Arguably, the most notable masterpiece of medieval art is the incomparable Book of Kells, a 680 page Latin manuscript of the Four Gospels. While most illuminated manuscripts were designed for use by missionaries – the shorter text was easier to carry – the Book of Kells was intended for display. And to convert souls into the Christian church.

Here is a brief look at this masterpiece of Celtic art.

Book of Kells, detail of Chi-Rho-Iota, folio 34r.  Ink and pigment on vellum, ca. 800

Materials Used in Illuminated Manuscripts

Before the invention of movable type in the mid 1400s, medieval books were made by hand, typically by monks and nuns working in a scriptorium, or workshop, within their monasteries and convents, respectively.

Paper didn’t come into general use in Europe until the 1400s, so these medieval books were “published” on either:

  • vellum, which was soft and pliable; or on
  • parchment, which was stiffer and shinier.

Both materials were prepared by scraping, cleaning and stretching animal skins.  The hide from one animal sufficed for a double sheet of vellum (1).  Experts contend that the Book of Kells, also known as the Book of Columba, required skins from between 150 calves (2) to 200 calves (3).

Because vellum and parchment were so costly, artists practiced their designs on wax tablets before poking minute holes into the material to mark final writing and drawing surfaces.

The pigments used came from diverse local, natural sources such as red lead, chalk and woad, or were imported, like lapis lazuli and kermes, a red pigment produced from a Mediterranean insect.

History of the Book of Kells

Most art historians concur that the Book of Kells dates from around 800, and was started in the Scottish island of Iona.

There, a group of monasteries were dedicated to studying Saint Columba (to whom the Book is dedicated).

Right, Book of Kells, The Four Evangelists, folio 27v. Ink and pigment on vellum, ca. 800.

After numerous Viking raids in the early 9th century, the monks of Iona relocated to the monastery of Kells in County Meath, Ireland.

Perhaps this sudden exodus explains why this illuminated manuscript was never completed.

The Book of Kells was stolen in 1007 and damaged: its solid gold covers were removed; some of the pages at the front and back were torn out; and all 680 pages were trimmed by about an inch (a paring which remains an art history mystery, as far as I can assess).

Since the 17th century, the book has been uneventfully housed in the library of Trinity College in Dublin.

Composition of the Book of Kells

The 680 pages of the Book are comprised of breath-taking calligraphy, Biblical scenes, and portrayals of the Four Evangelists, who appear often in medieval art in the frontispieces to their respective Gospels.

Each of the Evangelists has his own symbol derived from Biblical passages (above right):

  • because the Gospel of Mark starts with a voice crying in the wilderness, his symbol is that of a lion, the ruler of the desert;
  • Luke’s symbol is of an ox, because his Gospel begins with Zacharias killing one;
  • John’s symbol is the eagle, derived from his far-reaching visions; and

  • the symbol of Matthew is the winged angel or man, as his Gospel discusses the birth of Christ.

Book of Kells, Chi-Rho-Iota, folio 34r.  Ink and pigment on vellum, ca. 800

The best known illumination – and the finest, according to many – is Chi-rho-iota, the illumination facing the start of Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

The first three letters of “Christ” in Greek are chi-rho-iota (XPI), which look like the letters “P”; rather like an “R”; and an inverted “L”.  Two words – autem, abbreviated as an “h”, and generatio – are in the lower right, creating the phrase, “Now this is how the birth of Christ came about.”

Look to the left of the Chi’s vertical leg to see three angels amid the mazes of curclicues and sweeps.  The letter rho ends with a human head, a decorative flourish common in medieval
art and found on objects like the hilt of a sword or clasp of a brooch.

The Christian history and iconography are fascinating – the Book of Kells features the oldest existing image of the Virgin Mary in any Western manuscript – but I’m more intrigued by other aspects of the Book of Kells.

Right.  Book of Kells, Virgin Mary, folio 7v. Ink and pigment on vellum, ca. 800.

It’s as if abstract expressionism did a makeover of Biblical imagery and symbols.  Some of the Book’s designs, executed most often in sienna, pink, purple, lilac, green, red and yellow, are of such vitality and intensity that they belie the Book’s age of 1200 years.

It’s rather humbling that some of this famous artwork might pass as modern, isn’t it?


1. Dorling Kindersley et al., Art: Over 2500 Works From Cave to Contemporary (New York, NY: DK Publishing) 71.

2.  Marilyn Stokstad.  Art History: Volume 1 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995) 486.

3. Dorling Kindersley et al., 71.