The Book of Kells was written on vellum (calfskin), which was time-consuming to prepare properly but made for an excellent, smooth writing surface. 680 individual pages (340 folios) have survived, and of them only two lack any form of artistic ornamentation. In addition to incidental character illuminations, there are entire pages that are primarily decoration, including portrait pages, "carpet" pages and partially decorated pages with only a line or so of text.
The Book of Kells was probably produced in a monastery on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, to honor Saint Columba in the early 8th century. After a Viking raid the book was moved to Kells, Ireland, sometime in the 9th century. It was stolen in the 11th century, at which time its cover was torn off and it was thrown into a ditch. The cover, which most likely included gold and gems, has never been found, and the book suffered some water damage; but otherwise it is extraordinarily well-preserved.
It is Ireland's most precious medieval artifact, and is generally considered the finest surviving illuminated manuscript to have been produced in medieval Europe.
It has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin from the mid 19th century, and attracts over 500,000 visitors a year. Since 1953 it has been bound in four volumes. Two volumes are on public view, one opened to display a major decorated page, and one to show two pages of script. The volumes are changed at regular intervals.
The Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin MS 58) is celebrated for its lavish decoration. The manuscript contains the four Gospels in Latin based on a Vulgate text, written on vellum (prepared calfskin), in a bold and expert version of the script known as "insular majuscule".
It contains the Latin text of the four gospels; almost every page has brightly colored birds and animals and some have portraits of the four evangelists. This program identifies faces and figures in this ancient book, and explains the flamboyant decoration and witty symbolism.
The origin of The Book of Kells is uncertain; it was written and illustrated around the year 800, but the monastery where it originated has not been identified.
At least four, perhaps five, different artists can be distinguished, and their work varies in style and quality but the palette is consistently rich. In the elaborate canon tables the symbols of the Evangelists replace their names over the columns. The book appears to have been regarded primarily as a medium of unrestricted artistic creation.
The decoration builds on the earlier tradition of the books of durrow and lindisfarne, but belongs to a later, more elaborate, sophisticated, and baroque phase. In addition to the pages representing the Evangelist symbols, it has pages of fantastic ornament with spreads of minute and intricate color work and pen drawing; great ornamental monogram pages; heavily ornate canon tables; and illustrative pages depicting the arrest of Christ, the Virgin and Child, the temptation of Christ, and other subjects.
The Book of Kells is a vellum Gospel book profusely and brilliantly decorated, one of the greatest achievements of European decorative art, produced in the Columban mission field, perhaps at Iona, 775–800. It is now at Trinity College, Dublin.