D’Errico – Book of Kells

Is the Book of Kells art or design? Does it have to be one or the other or could it be both? Is it possible for art to work with design? This paper will discuss the meaning of art and design, and how they are both able to work together to make the Book of Kells to make it a success.

The Book of Kells was “an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created by Celtic Monks ca. 800” (Wikipedians). It is the “most extravagant and complex of the Insular Gospel books, representing the climax of a development that began in the 7th century AD” (Stalley). “Scholars estimate that it took seventy-five years to complete. The book was hand-written and painted on pages of vellum, which is calf-skin that has been tanned to paper thinness. The book, as it has survived, has 680 pages” (Hackley Library). The purpose of the Book of Kells was to convert the Pagans to Christianity. At this time Paganism was practiced by many people, so the monks thought that they would be able to convert them to Christianity by wowing them with the high levels of art and design of the Book of Kells.

Art is defined as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings” (Webster). The monks were not just your average people off the street; they had to have some kind of an imagination, and skill in order to create what they did. They had to know which colors would be the most eye-grabbing, which colors would work best together, and how to create these colors. “The artist possessed a wonderful knowledge of the proportion of color and the distribution of his material…and he managed the shading and tinting of the letters with consummate taste and skill” (Encyclopedia). “The incredible originality of the hundreds of illustrated initials is suggested by the variety of imaginative forms in the six initials on one page” (Meggs 55). To make so many unique letters, the creator had to have skill and imagination which makes this a work of art. It is not a simple task to think of so many variations of typography.

“Many attempts have been made to reproduce its unique illuminations; and, so far as form and outline are concerned, the reproductions have been as far as possible successful. But all such efforts have up till now failed to give a living representation of its marvelous pages—for without its color harmonies no reproduction can be regarded as adequate from the point of view of art” (Sullivan). People have tried to reproduce the Book of Kells, and are successful, but they still are unable to achieve the same effect the Book of Kells does. This makes the Book of Kells a work of art because only the monks had the skill and imagination to create it.

Design is defined as “purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object” (Webster). The Book of Kells was not created without an original purpose. The entire idea of the Book of Kells was to convert Pagans to Christianity. It had to have been planned out otherwise it never would have been able to get this message across successfully. The Book of Kells was created with a purpose in mind, therefore making it a design.

“The text page from the Book of Kells shows how carefully the insular script was lettered. Ironically these beautiful, carefully lettered half-uncials convey a text that is careless, and contains misspellings and misleading” (Meggs 58). “Errors and confusions in the text suggest that the book was never intended to be read or studied at length” (Stalley). The text is a major facet of design in the Book of Kells. Yet, if it was not meant to be read, then that means that the design and the style of the type was more important than what was actually written. The monks obviously were planning on spending a long time completing this book; so if the content was important they would have been sure to focus their attention on what they were saying, and make sure they made no mistakes. Instead they spent more time on the design. They were first concerned with getting that wow response from the reader, and then convincing them to change religions.

Although it may seem so, art and design do not work separately. Art is not created without an original purpose which means that art is not created without design. Immanuel Kant believed, “What is distinctive about art is that purposiveness is accompanied by some specific purpose. With fine art, that purpose is the communication of ideas.” If art has a purpose to communicate and express ideas, this would mean that art is a segment of design. Design can work independently of art, but art does not work without design.

So let’s look at an example. The Book of Kells was created with the idea of converting the Pagans’ religon; here we have a purpose or design. Now typically, religion is something that is very important to people, and therefore they usually have an emotional connection to it. So if art evokes an emotion, and religion involves an emotional connection, we can see that art was used as well. So in simpler terms, art is working with design to get a message across to the people.

By presenting the Pagans with something they had never seen before, the monks were able to grab their attention with art and keep it with design. Their emotional connection to their religion and the impressive quality of the book is what drew the Pagans in. The design and purposefulness of the book, kept it from being a simple picture book with no interest or point which would have eventually caused the Pagans to lose interest. It was design and art working together that made the Book of Kells a success then and an artifact today.


Works Cited

“Aesthetic Theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.” Aesthetic Theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <;

“Book of Kells.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA:. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <;

“Book of Kells.” Book of Kells. Hackley Public Library, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <;

Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. 3rd ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992. Print.

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2013.

Roger Stalley. “Kells, Book of.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 20 Sep. 2013. <;.

Edward Sullivan. “THE BOOK OF KELLS.” The Book of Kells: Introduction. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <;

“Book of Kells.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <;



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