A brief look at The Book of Kells

by Veronica

I am doing an online course through Trinity College; Dublin about the Book of Kells. I am thoroughly enjoying it and I'm keen to fly over there 40 minutes on the plane to see it. .

What is the Book of Kells?
The Book of Kells is an ancient illuminated script which is housed in Trinity College, Dublin. Because of its age it is obviously all written and illustrated by hand in what is known as Insular Script.
In 382, Pope Damasus asked Jerome, a scholar, to produce a Latin version of the Bible. This translation of the Bible was called the Vulgate, and this became the most used of the Bible.
The Book of Kells is mainly the Vulgate translation.

Here is a very brief look at The Book of Kells.

The Scribe

By Veronica

One of the activities has been to produce something artistic about Kells and culture.

I decided to do a poem about the monastic scribes who would have written it over years by hand. 

I hope you like it.


The Scribe 

Hunching, hurting shoulders wincing with bending,

Aching fingers working in flickering light,

Eyes watering, blinking at calf vellum page,

Spirals and fillers, illuminated sight.


Breath catching, cold breeze hissing monastic souls,

Peacock, lion, serpent, in respectful hues,

Empowering the gospel words, Carbon Black

Emboldened by beauty, Indigo and blues.


 Insular Script, Scribe and Artist Harmony,

Cats and mice finishing with the sacred bells,

Hardy, steady hands lay down their Verdigris

Animalia glorifying of Kells.

page from Kells
page from Kells


Kells Abbey had been an off shoot, or re-founding from the Scottish island of Iona Abbey. The monks on Iona had escaped over to Ireland to keep safe from Viking raids and had settled at Kells in what County Meath is now, some 40 miles north of Dublin. 

It is believed that The Book of Kells was probably started over in Scotland at Iona.

The book is over 340 folios and so about 680 sheets of vellum. Some pages are missing, and some have been damaged. 

The Book was rehoused at Trinity College for safekeeping many years later. 


From the Book of Kells

image from kells
image from kells

Animals in Kells

Animals figure heavily in the illustrations in the Book of Kells.

Lions, birds and fish feature and may symbolise the gospel writers. Cats do not immediately have a religious symbolism except in Irish lore cats kept the mouse population down on the Ark. 

3 Gospel writers traditionally have an animal symbol associated with them … St Mark, a lion. St Luke an ox and St John, an eagle.  These images feature in the Book. 

Cats in The Book of  Kells
Cats in The Book of Kells

Colours used

The colours used are quite distinctive.

Verdigris  -----  Green

Indigo.....  Blue/violet

Carbon Black ….

Orcein  …..  red

Gypsum ….  pink /grey

Orpiment …. orange /yellow

Lead Red

Iron Gall   brown /black

Trinity College

The last time I was in Dublin I queued for an hour to see The Book and was told there was another 2 hours wait and it would be closed by the time I got to the top of the queue. 

Next time, I will go early. I just want a brief glimpse of this masterpiece. 

Updated: 10/04/2019, Veronica
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DerdriuMarriner on 04/28/2023

In particular, I appreciate your affixing two images of sentient felines.

But it intrigues me what is featured in the way of add-ons and colors.

For example, what is the arrow-like add-on to the tail of the sentient feline on the right? And what is that bewhiskered, small-headed animal at the end of the sentient feline on the left?

The subheading, Colours used, below those two side-by-side images, joins a number of realistic colors to the fanciful blue and green!

Why would non-realistic blue and green be used instead of realistic black, brown, gray, orange and yellow?

Veronica on 04/26/2023

I apologise for the late reply Derdriu. They are very very fragile and kept away from the light. They are not as elaborate as Kells and I did not see inside them. The light is fairly subdued in the gallery.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/19/2023

Your images from your recentest visit to Dublin let us enjoy page-views of the Book of Kells.

The other book and the pocket gospels remained as views of them closed in their glass cases.

Would the Book of Armagh, Durrow and Melling and the Pocket Gospels be as impressive if opened? Or would they have showed their ages?

Veronica on 04/15/2023

It is centuries old. Frank you would love it.. It also includes the Book of Armagh, Durrow and Melling. and the Pocket Gospels. We are going to Cork next month.

frankbeswick on 04/15/2023

I cannot think of any theological significance for this observation.

Veronica on 04/14/2023

Derdriu. Good morning.
It really does. I do not know of any particular significance to this. I assume it may have faded over 1200 years.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/13/2023

Your second in-text image set, directly under the subheading From the Book of Kells, has an interesting look to the eyes of the man on the left.

The right eye is without a pupil! Is there a name linked with that image?

Might there be an historically accurate reason for this or would that pupil-less eye result from aging and environmental stress upon the Book of Kells?

frankbeswick on 10/19/2019

You cannot infer from my response that I am a monarchist.I was merely describing the state of affairs when I was two,which is a far cry from approving it.In fact, I remember the party rather than the coronation.

For your information I am a benign,inactive republican.I do not believe in monarchy, but live with it and do not contend against it, for I have my own issues to deal with.

Veronica on 10/19/2019

YOU monarchist you ! :)

frankbeswick on 10/14/2019

Yes, I was two when she was crowned, a couple of weeks before I was three. In later years my parents could not believe that I could remember the street party that was held, until I proved my memory was accurate by describing the scene. Rain had necessitated that it was held in our tiny terraced house, which was full of children.My younger brother, Tony, was but a baby, so he sat on grandfather's knee on grandfather's favourite chair by the large fireplace with its hob and oven.The children stood on a green bench at the table eating lollipops and drinking orange juice.

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