The Book of Kells

Snakes, peacocks, lions, hares, mice, and more—in the Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells, c. 800, 340 vellum folios, 33.0 x 25.5 cm each (edges trimmed and gilded in the 19th century), MS 58 (Trinity College Library, Dublin). Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] Two days ago, we went to see the “Book of Kells” in the magnificent library at Trinity College. Then we drove to the town of Kells itself, to look at the monastic community where this important book was housed for 800 years.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:19] The “Book of Kells” is one of the most exceptional books from the early Middle Ages. When we were standing in front of the book, you notice how many folios form the book itself.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] The book is made out of fine vellum, and the skin of more than 100 young calves were used to produce this book.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:37] So many of those pages are filled with full-page illustrations. They’re not only vibrantly colored, but there is so much intricacy and delicate details to each drawing. It’s impressive to think of the time that it would have taken to complete even just a single page.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] It would have been produced in a building that is known as a scriptorium. We can imagine scribes sitting at desks for long hours, writing and painting.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:04] The “Book of Kells” is a Gospel book that includes the writings of each of the four Gospel authors — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] There are both author portrait pages and pages that show the symbols associated with each of the Gospel authors.

[1:21] Books of this era are not structured the way that modern books are, with title pages, etc., but there are efforts to help the reader. One of the mechanisms that books of this era often include is a canon table, that is, a kind of concordance that allows you to find the passages that you’re interested in, but in this case the canon tables are extraordinarily elaborate in their decoration, and are almost architectural, with colonnades and Roman arches.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:46] Shortly after the canon table pages, we find, by some accounts, the earliest representation of the Virgin and Child in a manuscript in western Europe. It reminds me of imagery of the Virgin and Child that you might find in Byzantium and even Ethiopia.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] What’s common to these images is the frontal nature of the Virgin Mary and a schematic rendering of the face and elaboration of the clothing that she wears, of the wealth of those textiles.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:15] Other stunning pages in the “Book of Kells” include things like the carpet page.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] There we see a cross so elaborate that it almost ceases to be a cross because it’s got two cross beams, and these delicate circles with intricate interlacing in each of them, but the circles are so large that they almost overwhelm the cross itself.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:36] Carpet pages are not unique to the “Book of Kells.” We see them in other books, like the Lindisfarne Gospels. It’s likely that the “Book of Kells” was started, if not completed, in Iona, in what is today’s Scotland.

Dr. Zucker: [2:48] Iona was a monastic community that had been founded by a very important Irish saint, a man named Columba.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:55] Now, in Irish, Columba is Colmcille, and he is one of the most important saints and figures in the early Christian period in Ireland.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] The illumination that is best known from the “Book of Kells” is the Chi-rho page. It is dense with decoration.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:11] The Chi-rho is the first letters in Christ’s name in Greek. You see it frequently in early Christian art as a way of marking Christ’s presence.

[3:21] Here, what looks like an X for the Chi stretches in this swooping diagonal from right to left, taking up a good portion of the page, but really what grabs your attention is the very intricate interlacing and spirals and what looks like filigree work that we find in metalworking of this era in Ireland.

[3:42] What I’m always struck by when I look at the Chi-rho page is how incredibly difficult it is to make out the forms. Every time I look, I see something new. There are human heads. There are angels. We see animals, birds, some of them as part of the interlace or these interwoven designs.

[4:02] Some of them very clearly articulated, such as my favorite detail, which is two cats that have caught mice who are biting a eucharistic host, the wafer that miraculously transubstantiates into the body of Christ during Mass.

Dr. Zucker: [4:18] And so it seems miraculous that a scribe was able to define such intricate details at such a minute scale, and to do it so precisely, knowing that the parchment itself was precious, that the materials were precious, and that there was little room for error.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:35] To create a page like this would have required the utmost focus. We could think of it as an act of devotion.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] On the day that we visited the “Book of Kells,” it was open to another magnificent page. Every few days, the pages have to be changed. It has a typically elaborate border, which is defining a serpent or a dragon who’s biting its own tail.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:59] In that border, we see the characteristic interlace, with beasts and birds all intertwined together. And then within the decorative border, we see four angels surrounding the word “Una,” and we even see interlaced birds that have been described as peacocks inside the middle of the U.

Dr. Zucker: [5:18] Look at that beautiful teal blue, which was used by mixing a white with lapis lazuli, a color that was imported all the way from Afghanistan.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:27] The use of lavish materials added to the importance of this book. The text on this page, as well as the pages that are primarily filled solely with text, is using an Irish form of writing called Insular majuscule.

Dr. Zucker: [5:41] Insular refers to something that was made in the British Isles, and majuscule refers to the use of capital letters. There is this distinctly beautiful rounded form and regularization of those letter forms.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:55] This is an era where manuscript production is so vital to early Christianity, and it spread in Ireland.

Dr. Zucker: [6:04] If it was made in Iona, one of the reasons that it would have been transported all the way to Kells is to protect it.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:11] In 793, Iona is attacked by the Vikings. And so that’s when monks at Iona would have brought the “Book of Kells” to Kells Abbey for safekeeping or possibly have finished it there.

[6:23] [music]

Dr Rachel Moss explores the hidden meanings behind the illustrations of the Book of Kells, gospel book, 9th century, associated with the Columban monasteries in Ireland, Scotland, and England (TCD MS 58, Trinity College Library, Dublin).

See the entire Book of Kells online at Trinity College, Dublin

Resources about The Book of Kells at Trinity College, Dublin

Learn about the Lindisfarne Gospels, another manuscript connected to Iona

Read more about books in medieval Europe

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Book of Kells," in Smarthistory, June 25, 2022, accessed July 18, 2024,