The date and place of production of the manuscript has been the subject of considerable controversy. Traditionally the book was thought to have been created in the time of Saint Columba (also known as St. Columkille) and was possibly even the work of his hands. It is now generally accepted that this tradition is false based on paleographic grounds. Although some scholars maintain that the book was produced entirely in Ireland, the book likely began in a monastery on the island of Iona (off the Western coast of Scotland). One theory is that portions of the book were made at Iona and, after Viking raids on Iona forced the monks to retreat, the book was continued in Ireland, perhaps at Kells. Most believe that the book is the work of at least four scribes, none of which are known to us by name.
The name "Book of Kells" is derived from the Abbey of Kells, in County Meath in Ireland, where it was kept for much of the medieval period. In the 12th century charters pertaining to the Abbey of Kells were copied into some of the book's blank pages, giving the earliest confirmed date for manuscript's presence at Kells. The manuscript was removed from Kells in 1541.
The Book of Kells contains the four gospels of the Christian scriptures written in black, red, purple and yellow ink in a insular half uncial or majuscule script, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and concordances of gospel passages, written on vellum. The text is accompanied by incredibly intricate full pages of artwork, with smaller painted decorations appearing throughout the text itself. Some small portions at the beginning and end of the manuscript have been lost, but otherwise, it is still in remarkably good condition. The book was apparently left unfinished, because some of the artwork appears only in outline.
The book has a lavish illumination program, one far greater than any other surviving insular gospel book. There are three surviving full page miniatures of the four evangelist symbols, one each before the opening of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John (folios 27v, 129v, and 290v). Directly facing the opening texts of Matthew and John are full page portraits of the evangelists (folios 28v and 291v). It can be assumed that the evangelist symbol page for Luke and the portraits of Mark and Luke at one time existed, but have been lost. There are also three full page miniatures, illustrating particular points of the text. These are portraits of the Virgin and Child (folio 7v) and Christ in Majesty (folio 32v), the Arrest of Christ (folio 114r) and the Temptation of Christ (folio 202v). It is probable that other full page miniatures have been lost. Facing the miniature of Christ in Majesty is the book's only Carpet Page.
In addition to the full page miniatures, the text itself was often illuminated, and, in effect, turned into carpet pages. The opening verses of each of the gospels have been given this treatment. These full page decorated verses face, in Matthew and John the evangelist portraits, and presumably would have faced the now lost portraits of Mark and Luke. The decoration of these texts is so elaborate that the text itself is almost illegible. The opening page (folio28r) of Matthew may stand as an example. The page consists of only two words Liber generationis ("The book of the generation"). The "lib" of Liber is turned in to a giant monogram which dominates the entire page. The "er" of Liber is presented as interlaced ornament within the "b" of the "lib" monogram. Generationis is broken into three lines and contained within an elaborate frame in the right lower quadrant of the page. The entire assemblage is contained within an elaborate border. The border and the letters themselves are further decorated with elaborate spirals and knotwork, many of them zoomorphic. The opening words of Mark, Initium evangelii ("The beginning of the gospel"), Luke, Quoniam quidem multi, and John In principio erat verbum ("In the beginning was the Word") are all given similar treatments.
In addition to the opening texts of each of the gospels, the verses associated with each of the full page miniatures have been given an elaborate treatment. Facing the miniature of the Virgin and Child are the opening words of the Breves causae of Matthew, Nativitas Christi in Bethlem, which are given a full page treatment. ( The Breves causae are brief summaries of the gospels found in the introductory matter of many of the insular gospel books.) The miniature of the Arrest of Christ is on the recto of folio 114. On that folio's verso is the text Tunc dicit illis ("Then He said these things"), the opening words Matthew's account of the arrest of Christ. Facing the miniature of the Temptation of Christ are the opening words of Luke 4:1, Iesus autem plenus. These words are also given a full page illumination and are the beginning of the account of Christ's temptation in the wilderness.
Of special interest is the page known as the Chi Rho monogram, the most elaborate illumination of the medieval period (see illustration below). The Chi Rho monogram follows the miniature of Christ in Majesty and the Carpet Page. It is the culmination of a tradition starting with the Book of Durrow. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy Christ. The actual beginning of the story of Christ started at this point and was seen as an appropriate point for embellishment.
Several other texts also given elaborate treatment, even though there is no surviving miniature associated with them, although such miniatures may have been lost. These texts mark off major events in Christ's life including His birth (in Luke), crucifixion (in Matthew and Mark), resurrection (in Luke), and ascension (in Mark). It is probable that these texts also had associated miniatures.
The decoration of the book is not limited to the major pages. Indeed almost every page has some decoration. Scattered through the text are decorated initials and small figures of animals and humans often twisted and tied into complicated knots. Because of this massive amount of decoration Kells has been called the oldest surviving fully illuminated manuscript.
The decorations are all of high quality. The complexity of these designs is often breath-taking. In one decoration, which occupies one inch square piece of a page, it is possible to count as many as 158 complex interlacements of white ribbon with a black border on either side. Some decorations can only be fully appreciated with magnifying glasses, although glasses of the required power were not available until hundreds of years after the book's completion. The complicated knotwork and interweaving found in Kells and related manuscripts have many parallels is the metalwork and stone carving of the period. These design have also had an enduring popularity. Indeed many of these motifs are use today in popular art including jewelry and tattoos.
It is likely that the main purpose of the book was decorative, as there are numerous mistakes in the text, often marked with red dots. One page has been copied twice. Occasionally, lines of text are completed in the line above for aestethic reasons.
The Book of Kells left the Abbey of Kells in 1541 and was given to Trinity College in Dublin in 1661. In the 19th century, the book was rebound and some pages were rather unsympathetically cropped, with small parts of some illustrations being lost. In 1953, the work was bound in four volumes. It has been displayed to the public in the Old Library at Trinity since the 19th century. Two volumes are shown simultaneously, one opened to display a full page of artwork, and a second one opened to show two pages of text. The shown pages change every day.
In 1986, a Swiss publisher was given permission to produce an exact facsimile edition; the photographing was done without the book being touched, and the details were then reproduced by hand on vellum. One copy is held by the Anglican Church in Kells, on the site of the original monastery. A CD-ROM version containing scanned versions of all pages along with additional information is also available from Trinity College Library.