Douglas Lee – Book of Kells

            Despite the setting or conditions, the thought behind the action is often contemplated. Wondering how it led to what is has and what exactly the true intention was, the creation of the Book of Kells exemplifies this statement well. Mainly, was it made in the name of art or design? In a piece such as this, what exactly is the difference between the two, and how does the answer affect its impact? In this paper, I will determine the answer to the main question above, and conclude which of the two forms would define it best.

            The Book of Kells was born circa 800 A.D. at the hands of Celtic monks.  Containing the four gospels of the New Testament, decorated with illustrations and extraordinary type, its main purpose was to further spread the word of God to the masses. Almost instantly, the arrow points towards design. Why? Because it fulfills the necessary criteria: a distinct purpose of accomplishing a task while being conceptually crafted. The combination of type and image, or morals and illustrations in this case, are meant to engage and influence the reader. Just like any other book in existence, it follows a certain method which helps maximize the level of interest. Now as soon as this sort of ‘formula’ is introduced, the possibility of it being considered strictly a piece of art is no longer, right? Perhaps.

            The end goal of the project is clear and each of the steps that underwent the procedure contributed to the task. However, certain elements of the Book of Kells seem to have gone beyond what was necessary to get the job done. The majority of the illustrations, despite not being realistic, are incredibly intricate and stylistic. The range of colors and complex compositions emit a kind of fine art aura, but not so much to the point where the viewer is ever confused as to what he/she is seeing. Plus, the repetition of patterns and well-structured text throughout the book only further cement the decision of labeling it as design. While it’s beautifully rendered, it’s more importantly aesthetically pleasing.

            At the end of the day, everything handmade becomes art as it ages. Whether or not that was its original intention, the consensus can’t be swayed. And while I stand firm in my belief that the Book of Kells was made in the name of design, I too can’t help but marvel at the contents within and the history it holds.  Therefore, it’s entirely understandable why the conflict exists, as it has every right to.


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