The book of Kells (c. 800 CE) is an illuminated manuscript the the four gospels the the Christian brand-new Testament, at this time housed in ~ Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. The work is the most renowned of the middle ages illuminated manuscripts for the intricacy, detail, and majesty of the illustrations. It is assumed the publication was created as a showpiece for the altar, not for day-to-day use, because an ext attention to be obviously given to the artwork than the text.

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The beauty of the lettering, portraits of the evangelists, and also other images, regularly framed by intricate Celtic knotwork motifs, has actually been praised through writers with the centuries. Scholar thomas Cahill notes that, “as late together the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was compelled to conclude that the book of Kells to be “the work-related of an angel, no of a man” fan to that majestic illustrations and that, in the current day, the letters depicting the Chi-Rho (the monogram of Christ) are concerned as “more presences than letters” ~ above the web page for their beauty (165). Unlike other illuminated manuscripts, where text was written and illustration and also illumination included afterwards, the creators the the book of Kells concentrated on the impression the work-related would have visually and so the artwork was the emphasis of the piece.

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Origin & Purpose

The publication of Kells was produced by monks the St. Columba"s order of Iona, Scotland, however exactly whereby it was made is disputed. Theories concerning composition variety from its development on the island of Iona come Kells, Ireland, to Lindisfarne, Britain. It to be most likely created, at the very least in part, in ~ Iona and then carried to Kells to keep it safe from Viking raiders who an initial struck Iona in 795 CE, soon after your raid on Lindisfarne Priory in Britain.

A Viking raid in 806 CE eliminated 68 monks at Iona and led to the survivors abandoning the abbey in donate of an additional or your order in ~ Kells. It is likely that the publication of Kells traveled v them at this time and may have been perfect in Ireland. The oft-repeated claim that it was made or very first owned by St. Columba (521-597 CE) is untenable together the book was created no earlier than c. 800 CE; yet there is no doubt the was developed by later members of his order.

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The job-related is typically regarded together the best illuminated manuscript of any kind of era fan to the beauty of the artwork and this, no doubt, had to perform with the objective it to be made for. Scholars have concluded that the publication was created for use throughout the solemn event of the mass however most most likely was not review from so much as presented to the congregation.

This concept is sustained by the fact that the message is often carelessly written, has a number of errors, and also at points certainly seems an afterthought to the illustrations top top the page. The clergymans who would have used the publication most likely already had the biblical passages memorized and so would certainly recite lock while holding the book, having actually no have to read from the text.

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Scholar Christopher de Hamel note how, in the current day, “books are an extremely visible in churches” however that in the Middle ages this would not have been the case (186). De Hamel explains the rough synopsis of a middle ages church service:

There were no pews (people generally stood or satellite on the floor), and there would certainly probably have been no books on view. The priest read the massive in Latin native a manuscript placed on the altar and the choir chanted their component of the day-to-day office native a volume visible just to them. Members that the congregation to be not expected to sign up with in the singing; some might have lugged their books of hours to assist ease themselves into a suitable frame the mind, but the services were carried out by the priests. (186)

The book of Kells is assumed to have been the manuscript ~ above the altar which may have been first used in solutions on Iona and also then certainly was at the abbey of Kells. The brightly-colored illustrations and illumination would have made that an exceptionally outstanding piece to a congregation, adding a visual emphasis to the indigenous the monk recited while being shown to the people; much in the way one now would check out a snapshot book come a tiny child.

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Appearance & Content

The publication measures 13x10 inches (33x25 cm) and also is make of vellum pages decorated in painted images which space accompanied by Latin message written in insular manuscript in miscellaneous colors of ink. It consists of the finish gospels of Matthew, Mark, and also Luke, and part of John and indexes and also cross-references, summaries, and also commentary. It was originally bound by a sheathe of gold and also jewels i beg your pardon was lost when the manuscript was stolen from the abbey in 1007 CE. The ornate binding, front and also back, was torn off by the thieves, which also resulted in the lose of few of the folios at one of two people end, and this may have actually been when the latter component of the Gospel of john was lost.


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

It is additionally possible, however, that John may never have been completely copied. There is evidence that the publication of Kells is an unfinished manuscript. Over there are empty pages, for example, and some absent illustrations; although this may have been lost rather than never completed. The occupational was done by three separate anonymous scribes who are established in the current day just as Hand A, Hand B, and also Hand C. That was typical for much more than one scribe to occupational on a manuscript – even on a single page of a publication – to proofread and correct another"s errors or come illuminate a text already copied.


Monks produced illuminated manuscripts between the 5th and 13th century CE. After ~ the 13th century CE, experienced book-makers emerged to satisfy the farming demand because that literary works. It to be a natural outgrowth of the monastic life that monks have to be the first copyists and creators the books. Every monastery was forced to have actually a library as dictated by the rule of St. Benedict the the sixth century CE. Even though it is clean that some monks landed on these places with their very own books, it is equally noticeable that plenty of others were borrowed from elsewhere and also copied.

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Monks who worked on books were recognized as scriptores and also worked in rooms called scriptoriums. The scriptorium to be a lengthy room, lit just by the light from the windows, with wooden chairs and writing tables. A monk would certainly sit hunched end these tables, which angled upwards to organize manuscript pages, day after work to finish a work. Candles or oil lamps to be not allowed in the scriptorium to maintain the safety and security of the manuscripts as fire to be an apparent and significant threat.

Monks were affiliated in every aspect of book-making indigenous the growing of the pets whose skin would certainly be offered for the pages, to handling that skin right into vellum, and on more to the finished product. Once the vellum was processed, a monk would begin by cutting down a sheet to size. This exercise would specify the form of books from the time under to the present day; publications are longer than castle are large 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 because that text and blank spaces left open up on the sides and borders for illustrations. The message was written very first in black ink between these ruled lines through one monk and also then would certainly be offered to an additional to proofread. This 2nd monk would certainly then include titles in blue or red ink and then happen the page on to the illuminator that would add images, color, and the silver or yellow illumination. Monks wrote with quill pens and boiled iron, tree bark, and nuts to make black color ink; other ink colour were developed by grinding and also boiling different natural chemicals and also plants.

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

The hatchet miniature is derived from miniare, which method `to colour in red"; minium is the latin name for cinnabar or mercuric sulphide. This red, offered in wall-paintings at Pompeii, was placed to usual use colouring the initials of early codices, therefore its name ended up being the term used to indicate pictures in manuscript books. (31)

The artists that painted these functions were well-known as miniaturists yet later together illuminators. The illuminator would start with a sheet of vellum on i beg your pardon text had actually usually currently been written. The section of the web page to be operated on would be rubbed through the monk v clay or isinglass or v "a mixture of ox-bile and also egg-albumen or by rubbing the surface ar with cotton-wool dipped in a diluted glue-and-honey solution" (Bologna, 32). When the surface was prepared, the monk readied his brushes - which were made the the hair that squirrel tails pressed into a take care of - as well as his pens and paints and collection to work. Errors in the picture were erased by rubbing lock away through chunks the bread.


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

According to Bologna, "we find out of the methods of illumination from two sources: native uncompleted manuscripts that enable us to watch the interrupted stages of the work and from the direction compiled by medieval authors" (32). The illuminator would start by sketching picture and climate tracing the onto the vellum page. The first layer of repaint would be used to the image and then left come dry; afterwards, other colors to be applied. Yellow or gold sheet was the first on the page to administer the illumination highlighted by the colors which followed. In this way, the great Book the Kells to be produced.


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

The book of Kells is a problem. No examine of manuscripts deserve to exclude it, a giant among giants. Its decorate is of too much lavishness and also the imaginative quality of that is workmanship is fairly exceptional. That was most likely this book which Giraldus Cambrensis, in about 1185, called “the work-related of one angel, no of a man”. Yet in the general background of medieval publication production the book of Kells has an uncomfortable position due to the fact that really very tiny is known about its origin or date. It may be ireland or Scottish or English. (21)

However that may be, many scholars agree on one of two people a Scottish or Irish origin for the occupational and, because the monks the Iona were initially from Ireland, Irish influence is considered most prominent. The publication of Durrow (650-700 CE), absolutely created in Ireland and predating the publication of Kells by an ext than century, shows many of the exact same techniques and stylistic choices. Thomas Cahill, writing on the development of literacy and also book-making in Ireland, comments:

Nothing brought out irish playfulness much more than the copy of the books themselves…they discovered the forms of letter magical. Why, lock asked themselves, did a B look at the way it did? might it look some various other way? to be there an important B-ness? The an outcome of together why-is-the-sky-blue questions was a new kind the book, the irish codex; and one after another, Ireland started to produce the most spectacular magical publications the people had ever before seen. (165)

Cahill walk on come note just how the irish monks linked the letters of the roman inn alphabet v their very own Ogham script and whatever fancies their creativity leaned castle to develop the opening funding letters ~ above the page, the headings, and also the borders which framed the miniatures. Wherever the book of Kells was started or finished, the ireland touch is unmistakable throughout the work.

As noted, it many likely involved Kells indigenous Iona in 806 CE complying with the worst that the Viking raids top top the island and also is well-known to have been steal in 1007 CE when its cover was lost; the text itself was uncovered discarded. That is taken into consideration most most likely the same publication Giraldus Cambrensis for this reason admired at Kildare in the 12th century CE but, if that is correct about this location, the was earlier at the abbey of Kells in the very same century together land charters pertaining to the abbey were written on several of the pages.


It stayed at the abbey till the 17th century CE once Oliver Cromwell got into Ireland (1649-1643 CE) and also stationed a part of his force at Kells; at this time the manuscript was brought to Dublin because that safe-keeping. That came right into the hands of the bishop Henry Jones (1605-1682 CE), one alumnus the Trinity College, and also Jones donated it to the college"s library in 1661 CE together with the book of Durrow. The manuscript has actually been housed at the Trinity library ever before since. In 1953 CE the book was fag in four separate volumes to aid preserve it. Two of this volumes are on permanent display at Trinity College; one showing a web page of text and also the other a page of illustration.

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In 2011 CE the town of Kells an installed a petition to have actually at least one the these volumes returned. Arguing that they room the original owners the the manuscript, and citing the over 500,000 travellers who concerned Trinity yearly to view the work, the town insurance claims that they worthy to re-publishing in several of the services of tourism the Trinity has took pleasure in so long.

The inquiry was denied, however, citing the delicate nature the the manuscript and the i can not qualify of Kells to treatment for it as well as Trinity College. Facsimiles have actually been make of the publication of Kells for scholars, art historians, and other areas of study but the manuscript chin is no longer loaned or permitted to be handled. The work remains at Trinity where it is shown in an exhibition featuring added information on the most renowned of the illuminated manuscripts.