The Book of Kells: Splendid Illuminated Manuscript

Book of Kells, 8th C Irish manuscript
Book of Kells, 8th C Irish manuscript. Patrick Lordan/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

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. The 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.


After some prefaces and canon tables, the main thrust of the book is the Four Gospels. Each one is preceded by a carpet page featuring the author of the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). These authors acquired symbols in the early medieval era, as explained in Symbolism of the Four Gospels.

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

Images from the Book of Kells
This image gallery includes "Christ Enthroned," a decorated initial close-up, "Madonna and Child" and more, here at the Medieval History site
The Book of Kells at Trinity College
Digital images of every page that you can magnify. The thumbnail navigation is a little problematic, but the previous and next buttons for each page work just fine.

The Book of Kells on Film

In 2009 an animated film was released called The Secret of Kells. This beautifully-produced feature relates a mystical tale of the making of the book. For more information, check out the Blu-Ray Review by Kids' Movies & TV Expert Carey Bryson.

Suggested Reading

The "compare prices" links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants. The "visit merchant" links will take you to an online bookstore, where you can find more information about the book to help you get it from your local library. This is provided as a convenience to you; neither Melissa Snell nor About is responsible for any purchases you make through these links.

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Snell, Melissa. "The Book of Kells: Splendid Illuminated Manuscript." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Snell, Melissa. (2020, August 27). The Book of Kells: Splendid Illuminated Manuscript. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "The Book of Kells: Splendid Illuminated Manuscript." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).