The Book of Kells, as stated by the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia, is an Irish manuscript written somewhere between the end of the seventh and the beginning of the eighth century. (Dunn, 1910). This manuscript, which was written by Celtic monks, contains the Four Gospels of the New Testament as well as other texts. The purpose of the book was to convert Pagans to Christianity. The question at hand is whether the Book of Kells is art or design. This book obviously grabs the viewers’ eyes and sparks some type of response which forces us to think that the Book of Kells is art. On the other hand, there must have been some idea or concept that outlined what the monks were going to do in this book which brings us back to design. Using the theories of Hume and Kant, I’m going to prove that the Book of Kells is both art and design and also relate the Book of Kells to something that is easier to understand.
The Book of Kells is widely known for its detailed artwork and illuminating patterns, characters, and figures. According to Joseph Dunn, this manuscript is so detailed that even the most accomplished modern draughtsmen fail to replicate its elaborate designs (Dunn, 1910). “In a space of one inch square were counted no less than 158 interlacings of white ribbon with a black border on either side (Dunn, 1910, pg 1).” The choice of bright colors attracts the eye so rapidly that you get mesmerized by it. The Four Evangelists throughout the manuscript are each unique from page to page which force the viewer to stare longer into the pages. The stained glass designs throughout the manuscript brings the readers’ thoughts to a religious state, making them think about their religion and the possibility of converting. With all of this said, I don’t think it is possible to create such detailed artwork consistently throughout a manuscript without some sort of plan.
“What is distinctive about art is that purposiveness is accompanied by some specific purpose. With fine art, that purpose is the communication of ideas. This purpose introduces a social dimension that is absent from mere entertainment” (Kant on Fine Art). The Book of Kells was not created solely for the purpose of art. The purpose of the Book of Kells was to communicate the ideas of Christianity to everyone, hoping to convert Pagans and anyone else who did not follow the Christian beliefs. The monks had to come up with an idea that can attract the opposing religion but also keep the interest of its own. The color choices, the characters, the figures, the typeface and everything else must have been taken into consideration when designing this book. This idea that will serve a purpose is design.
With the design aspect finished, now the art comes into play. The monks needed to be artists themselves. Their precise craftsmanship when weaving the ribbons in a pattern, the detail put into the figures and the unique letter typeface are artworks in itself. The monk needed to have knowledge of the proportions of colors to mix to create new colors and also knowledge of shading. Then he had to take this knowledge and transfer it by hand onto this manuscript.
“Five factors must come together: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice” (Hume on Taste and the Arts). If the Book of Kells follows these five factors, according to Hume it will be art. This manuscript definitely has a strong sense, it is brought together to produce an emotion, it was spread through the practice of Christianity, this manuscript was beyond the others in comparison, and it was created to persuade and not talk down on the other religions. The Book of Kells obviously is a piece of art as well. It still sparks emotion from its viewers and it is nearly impossible to replicate.
To compare the Book of Kells to something much easier to understand, let’s compare it to a car. To be a bit more specific, let’s compare it to a ’57 Chevy Bel Air. It is a piece of art now and a car that many people, including my dad, would love to have. This car was not always a piece of art however. It served a purpose, as a means of transportation, and it also took some planning to create the exact model and detail. First, the idea that a new car needs to be created has to come from somewhere. Then the concept artwork or blueprints needed to be created. Then the color schemes and minor details needed to be fine-tuned. Finally, the car can be built and the result is a work of art. The Chevy started off as a design and turned into art when finished. In this case, we don’t know whether there were blueprints for the manuscript but we can assume that there was an idea and concept before the creation. Once that concept was perfected, it was left to the artists to turn it into a masterpiece for everyone to enjoy.
“When successful, fine art displays genius, animated by spirit. These features distinguish it from the limited diversions of pleasing sensations or merely accessory beauty” (Kant on Fine Art). “He points to the fact that some works attain critical approval across the barriers of culture and time, as when ancient authors such as Homer and Cicero delight modern readers. He suggests that such a convergence of taste identifies a work of real genius. An examination of these works of genius should provide us with rules of composition for good art” (Hume on Taste and the Arts). The Book of Kells is both design and art. Without design, it would simply be a picture book that was used as entertainment instead of spreading Christianity. Without art, however, the Book of Kells would not have received any exposure and would have failed as a means of spreading Christianity. Both Hume and Kant state that fine art displays genius (Major Contrasts Between Hume and Kant), and we can conclude that the Book of Kells ingeniously found the perfect balance between art and design.
Dunn, Joseph. “Book of Kells.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 30 Sept. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08614b.htm>.
Gracyk, Theodore. “PHILOSOPHY OF ART.” Web.mnstate.edu. Theodore Gracyk, 2002, 2004. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/hume_and_kant.htm#6>.