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The Book of Kells


Portrait of John from the Book of Kells

Portrait of John from the Book of Kells

Public Domain
The Book of Kells is a stunningly beautiful manuscript containing the Four Gospels. It is Ireland's most precious medieval artifact, and is generally considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe.

Origins and History:

The Book of Kells was probably produced in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, to honor Saint Columba in the early 8th century. After a Viking raid the book was moved to Kells, Ireland, sometime in the 9th century. It was stolen in the 11th century, at which time its cover was torn off and it was thrown into a ditch. The cover, which most likely included gold and gems, has never been found, and the book suffered some water damage; but otherwise it is extraordinarily well-preserved.
In 1541, at the height of the English Reformation, the book was taken by the Roman Catholic Church for safekeeping. It was returned to Ireland in the 17th century, and Archbishop James Ussher gave it to Trinity College, Dublin, where it resides today.


The Book of Kells was written on vellum (calfskin), which was time-consuming to prepare properly but made for an excellent, smooth writing surface. 680 individual pages (340 folios) have survived, and of them only two lack any form of artistic ornamentation. In addition to incidental character illuminations, there are entire pages that are primarily decoration, including portrait pages, "carpet" pages and partially decorated pages with only a line or so of text.
As many as ten different colors were used in the illuminations, some of them rare and expensive dyes that had to be imported from the continent. The workmanship is so fine that some of the details can only be clearly seen with a magnifying glass.

Modern Reproduction:

In the 1980s a facsimile of the Book of Kells was begun in a project between the Fine Art Facsimile Publisher of Switzerland and Trinity College, Dublin. Faksimile-Verlag Luzern produced more than 1400 copies of the first color reproduction of the manuscript in its entirety. This facsimile, which is so accurate that it reproduces tiny holes in the vellum, allows people to see the extraordinary work which has been so carefully protected at Trinity College.

Online Images from the Book of Kells:


The facsimile produced by Faksimile-Verlag Luzern is available on CD-ROM, which you can view page by page or folio by folio. The CD also includes fascinating background information on the book's origin and history. Very well done and, in your Guide's opinion, more than worth the price. Visit The Book of Kells CD ROM website for more information or to purchase it online.

Suggested Reading:

Related Products:
The Paperblanks Book Company has produced a series of four extraordinary blank, lined, hand-stitched journals based on the Book of Kells. They are:
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