Heather McDonald – The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells

Throughout history and in every part of the art world there has been a never ending debate on whether art or design comes first. The Book of Kells is no exception to that fact for it is something that has captivated the world since its creation. It’s an irish manuscript created by scribes during the eighteenth century and displays many aspects of both sides which makes it especially debatable in the subject. The drawings of animals and human figures alike are artistic perfections, however it’s also well known for its purpose of turning Pagans into Christians. (Dunn) Through my own knowledge and that of a few scholarly sources, I will attempt to prove my belief that the Book of Kells, although strongly suited and valued in the art world, is more focused on the part of it that makes it a design. 


In all forms of creative works there is always one logical thing that defines it. That definition is that it has a purpose no matter whether it’s art or design. The purpose of art is to have the viewer express an emotion towards the piece, while design is literally in having the work serve some type of a purpose; such as converting people to other religions, a form of entertainment, or something to build objects with. As stated by Immanuel Kant, “the object being contemplated must display a kind of undefined purposiveness,” (Rowan) which justifies that despite art being a subject to evoke emotions, it still holds a purpose beyond just being an artwork like a painting or sculpture. Behind all art, the creator is building the work for some type of reason, whether it be for a God, King, or their follower. That can be represented to show power, loyalty or even to expand the beliefs of someone upon the people in the area, or even the whole world. Initially what the scribes wanted was for the book to serve the purpose of converting Pagans to Christians. That was their number one goal, however it’s enhanced by the imagery that is given, which in turn, brings about the emotions that people have when viewing it.


Let’s compare The Book of Kell to that of the famous architectural and sculptural work in Rome called the Pantheon, which was rebuilt many times and the final version finished in 126 AD. When I first heard of the Pantheon more in depth it was part of an art history course, so you would assume all works stated in the class were considered artworks. In seeing this architecture, there are many things about it that take away from the fact that it was seen by the people as a type of art. When the Pantheon was first built, it was built with the sole purpose of worshiping the Gods and had many sculptures and carvings inside to adorn it and represent the figures of the religion. Although the building was built many times and destroyed there after, this version not only managed to survive, be historically unique with it’s domed roof, but displays the many types of religion that had entered Rome and changed it’s interior. In fact, the Pantheon was one of many sources of Pagan conversion to Christianity that happened in the Medieval times, in which Pope Boniface IV turned it into a Christian Church. (Wiki) When it was completed and people were able to enter the building itself. That’s when the idea of art was introduced to the public. Although the architects and sculptors were doing this with a design sense in mind, the impact towards the people were more of an emotional and spiritual experience. That only occurred because the objects put into or onto the building was intricately detailed and brought a sense of power and holiness to them. However, I believe that despite the public having that artistic emotional response, it doesn’t at all take away from the fact that it technically was made with a huge religious purpose.


Seeing how similar The Book of Kells is to the Pantheon, you can find that whether art or not, all things created are harboring the same debatable concept. “The Book of Kells was to be their masterwork: the four Gospels of the Christian faith laid lovingly onto the page in Latin and brought to life by the best and most colorful art of the age.” (Kells) The last thing I want to mention that clarifies the purpose of the book is in the reason as to which it was made with text and pictures combined. Many people would have said the art was done to amaze those that read from it and that emotional reasons is attuned to why it was so successful. I believe that one of the reasons could be because of how people learn; whether it be adults or children. Some people are better learning with words, while others, mostly children, find it easier through visual thinking.


With that, I don’t doubt that people believe The Book of Kells should be seen as a work of art, but in reality, the scribes didn’t make the book for people to think of it that way. They took all that time to spread the beliefs of Christianity to their people in a very unique and powerful way. Honestly, if it wasn’t because of the amount of work and intricacy they decided to put into it, it would have probably been barely or completely unsuccessful because of the lack of the final emotional response the people should have had to it. I believe that all things that are created, design comes first and then that piece is put into a certain category that makes it considered either or.




Dunn, Joseph. “Book of Kells.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 21 Sept. 2013 <;.


“Immanuel Kant.” Rowan University 2002 <>.


“Pantheon, Rome.” Wikipedia 16 Sept. 2013 <,_Rome#Christian_modifications>.


“Book of Kells ~ Part 1 Documentary.” 21 April 2011 <>.


One comment

  1. Heather,

    Good writing and very good logic. Ahh the programmer comes through here. The line I get wrapped around is “That definition is that it has a purpose no matter whether it’s art or design.” If something is created for a purpose then it is design – IMHO.
    This is a big struggle to contemplate the final determination here but good job and happy to see many uses of critical thinking throughout all the papers. Good job.

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