A Piece of Irish History: The Book of Kells

La Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh!!  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!

When I think of honoring Irish Heritage, I don’t think of the modern partying and wearing of the green. I think of a symbol of creative Irish history, the wonderfully illuminated medieval manuscript called “The Book of Kells”. It has been regarded as one of the most beautiful examples of Celtic artwork.


Detail of one page of “The Book of Kells”. Original is displayed at Trinity College, Dublin

“The Book of Kells” is a religious book, and contains the gospels of the Bible. It was created by Monks on pages made of carefully prepared calfskin called vellum. Not only does it have inked words that pop out as artwork all by themselves, it is also jam-packed with gorgeous detailed illumination (illustrations) painted with pigments hand made from natural materials such as plants and minerals. The details are stunning! I am constantly amazed at the tiny and exact strokes done with a primitive quill under natural or lantern light. Those few artists had to have had perfect technique with non shaking hands!

How old it is, no one is completely sure, but they place the date close to the 800s AD.
Where this manuscript was written and illustrated could range from a monastery on an island off Scotland called Iona, or other sections of Scotland. The Monks then took up refuge from Vikings raids in Kells (Ceanannas ) in Ireland. In the same County Mearth (Contae na Mí ) which is rich with medieval and ancient Irish historical landmarks. There the manuscript remained during the middle ages. In the 1600s it was moved to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where it remains now on display. The fact that it still exists and you can still read and see the colors after all these centuries is mind boggling.

Why do I love this manuscript? Because the book is so richly decorated! At first glance of these detailed decorations and you might think who could come up with these designs? Were they under the influence of drugs?? No, they had imagination and creativity with a bit of borrowing.


Many of the basic design elements for the book have roots in older Celtic art. In Bernard Meehan’s “The Book of Kells”  there are two pages that show side by side comparisons with artifacts of ancient carved stones and jewelry/accessories from old gravesites. You can definitely see how the Monks may have borrowed some of these designs, but they took their illumination to a whole other level of fantasy! That is what I love the most about this book, all the fanciful creatures and the flowing feeling of the knot-work.


Following the Monks influence, I decided to borrow designs from their book, and embellish some of my fiber arts.

In “The Book of Kells”, there are many fun animals. Often they have jobs as punctuation marks or to point to key elements in the text. I find them kind of like a story within the story. You could argue that they had religious symbolism, but I prefer to think the Monks were just having a little fun in painting them.KellsFish








One of the creatures in the book I found personally appealing was the wonderful jewel-tone colored “Wolf”. One part realism and the rest bunches of fantasy as he marches across the page!


Folio 76v from Trinity College Digital file








Another favorite animal in the book is the salamander.

kellslizardI found it interesting that most of the references I read on this subject called it a lizard and they were not sure if it was from a scribe’s imagination or not. On a recent trip to a Maritime Museum, I was pleasantly surprised to see spotted Sirens. Interestingly they are large salamanders with only front paws and those paws had claw like toenails, just like in “The Book of Kells”! Per the Waterman and Hill Traveller’s Companion: “Sirens are probably the most ancient line of salamanders now alive on planet earth.” and they can grow to 16 inches in length.

I made the appliques out of linen in the colors that come close to the pigment colors and outlined it with embroidery.


“Wolf” applique in progress.






Wolf and Salamander appliques completed.









The spirals of the book influenced this embroidered wool vest I made. The final touches were the polished stone in the center of the designs.


Wool vest in planning stage






Finished wood vest

Finished wood vest









Decorating a Halloween themed coat I used a modification of the Kells Cats! Compare to the photo above.

Beginnings of the embroidered details of this coat.

Beginnings of the embroidered details of this coat.








I hope I have inspired you this St. Patrick’s Day to check out “The Book of Kells” at Trinity College of Dublin’s link : Click on the photo.KellsSpiral

Zoom in and enjoy the very fine details. And I hope you will also feel inspired to try creating something influenced by it!



La Fhéile Pádraig Shona Daoibh!!  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!


For more Kells, add this perfect St. Patrick’s Day treat to your day. It is a beautifully animated little movie that was inspired by the manuscript: “The Secret of the Kells”. Here is the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw2_HZTuQBE.

Bernard Meehan, The Book of Kells, an Illustrated Introduction
Peter Harbison, The Golden Age of Irish Art: The Medieval Achievement
Christopher DeHamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts

Several of the words above are in the Irish language, but more on that in another post!

Be sure and check out Facebook Page: Maplewood Press for more photos and information.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *