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Art85 paper1: Book of Kells Art or Design?

October 13, 2011

The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript that has controversy and unanswered questions surrounding it. With in the circle of art historians there is debate as to when and where the book was original written. Some argue it was first written in 800 AD in the monastery of Iona and then moved to Ireland possible to the town of Kells from which the book takes its name. Other theories propose that the book was written later completely within Ireland. Part of the reason for the uncertainty behind the Book of Kells is that is incomplete with to two unfinished pages and an unknown amount of missing pages out of a manuscript that has three hundred thirty plus pages of which that are known. In the realms of both art and design another question regarding the Book of Kells that can asked is whether it should be considered as purposeful design, as a work of art or both. To answer this question it necessary to bear in mind the historical context that the book written in when referring to scholarly opinions to determine whether the should be considered art or design.

To understand whether an illuminated manuscript such the the book of Kells should be consider more as a work of art or as functional design differentiating standards for art should be utilized to avoid confusion. Both are sides represented enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Immanuel Kant each consider what is aesthetically pleasing in different ways. The empiricist philosopher David Hume thoughts on art as summarized has the need to establish a standard of quality for comparing works and measuring tastes. Kant’s ideas on the other hand are less focused on creating a standard and more about the more the feelings joy and pleasure an artwork beings to the person viewing it. In order for an art to be beautiful the ascetics the defining factor regardless of the of the ideas, subject matter or elements of the art work. Both of these of ideas can be used in determining the Book of Kells lends itself more to design or art.

Matthew depicted in the Book of Durrow

Matthew depicted in the Book of Durrow

The Book of Kells is one of the best surviving examples of a religious illuminated manuscript of the medieval period and of a unique visual created during that period in time. Within the Book of Kells there is are many visual elements including the calligraphic script and the illuminated illustrations that belong to a unique type of art style that distinguishes the book and others like it to certain time and place. The art style know as the Insular style originating in the Ireland and to illuminated manuscripts by the Celtic monks. The Insular style as described by Philp B. Meggs “is abstract and extremely complex ; geometric linear patterns weave, twist, and fill a space with thick visual textures and bright, pure colors are used in close juxtaposition.” (Meggs 41) Other aspects of the of Insular art include the use of zoomorphic or anthropomorphic imagery in the depiction religious figures. As demonstrated in the page of the four Evangelists were they not depicted as men but, as supernatural figures based on their symbols. Matthew is shown as an angel, Mark as a winged lion, Luke as a wing ox, and John as an eagle.

Eagle carpet page in the book of Durrow an earlier Insular Gospel

The Four Evangelists

The Four Evangelists as depicted in the Book of Kells

This manuscript happens to provide the finest surviving of Insular artwork to within found with in any of manuscript of it’s day. To barrow the words of art historian Robert G. Calkins “The Book of Kells manifests the most complex from of Insular ornament to survive.” He goes to elaborate on this point further by stating the book the of Kells as being “the fullest development of Insular tradition of illumination.” (Calikns 78)The art work was not limited to the illustrations but was incorporated to the text of the book as well. Containing “over 2,100 ornate capitals make every page of visual delight. Here and there through the course of its 339 leaves, a sentence blooms into full page illumination” (Meggs 43) . The effect that the this complex art work had on a person viewing them is the same has was in the middle ages evidenced by the words of Giraldus Cambrensis who traveled to Ireland 1185 commenting on the manuscript he saw which may have been the Book of Kells.

Fine Craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid, that you might say all this was the work of an angel, and not of a man.’ (Calkins  78)

From this statement it easy to see that artwork of the Book of Kells had a strong spiritual and emotional effect on people that can be described as Kant what considered a ‘finer feeling’ then what of that time people accustomed to, despite being connected to religious faith. This of course to would help strengthen and Christian faith which was purpose of creating such a manuscript.Although the extensive amount of ornament and illustrations was effective grab the attention of people who saw or hear of it did come with a trade off in terms of the readability of the text.

By looking a images of the book’s artwork it would be tempting to think that the Book of Kells is piece of medieval religious art without much thought into a practical and effective design for the manuscript has a whole. This is not the case however, all the of the manuscripts including the Book of Kells being a religious works done over many years there would no aspect of the books were over looked, whether it is was the ordering the pages to typography used to write them. Although the illustrations are what immediately grab the attention of the reader just has much work was done to make the writing legible. To better understand the design aspects of the book of Kells it is necessary to compare it to similar work, The Book of Durrow which Calkins states is  “the earliest fully designed and ornamented Celtic book” being written in 680 AD provides a means for comparison in design . Starting with the script used in t o write the book called “uncials” has both the size and name were off a Roman inch call a unica. The uncials and half-uncials from early Greeks and Roman illuminated manuscripts was redesigned into what became insular script . Their had a two-fold purpose, first of the all the shape curved of the uncial letter helped to make written quicker and cleaner as it ” reduced the number of strokes required to make letter-forms” (Meggs 41) Second the half-uncial serve as an early from of lower-case and helped to make the words more legible because of the size difference of the letters. There were also other advancements in typography made Celtic monks, involving the layout of the words. A convention of all western written the modern world is the use of spaces in between words. This was not the case during the early middle ages and prior, the use of spaces between was such a drastic change that when it introduced by the insular Gospels like the Book of Kells it is considered “a radical design innovation” to this day according to Meggs.

Aside from using many principles of typography that would be used latter in other manuscripts and written works there were other design techniques to solve unique problems. An especially vexing problem that faced the writers of the Insular gospels was how to fit the large illuminated initials with rest of the text. The solution to this problem was the graphic principle of “diminuendo” invented by the monks. What the use of “diminuendo” entails scaling the text down from the illuminated initials to the end of the line. An example of the diminuendo principle in use is found in the Book of Durrow on the opening of the Gospel of Mark:

“the letters of word ‘Initium’ create large monogram thrusting the down the page. The large double initial is followed in decreasing size by a smaller initial, the last four letters of first word, the two words and the text. This descending scale unites the large initial to the text.” (Meggs 42)

Open page on the Book of Durrow's gospel of Mark

This use of diminuendo is repeating in the Book of Kells on the page facing the picture of the Virgin Mary. holding the infant Jesus.  

The Madonna and Baby Jesus (Book of Kells)

While the Book of Kells includes many elements from previous manuscripts especially the Book of Durrow, including a number of design elements including the Insular script, the spacing between words, and the red dots to create visual unity there is one thing the sets them apart. This is an improvement in the page layout of Book of Kells that was meant to fix a problem that existed in older manuscripts. Having the text heavy pages interrupt by the highly decorative art fulled carpet pages this caused confusion as the one would distraction from the other. To avoid this the gospel summaries, prologues and other writings were put at the beginning and keep separate from the art work. Unfortunately, most these earlier sections of the book are missing so the exact contains are unknown are open to speculation.

When looking at illuminated Insular manuscripts of which the Books of Kells is the most complete and advance surviving manuscript there are many vital details of the book that needs multiply viewings to truly understand and appreciated. At first glance the book is a collection of decorative illustrations and highly stylized text with strong Christen overtones. The visual flare of the books pages can at times obscures the attempts for practical design to communicate to as wide group as possible. Whether it was the illiterate laymen, educated nobility and of course the among monks and other members of the church. Part of the reason that the design is overlook is that is subtle and what design aspects to modern viewer that are easily viewable are often intelligible, in due part to the text being done in uncials script and in an old languages. Another reason the design of the book as gone over looked is because the book it incomplete. Most of the pages of book are missing the exact number of which is unknown with two incomplete incomplete pages. As a result whatever is left seen only reflect part of the book’s art and design. The same applies to works from past such as the monuments and classical statues of ancient Greece and Rome. Despite the fact that the Books of Kells is unfinished and has language barrier there is a lot that can be learned in terms of how both art and design combine to create a better a whole.


1. Calkins, Robert G. “Illuminated Books of Middle Ages” Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 1983 print

2. Gracyk, Theodore “Philosophy of of Art Hume and Kant: Summary and Comparison” Minnesota StateUniversity, 2004 Web 19 Sept 2011.

3. Megg, Philp B. “A History of Graphic Design” . New York: John Wiley & Son, Inc. 1998 print


From → Art85, medieval ages

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