Alex Claus – Book of Kells

Art or Design?

It is often argued that a work cannot be both art and design, it must fall under one category.  Art is something that is created to evoke an emotional response from its audience.  Design, on the other hand, is something that is created with a specific intent or purpose.  The line that separates the distinction between art and design can be thin, and might even be entangled between the two.  An example of a work that becomes entangled with the elements of art and design is the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book.

In Ireland ca. 800, Celtic monks created an illuminated manuscript in Latin containing the four Gospels of the New Testament, the Books of Kells (Wikipedia).  The Gospels of the New Testament (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) are the four narratives of the life of Christ.  Each page within the Book of Kells contains beautiful craftsmanship from the scribes and illuminators that melded and formed the work.  The “scribes displayed their own reverence for the subject at hand through a disciplined, robust, rounded and readable majuscule script.  Their illuminators then added layer upon layer of intricate beauty, which elevated both volumes above the realm of a mere book and into an Otherworld of pure art…”(Slavin).  There is no doubt that the Book of Kells and the readings found within were used on special occasions, most likely through a specially trained lector who could interpret the words intertwined with the illumination.

In regards to whether or not the Book of Kells can be considered design, an explanation is in order.  Design is something that is created with the intent to fulfill a specific purpose.  The purpose of the creation of the Book of Kells was not primarily to store the narratives of the four Gospels, but rather to be the best and most beautiful copy of the four narratives. (Slavin)  During ca. 800, a large percentage of the population of Ireland was illiterate, the minority of literate individuals being made up of monks, scribes, and the wealthy.  Crafting a Gospel book that contained purely script that could look beautiful would serve only the minority.  Through an illuminated manuscript Gospel book, the Celtic monks could spread the Christian religion to a vast number of people, even if the readings and verses could not be read.  The Book of Kells became “an object that gives visual, earthy, artistic joy that is somehow detached from the sacred subject matter of the book.  Attention may drift from the Gospel text itself, but one would never tire of feasting on the marvels of illuminations.” (Slavin)  The intention of the Book of Kells was not only to look beautiful, but to visually communicate the religion of Christianity to a greater audience.

Can the Book of Kells also be considered art? Art is something that is made to produce an emotional response from its viewers, and the Book of Kells does just that.  The scribes and illuminators that crafted the iconic imagery found within the Book of Kells aimed for beauty rather than practicality. “There are numerous uncorrected mistakes in the text. Lines were often completed in a blank space in the line above. The chapter headings that were necessary to make the canon tables usable were not inserted into the margins of the page.” (Wikipedia) There are numerous errors and mistakes that can be found throughout the book, but the time and focus of the Celtic monks were on the Gospel book’s appearance. It was made not only to look clean and marvelous; it was made to give its audience the emotions of inspiration, wonder, and assurance that the contents found within its pages were keys to the true religion. According to the rapture of twelfth-century Norman historian Giraldus Cambrensis in regards to the Book of Kells, he states “Look more keenly and you will penetrate to the shrine of art. You will make out intricacies as delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all of this was the work of an angel and not of a man.”(Slavin) Cambrensis is not only enticed and awed by the craftsmanship and illumination of the Gospel book, he speaks of the book as being created by a greater power not found on earth. The Book of Kells evokes emotions of marvel, awe, and even divinity to its viewers.

A work is often seen as being simply art or design, not being able to fall into both categories. However, the Book of Kells falls into both the categories of art and design, as it fulfills the definitions of both. As a work of design, it has the purpose of communicating Christianity and maintaining the narratives of the four Gospels. As a work of art, it creates an emotional response of inspiration, marvel, and heavenly wonder to entice its audience. Without one or the other, the Gospel book would not have been able to effectively spread the religion of Christianity. The Book of Kells is an example of a work that is entangled with the elements of art and design, both being essential keys to an exceptional work.

Works Cited
Slavin, Michael. “SEVEN: The Book of Durrow (c. AD675) and the Book of Kells (c. AD790) Divine Illuminations.” The Ancient Books of Ireland. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2005. 122-34. Web. 23 Sept. 2013. <>.
Wikipedia contributors. “Book of Kells.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia,
The Free Encyclopedia, <>.


One comment

  1. Alex,

    Good writing and good rhetoric. Very good stuff here. Favorite line – “The intention of the Book of Kells was not only to look beautiful, but to visually communicate the religion of Christianity to a greater audience.” This embodies the complexity and the duality of the work. Based on the topic it creates a dichotomy of thought for when we view art and design.We do however need to understand that design may employ art to fulfill its purpose. It may also employ other things as well…

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