Braithwaite – Book of Kells


The Book of Kells: Art or Design?

Over the past couple of centuries, there have been heated arguments about whether particular visual content should be characterized as art or design. The Web Designers Depot stated that, “Artists and designers both create visual compositions using a shared knowledge base, but their reasons for doing so are entirely different. Some designers consider themselves artists, but few artists consider themselves designers.” Art is visual content that is created to be appreciated mainly for its beauty or emotional power.  Artist “create the art to share that feeling with others, to allow the viewers to relate to it, learn from it or be inspired by it. (Web Designers Depot)” Design is the process of creating visual content for utilitarian use. That purpose is almost always to “motivate the audience to do something: buy a product, use a service, visit a location, learn certain information. The most successful designs are those that most effectively communicate their message and motivate their consumers to carry out a task. (Web Designers Depot) However, the purpose of visual content could be to move the viewer towards a certain religious belief through the powerful experience of beauty or being relatable. This controversy has particular relevance to the medieval Irish illuminated manuscript of the Four Gospels, commonly known as The Book of Kells. This essay will argue that The Book of Kells displays elements of both art and design.

The Book of Kells is one of the most famous of all medieval books. It serves as a deck to the idea of drawing people to Christianity. The ornate qualities that are shown within this manuscript display the intrinsic basis of religion in society representing the purpose of persuasion through both art and designs. This book comes from the portable pre-Christian art made by people in Ireland and England.  It was a type of interlace used in metalwork and woodcarving. It utilizes the indigenous art of the non-Christian people to convey the new Christian ideas. It is sometimes called “Insular Art, meaning, the art of the British Isles. (Wikipedia)” The manuscript’s popularity derives largely from the impact of its “lavish decoration, the extent and artistry of which are incomparable. (U of Dublin)” The book also contained “abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament disrupting the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message, and keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader. (U of Dublin, 2009)” As stated from the University of Dublin, “There are full pages of decoration such as symbols of the evangelists Matthew (the Man), Mark (the Lion), Luke (the Calf) and John (the Eagle); the opening words of the Gospels; the Virgin and Child; a portrait of Christ; complex narrative scenes, the earliest to survive in gospel manuscripts, representing the arrest of Christ and his temptation by the Devil.” Although an artist could potentially set out to convey a specific viewpoint or emotion, it is not “imperative for a message to have a single meaning. Art connects with people in different ways. (Web Design Depot)”

The Book of Kells utilizes the art that speaks to these people visually to intrigue them with a new idea. The images are majestic that it gives off a powerful experience that is directed to the purpose of motivating the viewers to the path of Christianity. When an object serves as a purpose it is also categorized as being a design. The art aspect of this book creates an image of awe and beauty that is attractive to the eye. Good art is an acquired taste, “this goes back to the idea about interpretation, taste is more about people’s particular likes and dislikes rather than the message they take away from a piece. (Web Designs Depot)” In reference to Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish-Dutch philosopher, the design of this book was used as a reference to survival. In agreement, writers Hulme and Kant both emphasize that the art of this book could be used to display genius aptitudes. It is understood that the intelligent majority was able to decipher these messages within the carvings of the book. The book was used to guide the followers to safety while spreading the religion. This book accomplished these duties similar to the cave drawings that were designed for survival. It showed how to attack specific animals for personal benefits. The Web Designs Depot explains how “design has an element of taste, but the difference between good and bad design is largely a matter of opinion. A good piece of design can still be successful without being to your taste. If it accomplishes its objective of being understood and motivates people to do something” such as leading the people to the path of Christianity.

In my opinion, The Book of Kells is an artistic design. It encapsulates creativity, feeling, question and answer with an added newness of ingenuity. It is both inspiring and motivating. It contains a purpose to convey an idea of persuasion and it ends with an emotional connection. This emotional connection is used to keep the people of the land hooked into the majestic doctrine. The definition of a successful piece of visual content holds the interlocking relationship of both terms art and design. In conclusion this is why I believe that The Book of Kells can be categorized as both terms.

Works Cited

Free Encyclopedia. “Isular Art.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <;.

Gracyk, Ted. “Hume’s Aesthetics (Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Standford

U of Dublin. “Book of Kells.” Trinity College Dublin. U of Dublin, 6 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Sept. 2013. <;.

Web Designers Depot. “The Difference Between Art and Design.” Web Designers Depot. N.p., 21 Sept. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2013. <;.



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