The Book of Kells – Initials

For the first time ever, Kells’ thousands of initials are all reproduced. A single large image file shows every initial in sequence, as it occurs in the manuscript (beginning with those in the pages of Kells’ Canon Tables) Further files show the initials grouped as individual letterforms (a, b, c …)

Kells’ initials are among its most remarkable features. It is sometimes difficult to decide whether a letterform should be included as an initial or considered as just slightly larger than the normal script. This is especially the case with the et-ligature (the modern &). See, for example, all nine instances on f. 105r and compare with the three selected here from that page (nos. 833-5).
While all Kells’ initials are the work of the Scribe-Artist, the involvement of the Master-Artist is evident from time to time. For example, nos. 1229-30 show the detailed interlace he has added to two large et-ligatures on f. 156v9 and 12 (the small subscripted numbers indicate the lines on the page). It is interesting to look out for further instances of his remarkably precise work.
The prefaces at the beginning of Kells are not Gospel texts (ff. 8v-26v) and the initials are relatively small and simple. Obvious discrepancies distinguish the initials on ff. 8v-19v from those on ff. 20r-26v (nos. 1-159 and nos. 160-269). These indicate the two phases of work I identify in the creation of the manuscript, with those from the second campaign showing a decline in the quality of their execution. Despite any superficial differences, these are all the work of the Scribe-Artist whose imaginative virtuosity is evident throughout. Initials from the second campaign also occur at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (nos. 1054-82).

(see chapt. 4: The Book of Kells – A Masterwork Revealed:

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dr Donncha MacGabbhann

Donncha MacGabhann, has been engaged in the study of Insular manuscripts and the Book of Kells for the past fifteen years. As an independent scholar he is dedicated to communicating this research both to the academic and the wider community. His papers have been included in the proceedings of several conferences and in other publications. Prior to his academic career, he taught art and art history for many years, while exhibiting his own work widely in Ireland and abroad, receiving several major awards.