The Book of Kells is a well-known illustrated manuscript and one of the most famous medieval Christian pieces of art. It contains the Four Gospels of the New Testament in Latin and has been claimed to be “the work of an angel” (Gardner’s Art Through the Ages). Also known as Leabhar Chemannais, the Book of Columbia, and the Gospel of Colum Cille, the book is renowned for its beautiful illuminated pages full of detail and color. It is incredible how this detailed, fragile book survived hundreds of years and traveled many miles to finally reside in Dublin, Ireland.
Read more: Student Series! Two Medieval Manuscripts
Surviving the Journey
The book remained in the St. Colum Cille monastery in Iona for a short period of time, preserved in an elaborate metalwork box. The book was moved from Iona to Kells in 806 CE, after Vikings raided the St. Colum Cille monastery, killing several monks. The remaining monks fled to Kells with the book and tried to return to Iona, but ultimately stayed in Kells. In 899 CE, the Abbey of Kells was destroyed by the Danes. It was later rebuilt, but then Danish forces destroyed it again in 918, 967, and 996 CE. The book suffered water damage in the attacks and the cover was lost along with some pages that were never recovered.
The first documentation that the book was actually in Kells was from Annals of Ulster, who reported the book was stolen in 1006 CE from Kells. It was later returned to Kells from Donegal, along with the Book of Durrow. The book eventually gained the title the Book of Kells because it spent the majority of the medieval time period preserved in the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, where it was displayed on a church altar. Margin writing was added on to a few of the pages sometime during the 11th and 12th century and during the 15th century, a poem was added on to folio 289. Since then, the book has not been written on.
Read more: AP Art History: Writing & Art
The Final Resting Spot
In 1641, the Abbey of Kells was destroyed and in 1953, the governor of Kells, Charles Lambert, had the book sent to Dublin. It was brought to Trinity College and was put on display in the mid-19th century. The Book of Kells is still on display in Trinity College’s Library. Even after hundreds of years, it is still in good condition and can be appreciated by the millions of people who visit it every year.
- “Book of Kells (c. 800).” Visual Arts Cork. Accessed March 4th, 2016. www.visual-arts-cork.com/cultural-history-of-ireland/book-of-kells.htm#kells
- Challies, Tim. “The History of Christianity in 25 Objects: The Book of Kells.” Challies. Accessed March 4th, 2016. www.challies.com/articles/the-history-of-christianity-in-25-objects-the-book-of-kells.
- Kleiner, Fred. S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global View. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016.
- “The Book of Kells.” The Library of Trinity College Dublin. Accessed March 7th, 2016. www.tcd.ie/Library/manuscripts/book-of-kells.php.