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Sofie Hoff – Book of Kells | hod

ART 85

Prof. Aievoli

Sofie Hoff

Book of Kells

September 25, 2014


Is the Book of Kells truly art or design?

My initial impression was that the Book of Kells is art. After realizing the weight of the types, the symbols and lettering I felt an urge to call it design. But after I studied the book closer, really looked close up at the metaphorical detailing and the extremely thoughtful composition and being amazed by the craftwork behind it, I would like to correct myself by rather calling it both art and design. Knowing more about the meaning behind it, why it was made and how it was used instinctively and frivolously makes me wanting to call it art. But just like the discussion about what art truly is, so will this discussion about whether this first illuminated manuscript known to us today is art or not go on for eternity. It is an endless discussion that will vary just as greatly and for as long as there are people having an opinion about it. Because what is art really and what is really design? Simply put design has a purpose and art provokes emotional responses. In order to better determine what the Book of Kells might be more or less of, allow me to start off by breaking down a few terms a little so that this complex discussion can become slightly easier to grasp. Let us look closer at the origin of the book, the purpose and its use and the obvious visual. Let us further compare this to the use, the purpose and the differences between art and design and let us not forget about the differences between now and then. I will support my theories and statements about art and design by mainly referencing to Hume and Kant’s thoughts on philosophy of art from Theodore Gracyk’s analysis of “Hume and Kant: Summary and Comparison”.


Way before the art of printmaking was discovered in Europe, the Book of Kells was made and so by hand. A piece like the Book of Kells, made by hand, was and still is being considered an art form today. Without a doubt, it would not have been handmade today. The book would not have been art if it would have been done today. It would have been designed and mass-produced. In my opinion, this mass-producing society that we are a part of today does not produce significantly many pieces of high-quality fine art.

The fact that the Book of Kells was made over a thousand years ago adds an intriguing history to a dead object. Since the history is not entirely known to us, this consequently adds a level of mystery to the concept of the book. The book’s purpose was to simply convert pilgrims to Christianity, by enlighten them with an illuminated manuscript. The book’s recognizable Celtic symbols, iconic drawings and pictorial structure caught the attention of the pilgrims and the sacred beauty of the illustrations was purposefully made in order to sweep them off their feet. “There is nothing that makes its way more directly to the soul than beauty,” emphasizes Thomas Gracyk by quoting Joseph Addison in his analysis.


In similarity to pure art, a certain degree of sacredness was intentionally applied to the object. The purpose of art is many but besides representing the real world, feelings or pure beauty, the conceptual elements of art can also be viewed as a form of religion. Art and especially good art provokes emotions and touches one deeply. Without the additional level of sacredness and mystery the magic of the art will be lost and that is where I personally believe design steps in. Design has a single purpose much more simple, straight forward and obvious than art. It has rules to be followed in order to ease the connections of the invisible dots and to increase the possibility for as many as possible to understand what is being visually presented. For me, design is something that follows rules of what works or not much stricter than art, if not completely. As expressed in Thomas Gracyk’s analysis, “imagination is stifled once we grasp the organizing concept or rule.” In other words, the artist makes art outside the box while the designer stick to the rules and guidelines inside the box, metaphorically speaking. Thus by using the rules of basic design, I fully believe it is possible expand the purpose and the design’s use and to create a piece of art. I believe that as soon as there is a hint of magic to the piece, whatever the object, concept or context might be, it automatically gives it a potential to be art. Ultimately, it is all about the individual and for people to decide for themselves what magic, beauty and art truly is.


As mentioned before, what art respective design is truly is a question that can be discussed and argued endlessly since “art does not depend on any inferences we make from established rules” (Gracyk). There are no rights or wrongs when it comes to art, due solely to the individual’s experiences. Hume elaborates on the complication emphasizing that the beauty of art is just as unique and complex as the interpretations of our feelings and emotions and the response that those creates. What the Book of Kells was doing was to draw attention from a certain group of people and by offering them extraordinary beauty and enlightening knowledge. The fact that the knowledge on its hand was designed to distort their beliefs and to convert their faiths has little to do with the actual discussion whether the Book is design or art. I believe it is the visual beauty and how to interpret that beauty in its pure form that is the key in this matter. To once again refer to Hume and Kant, the “aesthetic properties [of art] are not objective” and therefore “seem beyond debate or discussion.” Though from my personal point of view and put in a perspective of today’s values and ordinariness, the Book of Kells is both art and design. Due to its concept, its historical meaning and applied mystery, I decide to believe it is more art than design.






Gracyk, Theodore. “Philosophy of Art, Hume and Kant: Summary and Comparison.” Http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk. 15 Feb. 2006. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20of%20art/hume_and_kant.htm>.


Heller, Steven. History of Graphic Design. 2005