The Book of Kells: A Celtic Masterpiece
In a time when the British Isles were bombarded by raids from the ferocious
Vikings of the Scandinavian Peninsula, many works great works of art were
destroyed. Often, beautiful works were buried underground for safety. However,
many were never uncovered. One amazing work that managed to survive through
these tumultuous times was The Book of Kells. This sacred book has a rich
history in Ireland, which does not begin with the Viking raids, but centuries
In fourth century Ireland, Christianity was seen as a religion of the lower
classes and slaves. The majority of the population, including the aristocracy,
was pagans. It was not until the sixth century that Christianity became
prevalent among the aristocracy. This rise of Christianity in Ireland is partly
due to one of the patron saints of Ireland, Colum Cille, who later became St.
Columba of the Catholic Church.
Colum Cille was born in the year 521, and was destined to be the heir to the
throne of Ireland, for he was blood related to the leaders of the country. But,
he realized that he did not want to be part of the political scene of Ireland.
Instead, he wanted to devote his life to Jesus Christ. Therefore, he fled to the
island of Iona off the western coast of England.
On Iona, there were a few settlements of Irish, and Colum Cille established a
monastery, which became known as the Columban order. His monastery would send
missionaries to the rest of the Isles and to the continent, spreading the word
of Christ to the pagan tribes. It is mostly due to the missionary work of Colum
Cille’s monastery that Christianity became so prevalent in the British Isles.
But, in the ninth century, the island of Iona came under the attacks of the
violent Norsemen, and the monastery was abandoned. Many of the monks were killed
and the settlements plundered. The remaining monks fled back to the mainland and
established a monastery at Kells, in the County of Meath, which eventually
inherited the prestige that Iona had as the center of the Columban order. It was
here that they sought refuge from the Vikings threats.
Finally, in 878, the abbot of Iona, who was always referred to as “the
successor of Colum Cille”, went back to the monastery on Iona to retrieve
the shrine and other valuable items that remained there. Some think that the
book of Kells was one of these “precious objects of Colum Cille” that
were brought back to Kells. Over the next 120 years, Kells fell under the
attacks of the Vikings. The church of the Kells was destroyed and rebuilt
multiple times over this period. How any of the great works that were retrieved
from Iona survived these sackings is still unknown.
The first mention of The Book Of Kells in history was in the monastery
records in 1006, when it was stolen from the Church of Colum Cille in Kells. It
was not referred to as The Book of Kells, though. Instead it was called the
great gospel of Colum Cille, and was considered the most important relic of the
western world. It was also entered in the records that the book was found two
months later, but it had been buried and stripped of its of its gold, jewel
studded cover. After this entry, it is almost as if The Book of Kells had been
forgotten about until 1539, when the monastery was dissoluted.
Upon the dissolution of the monastery, Richard Plunket, the final abbot of
the monastery in Kells, gained ownership of The Book of Kells. Then, it is
believed that The Book of Kells fell into the hands of Geralde Plunket, most
likely a relative of the last abbot. On certain pages, there is writing that is
initialed “GP” and it gives the number of pages that were present,
upon his receiving of The Book of Kells. But, a lot of information is not known
about Geralde Plunket, and his ownership of The Book of Kells sometimes
contested. Originally, art historians and paleographers thought that James
Ussher, one of the earliest students of Trinity College and eventual Vice
Chancellor of the University of Dublin, Bishop of Meath, and Archbishop of
Armagh, had The Book of Kells in his possession, and passed it on to the Trinity
College Library, when he died. But, further evidence proved that James Ussher
never had The Book of Kells in his possession. Finally, William O’Sullivan, the
keeper of the manuscripts in the Trinity College Library, solved the mystery of
how The Book of Kells ended up at the Trinity College Library. His clues were
from the letters of Henry Jones, the donator of The Book of Durrow, and William
Pallister, a great benefactor to the library. From these letters, O’Sullivan was
able to determine that, like The Book of Durrow, Henry Jones donated The Book of
The place and date of creation of The Book of Kells is something that is
still under debate, today. This is due to the fact that The Book of Kells is
missing its colophon. If this colophon or final page was present it may have
answered a lot of the questions that are being debating. It may have included a
date or clue as to when the work was considered complete, a list of authors, and
possibly a list of artists.
Franoise Henry, an art scholar who has done extensive studies on The Book
of Kells, gives five possible explanations of the history of The Book of Kells
that art historians have been debating for years. Her first explanation states
that the monks of Iona wrote the text, and then brought the incomplete work to
Kells, where the artwork was worked on, but never actually completed. The second
possibility is that the work was begun in Iona and then completed in Kells. The
next possible explanation is that the work was done completely in Kells. Her
fourth possibility is that The Book of Kells was written in Northern England
(possibly Lindisfairne) and then brought to Iona and then Kells or even went
straight to Kells. The final possibility that Henry gives is that The Book of
Kells was a product of a Scottish monastery and somehow found its way to Kells
over the years. Henry seems to believe that one of the Iona to Kells hypotheses
fits best based on the on the features of the book. She says that the decoration
of the book is very similar to a lot of the metal work that was found in these
areas. She dates the end of work on The Book of Kells somewhere between the end
of the eighth century to the early ninth century, but monks could have begun
working on it one or two centuries beforehand.
Sir Edward Sullivan, another scholar of The Book of Kells, disagrees with
Henry’s ideas on the date of The Book of Kells. He feels that work on The Book
of Kells most likely ended somewhere towards the end of the ninth century. At
the beginning of the tenth century, the great Celtic art that existed
deteriorated quickly. Many works dated around this time are unfinished. Sullivan
believes that they were left unfinished because the owners of the book did not
want an inferior artist to finish the decoration that had been started by the
amazing artists who had come before them. He also states that paleographers,
which have studied the text of The Book of Kells, have come to a similar
conclusion. Based on the method of contraction of some of the words that are
found throughout the text compared to contractions found in literary works that
have definitively dated, they strongly suggest a late ninth century for the date
of the end of work on The Book of Kells.
For many centuries, the people of Ireland and the rest of the world believed
that The Book of Kells was the work of St. Columba, himself. But, later evidence
proved that this theory was untrue. The scribes of The Book of Kells are
unknown, but it is assumed to be monks of the Columban order during the eighth
and ninth centuries. Also, the names of the artists who did the marvelous
decoration of The Book of Kells are unknown, but there is some speculation as to
who the artists were. First of all, it must be said that the artists and scribes
were not the same people. Most likely, artists did the artwork after the
manuscript had been written.
Many scholars believe that there were most likely two main artists who
decorated The Book of Kells. It is thought that the artists were experts in many
types of art such as book illustration, metal work, stone carving, and possibly
even mural painting. One artist was possibly responsible for works such as the
Chi-Rho monogram, the eight circled cross, and the portrait of Mark. The other
artist was responsible much of the other illuminations of the manuscript such as
the portraits of the other gospel writers. Many believe that cultures that are
located much further east than the British Isles, for example the Egyptian and
Carolingian influenced these artists. But, how would the artists know about the
styles and iconography of these other cultures? It is suggested that the artists
possibly visited the European continent and traveled as far as Egypt, from where
they would have gotten the cross-armed Osiris (Egyptian god of the dead) pose
which is seen in some illustrations of Christ.
The Book of Kells originally contained 370 folios, which is 740 individual
pages. Over the years, most likely due to the Viking raids and its theft from
the stone church of Kells in 1006, many pages have been lost. Today, as it is
displayed in the Trinity College Library, it contains 340 folios or 680 pages.
Its original dimensions were most likely 37 cm X 26 cm on glazed calf vellum.
Today, it only measures 33 cm X 24 cm. It has been rebound many times over the
centuries, and in the nineteenth century, a bookbinder trimmed some the pages
almost an inch on each side, losing some of the artwork forever. In 1953, it was
rebound, hopefully for the last time, into four volumes, which roughly
correspond to four Gospels. Many scholars believe that one of the reasons it
survived through the centuries is that it was not meant for everyday use or
study, but as a piece of sacred art that could appear on the altar for special
Many art scholars have called The Book of Kells the greatest of Celtic
manuscript illumination and possibly the greatest piece of Celtic art.
Historians have said that the marvel of The Book of Kells lies in the several
motifs that are indicative of Celtic art coming together in such quantity and
complexity to create one large masterpiece. The motifs that The Book of Kells
contains are geometrical designs, and natural forms designs, for example animals
and humans. These motifs appear in other Insular Manuscripts such as
Lindisfairne Gospels and The Book of Durrow, but not even close to the extent of
The Book of Kells. There is no better example from The Book of Kells that
portrays these words of art historians better than the Chi-Rho monogram page.
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, following the Book of Generation,
which gives the genealogy of Jesus Christ, there is a highly decorated which
contains a large X, a smaller P, and a smaller I. This page has become known as
the Chi-Rho monogram page. The letters XPI are the Greek abbreviation for the
word “Christi” or Christ. This page occurs in many other Insular
Manuscripts, but they cannot compare to the intricate decoration of The Book of
Throughout The Book of Kells, there are very few names that are abbreviated.
Only, extremely sacred names are abbreviated and it is thought that this was a
method for emphasizing the sacredness of these people. Also, said to be the
second beginning in the Gospel of Matthew. The first beginning is the genealogy
of Jesus Christ. This monogram page serves as the second beginning, which is the
birth of Jesus Christ. Purple outlines the XPI, and is also a major color in the
rest of the designs found on the page. This color refers to the royalty of Jesus
Christ as king of the Heaven. Purple has been a sign of royalty, since the days
of the Roman Empire, when only the emperor could wear or afford purple clothing.
On the inside of the letters, there are very intricate lacertine patterns, which
are either humans or animals involved in a complex pattern of knots, and
interlace patterns, which are much like lacertine except they are only geometric
and do not contain humans or animals. In the center of the X, where it creates a
rhombic shape, there is some of the most masterful lacertine of the whole page.
There is an intense maze of knots, and intertwined in the knots are four men.
Otto-Karl Werckmeister has interpreted these figures to represent the mundus
tetragonus, in which four men are placed at each corner of the Earth. Therefore,
by placing the mundus tetragonus inside the X, it symbolizes Christ as being the
creator of the world. Also, in the center of the X, there are four groups of
sixteen small diamonds. In each diamond, there is a picture of a key possibly
symbolizing the key to salvation is Jesus Christ.
The background of the page contains a multitude of trumpet, spiral, lacertine,
and interlace patterns. The spirals consist of small and large; some connected
by peltas, and of course, the triskeles that are so prevalent in Celtic Art. All
of the spirals remain in close contact with the letters in an extremely tight
coiling. The larger spirals have four spiral lines between the outlines, while
the smaller ones have two or three lines in between the outlines. Compared to
the other Insular Manuscripts, the Chi-Rho page has a large variety of sizes of
spirals, which all seem to be measured and placed perfectly in a strategic
manner. Not only does the background of the page contain some of the most
complex spiral patterns of all Celtic Art, but it also contains animal and human
forms whose meanings have been interpreted by many art historians.
In the lower section of the page, there are two pictures, which contain
animals. Also, on the left of the X, there are three figures, which have been
identified as angels, and above them are two moths. The animals must have had
some significance because they were placed on such a prestigious page. Most
likely, the representations were very significant to the original viewers but
the meanings were lost over time, and now, the only thing that anyone is able to
do is speculate. Some of the simpler interpretations that have been given are
the animals being all of God’s creatures, or all of the animals giving praise to
the creator. But, many other art historians, including Franoise Henry, Sir
Edward Sullivan, and Otto-Karl Werckmeister have their own interpretations of
these representations. Some art historians see these representations as having
separate meanings, while others see these representations all coming together to
create a bigger picture.
Two of the angels that are on the left side of the X are configured so that
they are facing each other. They are both holding both holding books in one hand
and scepters that seem to blossom at the end. Only one wing is present on each
angel but it is in an undulating wave pattern, which makes it very decorative.
The two angels face each other as if they are floating much like two angels that
are depicted in an earlier page of the manuscript holding a medallion. The third
angel is holding two trefoil scepters and is not as close together as the other
two. The scepters are masterfully woven through the wings of the angel. It seems
as though there is a significance of the number three in this part of the work.
The viewer sees three angels and one of the angels is holding two scepters,
which come to three points. The most likely conclusion to which one would come
is that it represents the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But,
I assume that it is still somewhat early in the Christian history and the
trinity has not yet been established.
Towards the bottom of the page, two large cats are seen along with four
smaller animals, two of which are holding a white disc in their mouths. G.O.
Simms interprets this as cats watching four mice nibble on the Eucharist. He
states that this scene was perhaps an incident that occurred at some point in
the monastery where the artwork was done. Sullivan has interprets this picture
similar to Simms, but he gives it some deeper Christological meaning. Like
Simms, he states that the figures were rats eating some kind of bread, most
likely the Eucharist. He adds to this interpretation the possible allusion to
unworthy receivers of the Eucharist (mice), and the fate that awaits them
(cats). Finally, Sally Mussetter, another art historian, sees the cats as the
devil, who is waiting for the human sinners (mice), but the communion is
redeeming the mice.
Under the P and I, there is a small black animal with a fish in its mouth.
This animal has been identified as an otter. The symbol of the otter is very old
in Irish myth. It began with the story of the recluse monk who used to receive a
fish a day from a friendly otter. Most believe that the significance of the
otter lies in that story. Also, in the top left swirl of the X, two moths are
situated head-to-head, with a diamond shape in their mouths.
Otto-Karl Werckmeister uses all these animal figures to support his mundus
tetragonus hypothesis. He sees these animals representing the three elements of
the world of which Jesus Christ is the creator. Air is represented by the moths;
earth by the cats; and, water by the otter.
Suzanne Lewis sees the bread that the animals are nibbling as the Eucharist.
Also, she interprets the fish that is in the otter’s mouth as the sign of
Christ, which has been so since the dawn of Christianity. Finally, she states
that the moths are representative of death and resurrection. Therefore, the
beginning of the Gospel of Mark, which contains the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the entire Christ event is present on this on page.
Henry uses these images to create a bigger picture but also, she refutes the
interpretation of many art historians who have come before her. Like Sir Edward
Sullivan, many other historians give the interpretation that the cats are
watching mice nibbling on the host or Eucharist. But, Henry says that the
smaller figures are not mice but kittens. She draws this conclusion based on the
fact that the larger cats are holding the smaller ones by the tails, much like a
mother cat would hold and keep track of her kittens. Also, she calls the diamond
shape in the mouths of the moths a lozenge. This lozenge is a symbol of the
Virgin Mary, and she is actually depicted wearing a lozenge shaped brooch
earlier in the manuscript. Finally, like Suzanne Lewis, she interprets the fish
in the mouth of the otter to be a symbol for Christ. With all symbols coming
together on this page, she interprets them as faithful Christians partaking in
As one can clearly see The Book of Kells is truly a masterpiece. It combines
some of the greatest Celtic art of the period, with one of the greatest pieces
of literature in the whole world. As mentioned earlier, it combines all the
typical motifs of the Celtic art and bring them all together in one work, and in
the case of the Chi-Rho monogram page, all these motifs are scene on one page.
But, it is not just the fact that all these motifs appear together, but the
quality, complexity, and quantity in which they appear. I will leave you with a
quote from Sir Edward Sullivan, which I hope will convey the concept of how
mind-blowing the artwork of The Book of Kells is. ” The finest draftsmen of
the entire world have tried to recreate the Chi-Rho page, and have failed.”
It takes an indescribable artist working in the middle ages to create something
that some one in today’s modern world could not recreate.
Category: Book Reports