Medieval Scriptorium and Books and the Book of Kells

1) Medieval Scriptorium


-Scriptorium- is Latin for “place of writing”. Most scriptoriums were located in monasteries and monks would meticulously hand copy borrowed texts (called exemplars).

-Scribes- were monks that hand copied the words of the manuscripts.

-Illuminators- were artists who painted or “illuminated” and brought to light the story of the text. Books that were produced were usually copies of the Bible or other religious texts.

Parchment created from stretched sheep, goat or calfskin was written on with goose quill pens. The ink was usually made from a combination of ferrous sulphate and tannic acid. In some books, gold leaf and even gemstones were crushed and used to add beauty to the page.

-An interesting contrast of cultures between modern times and medieval times is that the centers of education were focused mainly in the monasteries with the clergy. While today universities have become a dominant force in education, back then, if you wanted to learn you would go to the monasteries that were often times in remote locations away from civilization.

The Rule of St. Benedict provided a list of expectations of the monks by condemning “idleness” and commanded them to devote most of their time to studying, reading and hand copying sacred texts. This task was highly respected and the monks regarded their labor as carrying on the Word of God. These handwritten copies were eventually used in public worship. Their hard labor paid off and the amazing detail that the illuminators filled the pages with made the story of the Gospel more easily understandable to people who could not read.

However, some scribes grew extremely tired from their efforts:

“Three fingers do the work, but the whole body aches.”

“As the sea-tossed and weary sailor longs for the sight of land, so this scribe longs for the end of this book!”


The Book of Kells is one of the most intricate and beautiful books of the Medieval Christian Era. It includes the 4 Gospels of the Bible written in ancient Latin and Vulgate. The pages are handwritten and painted on vellum (stretched calfskin) in insular majuscule text.

2) Book of Kells, pg. 180,  example of insular majuscule text:




-The Book of Kells has pages of beautiful lettering, elaborate borders and amazing illustrations that highlight major events in the Gospels. It is uncertain where exactly the Book of Kells was created but its birthplace is commonly referred to as an island off Scotland’s western coast, Iona, which was first founded by St. Colum Cille.

-After a raid of Vikings created chaos in the community of Iona and 68 people were left dead, the monks of Columban retreated to a new location, Kells, County Meath where they settled in a new monastery.

-800 is the estimated year that the book of Kells was written although the exact year is unknown. It could have been written earlier in Iona. There is debate to whether it was written entirely in Iona or Kells, or it could have been written in both locations.

3) Book of Kells, Chi Rho, pg. 87:


 -On pg. 67 the text reads:

            “Christi autem generatio” Latin for “The birth of Christ”

            The name “Christ” is handwritten with the monogram “Chi Rho”. 


4) The Book of Kells, The Four Evangelists pg. 54:


-Pg. 54 illustrates the prophecies from Ezekiel and St. John’s Revelations that talk about the 4 winged creatures. They became a symbol of the four Evangelists and Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This symbolism took place around the 2nd century.


            Man=St. Matthew

            Lion=St. Mark

            Calf=St. Luke

            Eagle=St. John

 4th century- St. Gregory even identified the creatures of Ezekiel as the periods of Christ’s life:

            Man= Christ was born as a man

            Calf= He was sacrificed on the cross like a calf

            Lion= He had victory over death in his resurrection and was like a lion

            Eagle= He became like an eagle when he ascended to heaven


Here are some drawing and marker studies I did of the Book of Kells:

-St. Matthew (pg. 54)




-(pg. 180 excerpt of text)




Concluding Remarks

The book of Kells has endured many hardships:

-At one point it had its cover stolen that was decorated in gemstones and gold. The book itself was buried and found 2 months and twenty days later, but the cover remained missing.

-In 1661 the Bishop of Meath, Henry Jones, gave the book to the Library of Trinity College, University Dublin.

-In 1821 a bookbinder decided to cut off about a half inch of the outer margins.

-1953 the book was rebound by a bookbinder named Roger Powell who divided and bound the document into four volumes, one for each Gospel.

-To this day the Book of Kells can be seen on display at the Library of Trinity College, University Dublin.


Photo references:







Information references:



5 thoughts on “Medieval Scriptorium and Books and the Book of Kells

  1. I got excited when this came up. I love the Book of Kells, and I’ve seen an animated movie called the Secret of Kells that tells a beautiful narrative of what could have happened to encourage its creation, and how the sheer beauty of the artwork may have inspired people in dark times.

    The amount of detail is insane; I applaud you for your attempt, it looks lovely. Maybe with some metallic colored pencils it would be possible to recreate a sort of illumination effect.

  2. I love The Book of Kells and could look at it for hours. I love the Celtic knots and I had the pleasure last year to hear a lecture at a calligraphy conference on the Book of Kells and they talked about the Celtic Knots and the writing of the calligraphy. One of the fun things they mentioned was that the little animal characters that are in the margins are often for when a scribe forgot a word or sentence to link it to that sentence latter on. So say I was writing along and forgot a whole line I would just put the figure in that location and then another where I had the rest of that sentence, then I would not have to trash or remove the writing from the page. I found this especially interesting after having to remove just one letter off of some of my projects.

  3. I can’t imagine the work it would take to do all the metallic detailing on those pages! Wonderful job finding so many resources for the rest of us to peruse, these seem to be best seen with intense magnification.

  4. I think it is so interesting how much symbolism was in these pieces of art! I appreciated learning about what the man, lion, eagle and calf meant! It looks like there was so much intentionality behind each piece of artwork, and it makes me want to put more intentionality into my own work.

  5. The way that you broke down the meaning of pg.54 was helpful. After Tim explained some of the deeper meaning to this image I better understood your definitions of the symbolism. Good effort on trying out the script! I couldn’t have been able to even attempt to recreate that intricate of the letter. I wish that we had such wonderfully illuminated Bibles now because I think people would be more inclined to open them more often including myself.

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