The Book of Kells by R.A. Macavoy

The Book of Kells by R.A. Macavoy

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript from the eighth century. It is currently located at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The images and icons in this book of gospels are Christian; however, the style of the work is pre-Christian in origin. Since the illustrations show both Irish and Germanic influences, they are referred to as Hiberno-Saxon art. The Book of Kells is called an insular manuscript, because its script is in a style known as “Insular majuscule,” a style that was common at that time in Ireland (Meehan 9). The Book of Kells represents a high point in the development of Hiberno-Saxon illumination. In the words of the art historian Carl Nordenfalk, the manuscript is a work of “exquisite perfection” (118). This paper will discuss the Book of Kells in an effort to examine its artistic and historic contribution.

In the sixth century, the Christian Church began spreading its influence by establishing monasteries throughout Europe. The people of Ireland had begun converting to Christianity, as early as the fifth century, and by the seventh century, the nation had become an integral part of the Church’s international monastic system. The monks of the Irish monasteries took religious texts and decorated them, thereby creating what are today known as illuminated manuscripts. The ornamentation of these texts included large, ornate initial letters, interlace patterns, human, animal and religious figures, and various symbolic and iconographic motifs. There were many Irish illuminated books of this period; however, the Book of Kells was the most magnificent of all (Meehan 9-10).

The Book of Kells, is a Latin version of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Book of Kells, was quite large and was usually placed at the altar (NGA 2000). Although the Book of Kells is Christian in theme and principle, its illuminated decorations illustrate a pagan origin. The Irish monks who produced the illuminated manuscripts retained local artists to do the artwork (Nordenfalk 109). The designs and motifs that the, recently converted, artists used were similar to those used by traditional metalworkers and goldsmiths of the time. Therefore, many of the designs of Christian manuscripts have a likeness to the embellishments found on helmets, shields and other ancient pagan artifac...

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...ging Christian and pagan motifs, the end result was the creation of an entirely new art form. The Book of Kells and other insular gospels of that time made an influential contribution to the further development of illuminated manuscripts. Thus, it is apparent that the Book of Kells had an important influence on later artists. In addition, because the Book of Kells provided an artistic treatment of the Christian gospels, it helped further the spread of Christianity in Europe.

Works Cited

Henderson, George. From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel- Books, 650-800. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

MacCorkill, Nancy A. “Scottish Highlands and Islands – The Celtic Site.” 1 June 1997.

Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

National Gallery of Australia (NGA) Official Website. “The Book of Kells and The Art of Illumination.” 2000.

Nordenfalk, Carl. Early Medieval Painting from the Fourth to the Eleventh Centuries. Lausanne, Switzerland: Editions d’Art Albert Skira, 1957.

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