The Book of Kells: Ireland’s Million Dollar Book

One of the most exciting developments in “Dark Age” art are the illuminated manuscripts produced by the monasteries. After the fall of Rome there was a huge risk of Classical books being destroyed (which sadly happened with many works). To prevent this knowledge from being lost, monks decided to make transcriptions and occasionally translations of books so they would be accessible even if the original was lost. Rather than merely create carbon copies of the copied works, monks decided to elevate the practice of producing the book itself into an art. Such projects were known as illuminated manuscripts, and were characterized by calligraphic text accompanied by lavish illustrations. These required extensive use of a wide variety of pigments, which made the production very expensive. It was also very time consuming, generally spanning several years and requiring several dedicated contributors. All of these factors meant that each illuminated manuscript was unique, they might be copies of the same book (generally the Bible or a Classical work) but for all intents and purposed they were different. While there are many illuminated manuscripts, the most famous is a vellum copy of the Four Gospels known as the Book of Kells.

The origin of the Book is matter of debate, it may have been produced in Scotland or Ireland or started in the former and produced in the latter. The most first element of the Book one would notice are the elaborately interlaced abstract designs that are familiar in Celtic art. Closer examination reveals that some of these designs are not abstract at all but in fact depict people and animals or are letters. These show a strong Germanic influence from the contemporary Norse, as well as Goths and Vandals who were very important in the Roman Empire’s last days. Two of the most important contributors have been identified as a Celt (either a Scot or Irishmen) and another who may have been Arab, Italian, or even Armenian (Lincecum). That makes it very clear that the book is a synthesis of cultures which showed the Dark Ages were actually quite productive. It has been proposed that the monks served as models for Apostles and other individuals appearing in the pages, as was a common practice for scriptoriums for the time (Lincecum).

Pages like these show that the Book of Kells is timeless and can be appreciated without reading the many analysis that have been written about it. While it is the most notable illuminated manuscript, it is by no means the only masterpiece in the field. The field flourished well into the Middle Ages but declined after the printing press debuted. However the tradition is continuing today with St. John’s Bible, an ongoing project which I have been lucky enough to see in Santa Fe while it was touring there. Like the Book of Kells, St. John’s Bible mixes different cultures into one, this time providing a Postmodern take on illuminated manuscripts. Such a project makes it clear that while illuminating the Bible has outlived its usefulness, it is a lasting contribution to culture that is still worth doing. You can visit the St. John’s Bible here:

Works Cited: 

Book of Kells. (n.d.). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 2, 2013, from 

Lincencum, J. B. (2000, August 27). Lincecum’s Book of Kells Page. Retrieved April 2, 2013, from 

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