The Most Famous Illuminated Manuscripts in the World
The Most Famous Illuminated Manuscripts in the World

The Most Famous Illuminated Manuscripts in the World

Author: Administrator Account/Thursday, February 02, 2017/Categories: New Books

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While hundreds (if not thousands) of illuminated manuscripts remain in existence, and still more individual pages have been saved from once-extant manuscripts, there are two complete manuscripts that stand out for their history, beauty, and intricately inspired workmanship: the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

What you’ll notice first are the first letters of the “chapters,” made elaborate with the interlacing and spiral patterns that were strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon jewelry and enamel work. 

Few people could read during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages (500–1000 AD roughly) so the work of the monks was vital in passing down the Gospel of Jesus Christ and preserving it in two wonderful works of art that providentially survived the devastation wrought by Viking raids.

The Lindisfarne Gospels This manuscript was the product of a monastery founded by Saint Cuthbert in the mid-seventh century. Lindisfarne is located off the coast of Northern England and still is known as the Holy Island. Unlike most illuminated manuscripts, which were typically created by a group of artists and scribes, the entire Lindisfarne Gospels is the work of one man, Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721. What makes these Gospels unique is the combination of styles used, which incorporates Celtic, Mediterranean and Anglo-Saxon designs. The texts are believed to have been dedicated to Saint Cuthbert, who died in 687 and who had a shrine dedicated to him at the monastery.

On June 8th, 794, the Vikings raided Lindisfarne in the first and most infamous of their attacks. Writing some centuries later, Simeon of Durham says that many monks were killed outright, others driven into hiding or drowned in the sea, and still others were "taken away in fetters." While by no means a witness or even contemporary of the raids, Simeon’s version mirrors descriptions of other forays by Vikings.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were a foot high and enclosed in a bejeweled cover that was either lost or looted. But the manuscript itself was saved from Viking plunder by a group of monks who fled the invading Norsemen. Following a shipwreck in the Irish Sea, the book washed ashore and was saved–again—and centuries later found its way into the British Library's collection in London.

Get a free page to color and 20% off Scripture Illuminated, our new Catholic adult coloring book here.

The Book of Kells Sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries, Irish monks on the holy island of Iona created the Book of Kells, an amazingly beautiful illuminated Bible. Iona, a small island off the coast of Scotland, was founded in the early sixth century by Saint Columba and was, perhaps even more so than Lindisfarne, a wild and forbidding place. Not only did the monks manage to live in a bleak and remote location and work with limited materials, but they created a piece of art that was delicate, ornate, and inspired.

In 806 the Vikings raided Iona, killing 68 of the monks and effectuating a smash-and-grab of the monastery’s valuables; the remaining monks fled and joined the monastery of Kells in Ireland, and the manuscript went with them. 

In the middle ages the book was stolen, but amazingly recovered a few months later, and when the church at Kells was destroyed in 1653, the coveted Bible was sent to Dublin for safekeeping. A few years later it reached Trinity College where you can see a different page on display every day. 

Why do they matter?

So what do these manuscripts mean to us today? They are, of course, amazing works of art. But they were also created to pass on, in a time of violence and uncertainty, the light of Christ. 

Illuminated may well refer to the gold in the manuscripts, but they also, in a very real way, illuminated their time and place. The monks who created them and for whom these books were their life’s work did so not knowing exactly how Christianity would survive the times in which they lived, but filled with faith that God would make sense of it all. These holy men were convinced that the Word of God had to be preserved to pass on to others. 

Their evangelization was beautiful—both spiritually and artistically. And you can try your hand at some illumination yourself, by exploring Scripture Illuminated, our new adult coloring book that takes the styles of the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels and helps you share the creation of something that lifts both the mind and the spirit.


by Jeannette de Beauvoir


You can experience the vivid colors of the early manuscript illuminators through our new book, Scripture Illuminated: A Coloring Book for Prayer and Meditation, which captures the intricate work of some of these anonymous medieval copyists and illustrators. Learn about this beautiful art form honoring the Scriptures and make it your own as you prayerfully color these Bible verses!

Ready to try your hand at coloring? Get a free page to color and 20% off Scripture Illuminated, our new Catholic adult coloring book here.


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5 comments on article "The Most Famous Illuminated Manuscripts in the World"


2/8/2017 12:56 PM

Thanks for your thoughtful article. Good to read it in such unsettled times. It was illuminating all on its own.

Sr Raymond Marie

2/8/2017 3:45 PM

Jeanette, this is one of the finest articles I've read in a long time - not only for its information (astounding), but also for the faith parallels it draws so well. Thank you for using your remarkable gifts to reach out to all of us today, so much in need of regular "faith boosts."


2/8/2017 11:39 PM



2/9/2017 6:35 PM

great article. love the colors in the illuminated manuscripts.


3/1/2017 11:40 AM

Beautiful amazing story of old. Rich in history and the faith filled life and sufferings of the time.

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