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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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.

Veronica on 10/13/2019

That sounds very interesting. You are correct that I didn't know it actually existed. I don't think I've ever watched film of the Queen's coronation. I wasn't born of course although two of my brothers including my dearest Frank were born when she was crowned.

blackspanielgallery on 10/07/2019

I watched a documentary on the Coronation Book, perhaps it has a different real name. It was videoed for the show. It is normally brought out for a coronation of a new monarch, and read from during the ceremony. The book is chronicles the history of the British monarchy, and proves the right to the throne. I realize you would not care for a coronation, nor anything used in one.

Veronica on 10/07/2019

Dearest BSG
Yes indeed . The course has been amazing and I am determined to fly over to Dublin when I get a free day and see it for real .
I have wanted to see it for 20 years but haven't got there yet!

I have never heard of the Coronation Book. I don't know what it is.

blackspanielgallery on 10/06/2019

Ancient colorized books are indeed beautiful, and stand as testament to the dedication and artistic details of those who produced them. I am aware of one other, the Coronation Book kept at Westminster and used only rarely. I would expect any hand produced colorized book to be kept in a controlled environment, and not made available to the public, except via photography, and even those images scarce in fear light from the flash might interact with the paper or ink. You are fortunate to be able to view images of the documents.

Veronica on 10/04/2019

Thank you Derdriu
Hopefully my course leaders like it too! I chose to look at not the book itself but from the viewpoint of the scribes and the incredible work they must have put in during a time when most people were illiterate.
The paintings are all colours . I think it shows the ethereal nature and spirituality of the work but I don't know for sure.
There are some mistakes but it is believed they were illustrated over.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/04/2019

Veronica, Thank you for the images, not only of the people but also the cats in the Book of Kells, and the poem.
Do we know why the cats have predominantly blue and green bodies and why one is surrounded by red dots?
Your poem is lovely. It moves me the way you begin with the physically demanding impacts on the scribe and end with the realization of beauty because of "hardy, steady hands."
I remember reading that a mistake in a manuscript led people to believe incorrectly that Henry VII sneaked into London to start his reign. What would scribes do if they or someone else caught mistakes or omissions?

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