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Book of Kells

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The Book of Kells
Codex Cenannensis
Leabhar Cheanannais
Christ enthroned.
Also known asBook of Columba
Date9th century
ProvenanceColumban monasteries in Ireland, Scotland & England
Manuscript(s)TCD MS 58
GenreGospel Book
Length340 folios, 680 pages
SourcesVulgate, Vetus Latina

The Book of Kells (Latin: Codex Cenannensis; Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais; Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I. [58], sometimes known as the Book of Columba) is an illuminated manuscript and Celtic Gospel book in Latin,[1] containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban monastery in either Ireland or Scotland,[2] and may have had contributions from various Columban institutions from each of these areas. It is believed to have been created c. 800 AD. The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is regarded as a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of Insular illumination. The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, County Meath, which was its home for centuries.

The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass those of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasise the themes of the major illustrations.

The manuscript today comprises 340 leaves or folios; the recto and verso of each leaf total 680 pages. Since 1953, it has been bound in four volumes, 330 mm by 250 mm (13 inches by 9.8 inches). The leaves are high-quality calf vellum; the unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation that covers them includes ten full-page illustrations and text pages that are vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures, marking the furthest extension of the anti-classical and energetic qualities of Insular art. The Insular majuscule script of the text appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron gall ink, and the colours used were derived from a wide range of substances, some of which were imported from distant lands.

Book of Kells was place in Kells, County Meath, The manuscript is on display to visitors in Trinity College Library, Dublin and shows two pages at any one time, rotated every 12 weeks. A digitised version of the entire manuscript may also be seen online.[3]


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In 1951, the Swiss publisher Urs Graf Verlag Bern produced the first facsimile of the Book of Kells.[4] Most of the pages were reproduced in black-and-white photographs, and the edition also had 48 colour reproductions, including all of the full-page decorations.

Under licence from the Board of Trinity College Dublin, the art publishers Thames and Hudson produced a second facsimile edition in 1974. This edition had all the full-page illustrations in the manuscript and a section of text page ornamentation, with some enlarged details of the illustrations. The reproductions were all in full colour.

By 1986, Swiss publisher Faksimile-Verlag had a process that used gentle suction to straighten a page so that it could be photographed without touching it. They got permission to publish a new facsimile.[5] After each page was photographed, a single-page facsimile was prepared so the colours could be carefully compared to the original and adjustments made where necessary. The completed work was published in 1990 in a two-volume set containing the full facsimile and scholarly commentary. One copy is held by the Anglican Church in Kells, on the site of the original monastery.

In 1994, Bernard Meehan, Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, produced an introductory booklet on the Book of Kells, with 110 colour images of the manuscript.[6]

A digital copy of the manuscript was produced by Trinity College in 2006. A rare copy of the Book of Kells can also be seen for free at The Little Museum of Dublin.[7]


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  1. "Brief History - Book of Kells". www.people.vcu.edu. Retrieved 13 July 2023.
  2. "What Is the Book of Kells?". TheCollector. 3 October 2022. Retrieved 13 July 2023.
  3. "Digital Collections: Book of Kells". Trinity College Dublin.
  4. Announcements. Speculum, Vol. 23, No. 3, July, 1948. pp. 555-558.
  5. McGill, Douglas. Irelands's Book of Kells is facsimiled. New York Times, 2 June 1987. Retrieved on 28 February 2008.
  6. Meehan, Bernard 1994. The Book of Kells: An illustrated introduction to the manuscript in Trinity College Dublin. New York: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-27790-7
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 18 February 2020. Retrieved 18 February 2020. {{cite web}}: More than one of |archivedate= and |archive-date= specified (help); More than one of |archiveurl= and |archive-url= specified (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)