Alyson Malico – Book of Kells

Book of Kells: Art or Design?


            The Book of Kells is one of the most influential illuminated manuscripts in history.  Work on the manuscript was started in about 800 AD, first started by monks at the monastery of Iona in Scotland, and later finished at the Abbey of Kells in Ireland (Simms), The Book consists of four volumes of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Almost every page of the Book of Kells has extremely detailed and vivid illustrations.  For years, the Book of Kells has been considered a work of art.  If Art is defined as anything evoking an emotion, and design is described as having a purpose, is the Book of Kells art or design?  The Book combines both elements of Art and Design.  Through Design, the Book of Kells was elevated to the Status of Art.

            The Book of Kells uses design in the construction of the manuscript.  Design was used in the selection of the script, known as insular majuscule (Trinity College Dublin) the makeup of the page, and the selection of what illustrations to include.  In the design of the book, five pigments of color were used, red, yellow, green, blue, known as lapis lazuli (imported from Asia), and purple (thought to have been imported from Italy.)   The artists knew how to combine colors to achieve emotion in the scene from the viewer.  One example is an illustration of the Birth of Christ, “painted in solemn purple and emerald green, speaks to us of the wonder and mystery of Christ’s birth.” (Simms 35)  The artists knew how to incorporate design into the book, and used color to do so.  In addition to the scenes depicting the life of Christ and the four

evangelists, there are many humorous illustrations.  The artists liked to sneak drawings of animals within the lines. The drawings held clues to understand the readings. In a parable about one man serving two masters, one letter N is depicted as two men pulling each other’s beards, to show that man cannot serve two masters. (Pulliam) There are also many complicated Celtic twists and knots, which are very complicated and complex to draw.  All of these elements of design help to better understand the book.

With the help of Design, The Book of Kells served a purpose.  It was believed to have been used for celebrations such as Easter (Trinity College Dublin). Even though the book was rarely used, it has tools to help readers know where to begin; some words are written in red to show the reader where to start the reading on the page. (Simms 24)  If the Book of Kells was truly a work of design, what was its purpose? The purpose was to glorify the life of Jesus.  His symbols are seen everywhere throughout the books.  It was rarely seen except on important occasions, and only important members of the clergy could see it in this time because the altar was separated from the viewer by a choir screen, and the Priest had his back to the viewer during mass.  

            Can something be art even though it has a purpose?  The Book of Kells was made through design, but is commonly referred to as a work of Art today.  Many works of art throughout history have had a purpose.  The purpose of the Book of Kells was to glorify the life of Jesus and Christianity.  The authors and artists who worked on the book knew that the majority of people could not read, so the elaborate drawings, use of color, and creative ways of bringing the story to  Religion assumes it purpose through evoking an emotional response.  Therefore if the purpose of the Book of Kells was to evoke an emotional response, does that make it art?  Design helps to make the book a work of art.  Without design, the purpose of the book would not be as clear. 

            Almost every medieval work of art was made with the purpose of glorifying God and Christianity.  If we are to revisit the definitions of Art evoking an emotional response, and design serving a purpose, then almost all works of art can be considered a work of design.  The Sistine Chapel was made to evoke wonder and awe in everyone who saw it, and still does today.  This does not lessen the fact that it is still one of the most widely known works of art in the world.   The truth maybe that both art and design are extremely intertwined, with both borrowing from the other.  The Book of Kells can be both a work of art and a work of design because it serves a purpose, and it evokes an emotional response.  The use of design can create art. 

            The Book of Kells is one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in the world.  The centuries of work put into it has produced thousands of beautifully made illustrations and script.  The Book of Kells can be considered both a work of art and design, for through the work of design, it has become art.

Pulliam, Heather. Word and Image in the Book of Kells. Bodmin: Four Courts Press, 2006.

Simms, George Otto. Exploring the Book of Kells. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1988.

Trinity College Dublin. The Book of Kells. 6 October 2009. 28 September 2012 <;.

—. The Book Of Kells. 8 June 2012. 28 September 2012 <;.


One comment

  1. Alyson,

    “Elevated to the status of art” therefore art is higher than design. This may need to be proven. Is it a sense of spiritual versus practical? Nurturing the body as opposed to the mind? Art nurtures the mind and design nurtures and aids the body?
    Is it that what starts out as design over time becomes and artifact and then is regarded as art? A landmark a timepiece? Well written and well documented very good work.

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