The Book of Kells, Medieval Europe’s Greatest Treasure

In the Collection of Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

The Book of Kells is considered to be Ireland’s most precious medieval artifact and the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe. The majority academic opinion now tends to attribute it to three artists and four scribes at the scriptorium of Iona, a monastery founded around 561. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island which left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, and for many years the two monasteries were governed as a single community. It must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written, although there is no way of knowing if the book was produced wholly at Iona or at Kells, or partially at each location.

The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation. The Gospel texts are prefaced by other texts, including “canon tables”, or concordances of Gospel passages common to two or more of the evangelists; summaries of the gospel narratives (Breves causae); and prefaces characterizing the evangelists (Argumenta).

The manuscript’s celebrity derives largely from the impact of its lavish decoration, the extent and artistry of which is incomparable. Abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament punctuate the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message, and keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader.

There are full pages of decoration for the canon tables; 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. The Chi Rho page (folio 34r), introducing Matthew’s account of the nativity, is the single most famous page in medieval art. There are portraits of Matthew and John, but no portrait of Mark or Luke survives. These were probably executed, 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.

The most famous page is known as Chi Rho, which are the first letters of the word ‘Christ’ in Ancient Greek (Credit: The Book of Kells)

Visit the Trinity Library

Take the free online course, Exploring the Book of Kells at Futurelearn

Long form articles:

The Book of Kells

Bernard Meehan

Published by Thames & Hudson Ltd, United Kingdom(2012)

ISBN 10: 0500238944 ISBN 13: 9780500238943

Exploring The Book of Kells

George Otto Simms

Published by The O’Brien Press (1998)

ISBN 10: 0862781795 ISBN 13: 9780862781798

The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience (British Library Studies in Medieval Culture)

Farr, Carol Ann

Published by University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division (1998)

ISBN 10: 0802081576 ISBN 13: 9780802081575

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