarnation.  The whole scene was extravagantly decorated with Celtic loops plus spirals but hidden among or between were scenes of cats or mice fighting over food, an otter with a fish, also rows of angels, etc.  There was also a full-page portrait of Christ with an unfinished sketch of what would have been a magnificent crucifixion scene.  In addition to incidental character illuminations, there were entire pages of primarily decorations.  These included: portrait pages, “carpet” pages plus partially decorated pages with just a line or so of text.  The workmanship was so fine that several details may only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass.  [viii]

Scholar Thomas Cahill noted: ‘as late as the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was forced to conclude that the Book of Kells was ‘the work of an angel, not of a man’ owing to its majestic illustrations, in the present day, the letters illustrating the Chi-Rho (the monogram of Christ) are regarded as ‘more [living] presences than letters’ on the page for their beauty.  (Joshua J. Mark  30 January 2018)   [ix]   Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hiberniae (ca. 1185) stated that ‘Here you may see the face of majesty, divinely drawn, here the mystic symbols of the Evangelists. . . . You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man’ (Cirker Blanche)  [x]

Many of the folios of larger sheets called bifolios, were folded in half to form two folios.  The bifolios were nested inside of each other.  These were sewn together to form gatherings called quires, (the measurements of the quantity of paper used.)  On occasions perhaps a folio was not part of a bifolio but was instead a single sheet inserted within a quire.  The extant folios were gathered into thirty – eight quires.  Between four or twelve folios (two to six bifolios) per quire; the folios were commonly bound in groups of ten.  Several folios were single sheets, especially in the case of the important decorated pages.  The folios had lines drawn for the text, sometimes on both sides, after the bifolios were folded.   [xi]

The Manuscript in its present state consists of three hundred – thirty – nine leaves of thick, finely glazed vellum, that measures thirteen by nine & a half inches.  The number of lines of text to a page of the Gospels is in general less than seventeen or not more than nineteen, the space occupied by the writing is ten by seven inches.  [xii]  The Book of Kells is still in remarkably excellent condition today.  It is now three hundred – thirty mm x two – fifty mm.  Each page has sixteen to eighteen lines of text, with three hundred & forty folios. (Thirty pages have been mislaid over the years)  [xiii]


During the 1980’s a facsimile of the Book of Kells as a Project was held between the Fine Art Facsimile Publisher of Switzerland with Trinity College, Dublin.  Faksimile -Verlag Luzern produced more than one thousand – four hundred copies of the first colour reproduction of the manuscript in its entirety.  [xiv]

The World’s most famous Medieval illuminated Manuscript is viewable online at:

Several illuminations may be viewed at this link:

There are a series of seven videos of a Documentary available on this site:

This ‘Book of Kells’ includes an extended introduction plus its historic or linguistic background. Included are high resolution scans of the illustrations. 1920 Sullivan Edward, The Studio London / New York.  It may be seen at this link:

Trinity College’s website is:

The following books pertaining to the subject are;

The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin1995 Meehan Bernard Thames & Hudson

Exploring The Book of Kells’  2015 Simms George Otto,  illustrated by Rooney David / O’Brien Eoin 3rd Edition O’Brien Press.

The Book of Kells: Selected Plates in Full Color’  1982 edited by Cirker Blanche Dover Publishing.

The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience’  (British Library Studies in Medieval Culture) 1998 Farr Carol Ann, University of Toronto, Scholarly Publishing Division.

The Book of Kells and the Art of Illumination2000 Kennedy Brian, Meehan Bernard, Meehan Manion, National Gallery of Australia.  [xv]

A paperback edition of ‘The Book of Kells’ was published during 1920 by Sullivan Sir Edward, Kessinger Publishing London / New York.  [xvi]

A comprehensive explanation of the Book of Kells may be viewed at this link:


[i]  Book of Kells ( [assessed 18th October 2019]

[ii] The Book of Kells ( [assessed 19th 2019]

[iii] The Book of Kells ( [assessed 18th October 2019]

[iv] The Book of Kells ( [assessed 19th 2019]

[v]  The Book of Kells ( [assessed 19th October 2019]

[vi]  The Book of Kells ( [assessed 18th October 2019]

[vii]  Book of Kells ( ) [assessed 18th October 2019]

[viii] The Book of Kells ( [assessed 19th October 2019]

[ix]  Book of Kells ( ) [assessed 18th October 2019]

[x]  The Book of Kells ( [assessed 19th 2019]

[xi]  The Book of Kells Ireland ( ) [assessed 19th October 2019]

[xii]  The Book of Kells ( [assessed 18th October 2019]

[xiii]  The Book of Kells ( [assessed 19th October 2019]

[xiv] The Book of Kells ( ) [assessed 19th October 2019]

[xv]  The Book of Kells ( ) [assessed 19th October 2019]

[xvi]  The Book of Kells ( ) [assessed 19th October 2019]

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