In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Book of Kells

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • General References
  • Exhibitions
  • Gospel Text
  • Paleography
  • Canon Tables
  • The Charters (Notitiae)
  • Decoration: Surveys, Artistic Context, Style
  • Graphic Design
  • Technical Studies: Pigments, Vellum, Drawing Techniques
  • James Joyce and the Book of Kells

Medieval Studies Book of Kells
Carol A. Farr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0160


The Book of Kells is a large format manuscript of the gospels, famed for the beauty and ingenuity of its decoration. One of the most renowned medieval manuscripts, its exact date and place of origin are unknown. Generally accepted to have been made in the late 8th or early 9th century, it is usually attributed to the monastery founded in 563 by the Irish holy man St. Columba on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Written in bold Insular style scripts, it has a mixed Vulgate and Old Latin text typical of gospels associated with early medieval Ireland, but with some notable unique variants. It opens with accessory texts introducing the whole gospel book and prefatory texts proper to each gospel. Documents relating to lands of the Columban monastery at Kells were written on blank sides of several of these prefatory folios in the 11th and 12th centuries, providing evidence of its later medieval location. Some scholars attribute all or part of it to Kells, founded in the early 9th century after Viking attacks on Iona. The manuscript was removed from Kells during the religious and political turmoil of the 17th century and eventually sent to Dublin, where it was given to Trinity College Library. Today, as Manuscript 58, it remains at Trinity. One of Ireland’s most precious treasures, its visual art and historical aura are part of the modern Irish national self-image. It contains all types of Insular manuscript art: “beast” canon tables, four-symbols pages, full-page initials, an evangelist portrait, full-page pictures, one “cross-carpet” page, and thousands of decorated minor initials. Modern scholarship is mainly art-historical, with concentration on “word and image” and other interpretative studies. Efforts to determine the date of origin have receded from the contentious debates of the 20th century, as to a lesser extent have the arguments over its place of origin, with recognition of the general cultural unity of Ireland and the British Isles in the early Middle Ages and the fading of modern prejudices. Date and origin remain, however, unresolved important questions, with the absence of conclusive argument frustrating detailed contextual studies. Other questions, such as the number of artists and scribes who contributed to the manuscript and how often and by whom it was viewed, also remain without definitive answers. Despite the knowledge gaps, the Book of Kells remains one of the most discussed works of the early Middle Ages.

General Overviews

A vast number of general books have been published on the Book of Kells, many of them inexpensive souvenirs for the tourist market. Nevertheless, it has been the subject of specialist attention and popular cultural interest for two centuries, creating a demand for high-quality general overviews. Meehan 1994 presents the best text and pictures in a low-priced modern overview directed at the general public. Deluxe format books of color facsimiles, Henry 1974 and Meehan 2012 have detailed commentaries written by leading scholars. Henderson 1987 gives an excellent overview of the larger artistic context and is appropriate for advanced students as well as specialists. Fox 1990 provides detailed analysis and discussions of all physical aspects of the manuscript. O’Mahony 1994 provides a wide range of specialist studies in several disciplines (history, textual study, art history, paleography, archaeology). Barbet-Massin 2013 gives a rich contextual and iconographic survey of Insular manuscripts. Masai 1947, notorious for its racism, intensified and widened the controversy on origin, to the effect of further undermining assumptions of Irish origin. See also Facsimiles.

  • Barbet-Massin, Dominique. L’Enluminure et le sacré: Irlande et Grande-Bretagne VIIe-VIIIe siècles. Paris: Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2013.

    At times ranging uncritically and too broadly (for instance in drawing upon prehistoric material), this lengthy survey nonetheless presents some insights that deserve further consideration. The chapter on symbolic representations of space in particular provides some original and fruitful interpretations. Engages with current scholarship across multiple disciplines.

  • Fox, Peter, ed. The Book of Kells: MS 58, Trinity College Library Dublin: Commentary. Lucerne: Fine Art Facsimile Publishers of Switzerland, 1990.

    Indispensable to scholarly study, this volume provides authoritative studies of prefatory and gospel texts, later additions, vellum, bindings, scripts, illuminations, later history, and comprehensive bibliography to 1990. The section on pigments, however, is outdated (see Bioletti, et al. 2009, cited under Technical Studies: Pigments, Vellum, Drawing Techniques, and Fox 1990, cited under Complete Facsimiles.

  • Henderson, George. From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel-Books, 650–800. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

    The only modern art-historical survey of Insular gospel books. Henderson’s iconographic interpretations of major decoration of the Book of Kells remain influential. Ends with a chapter on historical perceptions of the manuscript.

  • Henry, Françoise. The Book of Kells: Reproductions from the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

    The primary purpose for this volume was the color facsimiles, but Henry’s commentary remained the most detailed and influential art-historical study until the 1990s. In part outdated, although some points are still cited and her sensitive descriptions remain valuable. See also Henry 1974, cited under Reproductions of Single Pages and Details.

  • Masai, François. Essai sur les origins de la miniature dite irlandaise. Brussels: Éditions “Erasme,” 1947.

    Asserted origins of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Books of Durrow and Kells at Lindisfarne, based largely on published facsimiles and the author’s racial opposition of Irish and Anglo-Saxons. An early supporter of a 9th-century date for Book of Kells. Key for Brown 1993, cited under Paleography.

  • Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.

    An accurate, readable overview by the Keeper of Manuscripts, Trinity College, Dublin. Gives concise accounts of the historical and artistic background, the overall scheme of decoration, iconographic elements, types of decoration, materials, and production. Also imparts new observations and engages with recent scholarship, and has up-to-date references. Widely available, and suitable for undergraduate students.

  • Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Kells. London: Thames and Hudson, 2012.

    Detailed discussion of the decoration, engagement with recent scholarship, and observations rooted in Meehan’s unique access to the manuscript elevate the commentary’s value for specialists and students. Covers nearly all aspects, including pigment analysis and revised “collation map.” Outstanding color reproductions. See also Meehan 2012, cited under Reproductions of Single Pages and Details.

  • O’Mahony, Felicity, ed. The Book of Kells: Proceedings of a Conference, Trinity College Dublin, 6–9 September 1992. Aldershot, UK: Scolar Press, 1994.

    Papers on historical background, texts, scripts, vellum, iconography, style of decoration, and related art works. Several present new discoveries, syntheses, and analyses: Ó Corráin (historical background); McGurk (Hebrew names); Stalley (high crosses); Kelly (Lough Kinale shrine); Netzer (canon tables); Brown (stylistic connections); O’Reilly, Ó Carragáin, and Farr (iconography).

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