Schablin – Book of Kells

Michele Schablin


Book of Kells: Art or Design?



Is The Book of Kells art or design?  The Oxford Dictionary defines art as, “producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” (Oxford Dictionary) Art, unlike design, isn’t created to serve a purpose but instead to evoke an emotion. However when you combine this emotional aspect of art with the functionality of design, we find our answer.


Art and Design have both made an impact and served a purpose in society for many years. Many things that we now consider and study as “Art History” were once simple designs. A great example of this dates back to the Lascaux cave paintings over 20,000 years ago. These designs made on the walls of caves in southern France served the purpose of communication. They were drawn to educate others on how to kill different animals and on how the animals interacted. They also allowed people to record and explain what they had seen (Meggs 4.) Another great example of this is Egyptian Hieroglyphics, which date back to around 3100 B.C. and was also an early form of communication which used simple designs, also referred to as symbols (Meggs 11.)


These examples of early design successfully served their purpose at the time they were created and used. Those designs however, are now considered important works of art. But why do we now consider them art? We clearly see that these are design because they served a purpose. But that’s just it; they no longer serve a purpose in society. We have a new way of communicating in the modern, day but when we are shown these designs we are overwhelmed with a sense of awe at the craftsmanship. These pieces now evoke an emotion from the viewer, which is the definition of art. The same idea applies to The Book of Kells, which served the purpose of spreading Christianity during its time.


Art and Design both use imagery, but the term art is used to describe an entire manuscript in this case, which evokes an “awe inspiring” emotion while the design aspects of the piece are numerous and each serve a more obvious purpose in the different sections of the book. But what causes the Book of Kells to evoke this emotion? The extreme detail that is so elaborate that a magnifying glass is needed to see some of it is pretty impressive if you ask me. When you see this you immediately think of the amount of time it must have taken for the artists to create these designs. The pure craftsmanship and successfulness in the fact that the message can still be somewhat understood even though we don’t comprehend the passages, is enough to evoke an emotional response. But this response is only possible because it no longer serves a purpose to the viewer.


Charles Bateaux shares a similar view when he says, “ …the purpose of fine art is pleasure rather than utility, art should not represent nature as it ordinarily is Genius should modify nature into a beautiful whole, more perfect than nature itself ” (Gracyk.) What Bateaux is saying is that art isn’t meant to convey something as simple and obvious as nature, that is the work of design, but instead although on the outside they may look the same, art creates something more beautiful in that it causes an emotional response which is much more complex than what you simply see.


The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript written in Latin and made in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland during the Middle Ages. It was written on prepared calfskin and decorated with about ten different color dyes, some being very rare and expensive (Snell.)  This manuscript contains the four gospels from the New Testament and was originally created as a vehicle to promote Christianity. “The book is now bound in four separate parts one volume for each of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” (Simms.) This was done to allow for more pages to be seen at once while in a glass case in its current home of Trinity College, Dublin.


This manuscript didn’t rely as much on the words to convey the message of Christianity but instead on the ornate and detailed imagery and design. This is because, “the monastic leaders were mindful of the educational value of pictures and the ability of ornament to create mystical and spiritual overtones” (Meggs 39.) The designs in The Book of Kells were not just for decoration but instead served a very important and prominent purpose. Design is used within the text to emphasis the religious message, and aid in the viewers understanding of the passage. This is also shown true because of the carelessness taken when transcribing the passages on the pages because of the many mistakes present in spelling and unnecessary repetition (Book of Kells-Manuscript & Archives.) There were also many pages that contained no text, called “Carpet pages.” One of the most famous of these pages is the Chi Rho page, which depicts the symbols of the Evangelists Matthew (the man), Mark (the lion), Luke (the calf), and John (the eagle) (Book of Kells-Manuscript & Archives.)


“The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasis the themes of the major illustrations” (36 Wikipedians.)


This passage further explains the use of design as an important aspect of the Book of Kells to emphasis the message of Christianity. It was vital for the imagery to be used because of the large amount of people who were illiterate during the middle ages. With these designs incorporated into the passages, those who couldn’t read were still able to understand the message being told. This also made the message feel more welcoming because it wasn’t meant to only be understood by the wealthy who were literate and educated.


Art often emerges through design over a period of time. Design becomes art when there is no longer a functional purpose for the work, but instead an emotional response that is evoked. In this way there is a harmony between the two that is present and society can’t exist without. For these reasons the Book of Kells can be considered both art and design.




Works Cited

“Book of Kells – Manuscripts & Archives :  Trinity College Library Dublin : Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin, Ireland.” Trinity College Dublin – The University of Dublin, Ireland. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013. <;.

“Ireland-Related Featured Articles – By Wikipedians – Google Books.” Google Books. Wikipedians, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013. <;.

Meggs, Philip B.. A history of graphic design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983. Print.

Simms, G.O. . “History of The Book of Kells.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013. <;.

Snell, Melissa. “The Book of Kells – Splendid Illuminated Manuscript of the Early Middle Ages.” Medieval History – Life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013. <;.

“art: definition of art (1) in Oxford dictionary (British & World English).” Oxford Dictionaries (US). N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013. <;


One comment

  1. Michelle,

    Very impressive work here. Strong logic, well written good structure. I like the merging of thought and the conclusion (a little light but good).
    Use this skill as you go through your design career. Don’t ever think it is about software it is all about thought.
    First impression – smart kid, well educated. Good job.

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