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Dear Readers,

I am forwarding a little more information on the Book of Kells: calligraphy,  the influence of the past, its history, the Chi Rho monogram, etc.

The Book of Columba

First, I should indicate that the Book of Kells is also called The Book of Columba, which presupposes that there was a Columba.  Columba means “dove,” and there was a St Columba (7 December 521 – 9 June 597).  Although the Book of Kells is Irish, according to Britannica, “[i]t is probable that the illumination was begun in the late 8th century at the Irish monastery on the Scottish island of Iona and that after a Viking raid the book was taken to the monastery of Kells in County Meath.”[i]

Between the 7th and 9th centuries, many illuminated manuscripts were produced in Irish monasteries.  However, illuminated manuscripts were also produced in Scotland and in the North of England (Northumbria).  There is a complete list of Hiberno-Saxon illuminated manuscripts on the internet, click on: List of Hiberno-Saxon Illustrated Manuscripts.  Here are a few:

Among the above-mentioned books, the Lindisfarne Gospels combine Celtic and Saxon calligraphy.  It is, arguably, the finest example of the Hiberno-Saxon style.[ii]

The Chi Rho Monogram

The Book of Kells (a Gospel Book or Evangelion) contains the Chi Rho monogram (folio 34r).  In the Wikipedia entry on the Chi Rho, other early Christian symbols are shown.

Book of Kells, f 34r (Chi-Rho)

Book of Kells, f 34r (Chi Rho)

The Chi Rho monogram is an overlapping P and X.


According to Wikipedia,

“The Chi Rho is one of the earliest forms of christogram, and is used by some Christians. It is formed by superimposing the first two (capital) letters chi and rho (ΧΡ) of the Greek word “ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ” =Christ in such a way to produce the monogram. Although not technically a Christian cross, the Chi-Rho invokes the crucifixion of Jesus, as well as symbolizing his status as the Christ.”  (See Chi Rho, Wikipedia.)

Insular Script

The script used by the calligrapher(s) of the Book of Kells is called Insular Script.  It developed in Ireland in the 7th century and was spread to England by the Hiberno-Scottish mission.  The Insular Script is a Majuscule Script because only upper case letters are used.  In the history of calligraphy, the upper case, the majuscule, precedes the use of lower case letters.  (See Insular Script, Wikipedia.)

Although the script used in the Book of Kells is called “insular” and was developed in Ireland, it resembles the Uncial Script used from the 3rd to the 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes.  Uncial letters were used to write Greek, Latin, and Gothic.  The uncial script had been brought to England by Augustine of Canterbury.  (See Insular Script, Wikipedia.)

As used above, the word Gothic refers to the Germanic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire.  It does not refer to medieval Gothic art and architecture, which followed Romanesque art and architecture and precedes Renaissance art and architecture (middle of the 15th century).  There is a Gothic font.  (See Gothic, Wikipedia)

(please click on smaller images to enlarge them)
Insular Majuscule (upper case)
Kells, f 309r, Insular Majuscule

Abstract Art: The Celtic Knot

Also important is the abstract art that characterizes Celtic manuscripts.  The main motif is the Celtic knot or Eternal knot.  (See Celtic knot, Wikipedia.)  However, the Book of Kells features representational art, especially fantasized animals.  At the bottom of this post, there is a link to a video showing how a Celtic knot is made.


Celtic Knots

Book of Kells, Celtic Knot

Representational Art


Decorated Initial

Book of Kells, Historiated Initial

Monster, Book of Kells

Book of Kells, Monster


There is much more to tell about the Book of Kells, but I believe it is best to stop here or we may not see the forest for the trees.

  • It is also called the Book of Columba;
  • It features the Chi Rho symbol;
  • It uses Insular Script, Majuscule;
  • Images such as the Celtic Knot are abstract, but some are representational and often depict rather fanciful animals.



I have quoted Wikipedia abundantly.  Photo credit: Wikipedia (all).  For images contained in the Books of Kells, please click on Book of Kells: images Google.  

[i] “Book of Kells”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 19 Mar. 2013

[ii] “Hiberno-Saxon style”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 19 Mar. 2013

Celtic knot

© Micheline Walker
19 March 2013