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Alecia Weiterschan – Book of Kells; Art or Design? | hod


Book of Kells, Art or Design?

Alecia Weiterschan

History of Visual Communications

Professor Aievoli







In this essay I examined the debate between whether the Book of Kells is represented as a work of art or design. I defined the context of art and design; also discussed the historical time period the book was created. By doing so, this allowed me to elaborate on its significance and purpose. Based off of Hume and Kant’s theories and my own formal opinion, I have concluded the Book of Kells was primarily created as a design. In the religious realm of Christianity, leaders felt it was necessary to deflect pagans from their religion. In order to do so they produced the Book of Kells in hopes of converting them to Christianity. They deliberately incorporated pagan artwork to manipulate them into reading their book. Separate from the purpose of the Book of Kells, I believe the design is art and I appreciate their inventiveness.


            The Book of Kells served a sacramental purpose, instituted for the church. It consisted of the first four books of the New Testament, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. When the book was developed, paganism was prominent. The function was primarily to convert pagans to Christianity, although it is an illuminated manuscript of western calligraphy. The ongoing debate with the Book of Kells is whether it is constituted as a work of art or design. In order to establish an opinion one must consider the definition of both. The fine arts are thought to be an expression of an individual’s artistic ability that then evokes an emotional response from their audience. On the contrary a design is created with the intentions of marketing a certain idea or object for others to desire. With that in mind, I have formed an opinion that the Book of Kells is essentially a design. But I cannot deny that the artists whom created this piece have an elevated skill in fine arts. I appreciate the work presented and do believe when the design is separated from its context it is art.

            In Aesthetic theories of David Hume and Immanuel Kant, it was noted that both contest art to be used as a promotion for religious doctrine. I am critical of their opinion because at this particular time the age of Enlightenment was notorious. This caused their opinions to be bias on anything considered religious, which I find unjust. What I do agree with is Hume’s idea that beauty causes pleasure in the mind and there is no response that is superior to another. With this my opinion holds true, I appreciate the art created in the Book of kells. It is well crafted and is equipped with such detail it would be hard to duplicate. On the contrary the work does not coincide with my usual taste and as Hume wrote there are unavoidable prejudices. For example natural preference, generational difference and culture. If I were present when the Book of Kells was created I would assume that I would find it more appealing. The book was encrypted with Celtic design and other iconic Irish emblems that would please most humans within that culture and time period. But I believe that is what the designers had in mind when creating the book. They knew what their society was embracing at the time and the aesthetics they found pleasing. Icons used in pagan traditions were also integrated in hopes of attracting pagans into reading the book and converting them to Christianity. It was a strategic move that was planned for a purpose. By which both Hume and Kant define as a design.

            In Kant’s Theory he sees the world as a complex “manifold” of sensations. Meaning everything we think we feel is from a preconceived emotion that we already experienced. When dealing with art, one must separate prior judgments with what they see. By doing so you’re able to respond aesthetically and form your own opinion. When looking at the Book of Kells separate from my knowledge I see art, I see the artists detailed brush strokes, pristine calligraphy, and an abundance of vibrant colors. But as Kant then illustrates that when you form an aesthetic judgment we create an opinion on human cognition rather then the object. This is exactly what I did in my previous statement; I described my opinion based on the artist’s craftsmanship. It all seems contradicting to me and I can’t seem to find a solid answer between Hume and Kant. If we judge art, it is apparent that we are viewing it from our own personal taste. Regardless of any preconceived notions, I know what I find appealing and what I don’t.

            When Kant discusses beauty he believes it to be a “finer feeling”. He emphasizes nature as an important object of taste. He also states that reducing art to a mere display of beautiful form would suggest that the artworks content is an unnecessary addition. But from the knowledge I have acquired, almost all art has content or an underlying meaning. Whether it is Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” or Jacob Lawrence “The Migration of the Negros”, they all have content. If you were to look at these paintings with little background information it would be harder to understand the work itself. Instinctually we ask. What is it? Or what is the purpose of this piece? And we place little emphasis on the actual work itself. On the contrary in graphic design for example you can almost always tell what the principle is without having to ask questions.

Hume and Kant though have tried to distinguish art and design into two separate categories. What they argue is that fine art creates pleasure and entertainment. Design on the other hand is for an intellectual interest and to market an idea or object. In my opinion design can also be perceived as art. There are numerous accounts where a logo or design appeals to me and evokes pleasure. Even if the primary function of the design is intended to sell an item I can see beauty. Judging the Book of Kells I believe its primary existence was a design. It was created for another purpose rather then for gratification. I don’t necessarily find it appealing but I do appreciate it as a piece of artwork separate from its meaning.




Theodore, Gracyk. Philosophy of art, “Aesthetic theories of David Hume and

Immanuel Kant”. 2004. http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/hume_and_kant.htm