Ryan Cantar – Book of Kells

The concept of whether or not something is art or design is a common topic to be debated. Some people believe that there can be no distinction between the two. They believe that something cannot just be art or just be design. The Book of Kells is one such piece of ancient history that can be debated upon whether the book itself is in fact art or design. I personally believe that the book of Kells falls into the latter category. In my paper I will be discussing points that I believe make The Book of Kells a piece of art that places its design before its art.

The book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript of Christian origin. Its creation is believed to have begun sometime around 800 AD. The book was created with the intent of converting those who read it to Christianity. “Like other major pages of the manuscript, on single leaves and they are presumed to have become detached over time and lost. In all, around 30 folios went missing in the medieval and early modern periods.” (Trinity College Dublin). The book was not worked on by a singular artist, multiple artists and scribes performed work on the book. “Three artists seem to have produced the major decorated pages”(Trinity College Dublin). This is likely due to the book being moved multiple times as it was targeted by enemies of Christianity and seen as a way to kill Christianity permanently.

The book of Kells is one of the original Christian books. Seeing as how the primary purpose of the book was to convert its readers, typically Protestant readers, to the ideals of Christianity. It only makes sense that the book is filled with vibrant and beautiful artwork that was created to amaze its reader. The beautiful artwork was there to make the reader want to convert to Christianity. It is for this reason that I believe that the book of Kells is design before art. I myself find that the Book of Kells is comparable to a children’s book. Just like a children’s book, The Book of Kells is bright, colorful and decorative and just like a children’s book, The Book stands to serve a purpose by educating the reader. In this case, the Book of Kells is educating its readers about why they should convert themselves to Christianity. “Five factors must come together: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice.”“ (Hume, Taste and the Arts). These are the five factors that a work must have for it to be considered art according to David Hume. While I do believe that the book has these five factors, I do at the same time feel that these factors become a secondary feature when placed in comparison to the purpose behind the book’s creation. The book’s ultimate purpose, which was to attract potential converts to Christianity, is just so important that I can not help but feel that all other features of the book become dwarfed by this.

Both Immanuel Kant and David Hume had two polar opposite ideas in regards to the concept of art versus design. On one side, David Hume believed that an object is first and foremost, art before design. Hume believed that something is beautiful, because it is beautiful, regardless of its functionality. While on the other side of the spectrum Kant believed that an object’s design and purpose should be placed above its beauty. “Accessory beauty does not fit his analysis of beauty at all. After all, to consider anything but the object’s design is to “impair the purity” of the judgment.”(Gracyk, and Kant on Fine Art).  Kant believed that something is beautiful because its functional and once it loses that functionality, it loses its beauty. Normally, I would be more so inclined to side with Hume in the concept of something is beautiful because it is beautiful. I do not usually subscribe to the belief that something has to be functional in order for it to be beautiful. However, in the case of the Book of Kells I am far more inclined to agree with Kant. I believe that the reason I am choosing to side myself with Kant in this regard is because with a subject such as the Book of Kells, it just screams design and functionality over art so loudly when I look at it.

Despite what some of its follows may want you to believe, a religion is ultimately more similar to a business than anything else. The religion must advertise and gain support for it to thrive. Christianity is in no way and exception to this, without sufficient support, Christianity would have withered and died. The book of Kells was as a result created with the purpose of gaining support for Christianity. The Book of Kells was designed to spread Christianity and in this instance works very similar to an advertisement. When one stops and looks at a religion like Christianity as a business, its easy to see that the Book of Kells is at its core, an advertisement. It is very easy to look at the Book of Kells and view it as an advertisement. The book is colorful and flashy, with entrancing and captivating works of art. When examined for what it is, the Book of Kells works very positively as an advertisement, seeing as how it works very strongly in terms of capturing the viewers attention. It is for this primary reason that I consider the Book of Kells to be a work that places design before artwork. When all was finally said and done, regardless of how beautiful and finely crafted the artwork in the book is, the book was created to garner new members of the Christian religion. The books ultimate purpose was to pull in more people to join their religion and the book did ultimately prove to be quite effective considering the size and scope that the Christian religion encompasses in the modern age.

I do firmly believe that in the case of art vs. design in regards to the Book of Kells, that the book is design first and foremost. I find it very difficult to believe that the book was created solely so it can look good or that its purpose now in he modern era is to look nice and nothing else. It makes far more sense to me that this book was created so beautifully with an intended purpose. I can not however deny that the book is indeed very intricate and detailed. It is truly a beautiful and stunning book to behold in and of itself. But, with that having been said, it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that the book’s purpose in creation overshadows its beauty almost entirely.

Gracyk, Theodore. “Aesthetic Theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant.” Aesthetic                  Theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. N.p., 2002, 2004. Web. 23 Sept.    2013.

“Trinity College Dublin.” Book of Kells. N.p., 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 23 Sept. 2013.


One comment

  1. Ryan,

    Good work and very in depth research. We need to discuss Hume and Kant. Very well written and presented. Worth the time and effort. Good stuff here. Now use it when you design. Remember Kant viewed beauty as not being dependent on purpose – “this rose is beautiful”.

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