Walsh – Book of Kells


            The purpose of this paper is to look at the historical document, The Book of Kells and use research as well as my own personal opinion to decide if it is Art, Design or both. The biggest argument I am struggling with is what makes something based on Design, not Art? Can something that started out as a means of information being transferred from one person to another be considered art because of the beautiful pictures inside nearly every page? My conclusion is that there is a correlation between both Art and Design but I believe that the Book of Kells was made with a purpose, to relay the four Gospels in manuscript style and the Design was to do just that. The fact that it has some artistic qualities does not necessarily mean it is made as Art. The images tell the story, there is no interpretation to be made, and with that it is clear to me that this book was made as Design.

 The Book of Kells

            What is the difference between Design and Art? This is a subject that has been and still is debated everywhere. “Artists and designers both have to create a visual composition using shared knowledge base” but they have different reasons for doing so. A work of art is started based on (mostly) the bond emotionally that the artist is trying to convey to their audience. Designers on the other hand, have either “a fixed starting point, a message, image or an idea/action.” It is said that the purpose of a Designer is to get the audience to either buy something or do something, use a service, visit a location, etc. “The most successful designs are those who effectively can communicate the message to the audience and get the consumers to carry out the delegated task.” Design isn’t supposed to need an interpretation, if it does “it has failed its purpose” (“Web Designer Depot”). In design you want every person to understand the same message, which would be whatever you need to relay to them, but with Art you want each person to see something different and decide for themselves what it is the Artist is trying to make them think/feel.

            “Art is interpreted but design is understood” (“Web Designer Depot”). The book of Kells is an Irish Celtic deluxe manuscript, written for the sole purpose of being used during public worship which is what I believe makes it Design, not Art. This manuscript alone contains “Four different Gospels in mixed old Latin and Vulgate text” and includes “tables arranged in ten Canons, and some legal, eleventh century documents that concern the abbey of Kells”(Schoeffling). In this book, a continuous chain of ornamentation runs through the text, “Such as ornament, geometry, whimsy and maniacal enthusiasm”(Schoeffling). It has almost comic representations of different images, including “animals, birds, insects and human figures peering from behind letters, lurking in corners of pages” but the pages were cut around the edges when the book was stolen in 1006. The book, as well as the shrine were taken and buried but were not found for two months and twenty days(Schoeffling). The book didn’t sustain any damage but there were Jewels on the front cover that were now missing (“Book of Kells”). In 1653 the “Governor of Kells moved this precious manuscript and in 1821 an ignorant bookbinder barbarously cut around a half of an inch off the outer margins” which trimmed the excess part of the illuminated priceless pages(Schoeffling). It went through plenty of pigment damage and much wear and tear but Roger Powell in 1953 decided to bind the book into 4 different volumes which each would correspond with a matching Gospel. No one to this day knows where the Book of Kells was actually written but they do have some ideas(Schoeffling). The biggest theory would be that “the Book of Kells was started in Iona, Scotland until the Vikings invaded the island in 805 AD” but after that, “the manual was probably brought to the city of Kells, Ireland, […] and was finished at the Abbey of Kells” and it was then named the Book of Kells after that city(Orr).

            The four Gospels in the Book of Kells are of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It talks about how Christ’s life begins, has images of the Virgin and Child (Jesus and Mary). The elaborate images that were intricately drawn are on every page of the Book of Kells except for two(Orr). The text that is in the book is written in “insular majuscule” which is a “medieval script system used in Ireland”(Orr). The book was crafted by hand and written on Vellum. “Vellum was used in most medieval manuscripts, which is a calfskin material that has been soaked in lime, stretched and dried at room temperature”(“Book of Kells”). This was what made the book last a lot longer than if it were to have been created with normal paper. The most famous page would have to be the Chi Rho page because it “shows the Greek letters XPI which translate into Ch, r, and I in English which has the abbreviation for “Christi” and this makes this page the most elaborate specimen of calligraphy ever executed” (“Book of Kells”).

            No one can deny that the book of Kells is an intricately designed manuscript. Every piece of artwork inside is drawn with tiny details that draw in the eyes and keep you looking at more and more of the images. Yes, there are artistic qualities in it but it isn’t art. It wasn’t made to be hung up and admired by passersby it was made for people to want to read it because of its beauty. People wanted to read it and that was the point. Remember when I defined what a designer does? A designer does whatever it takes to get the viewer to do what they’re told and this book got each individual to read the four Gospels in one beautifully written, an enticing manuscript! This was used during the reading of the Gospel, and yes it was beautiful but I believe that it was not meant to be Art. It had a purpose, and with that, it is considered Design.
Works Cited

“A Breathtaking work of Art. Book of Kells-A gift to our Library.” The Book of Kells. Washington Centerville Public Library, n. d. Web. 21 Sep. 2013. <

Orr, Chris. “Book of Kells-Historical Summary of Ireland’s Most Treasured Religious Artifact.” Yahoo! Voices., 24 Oct 2011. Web. 21 Sep. 2013. <>.

“The Difference Between Art and Design.” Web Designer Depot. Design, Inspiration, Web Design, 21 Sep 2009. Web. 21 Sep. 2013. <>.

Schoeffling, Conrad. “The Book of Kells.” CWP Library. N.p., n. d. Web. 21 Sep. 2013. <>.



One comment

  1. Walsh,

    Very good work here. Using your design/programming side to establish a strong logic and yet your art side to embellish the structure to evoke the points. Ahh the Book of Walsh? Good writing skills, strong logic and a personal touch.
    Keep going like this do not waver from the course.

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