Skip to 0 minutes and 5 secondsThere's only one depiction of a woman in the entire Book of Kells. This is found on folio seven verso, and is the earliest known -- or at least, the earliest surviving -- image of the Virgin and Child in western art. Contrary to the biblical description of Mary coming from relatively humble origins, here she's shown as an empress. She's seated on a throne that has been encrusted with jewels of the type that we might expect to find in contemporary Irish metalwork. The back of the throne terminates with a lion's head, possibly a reference to the Old Testament description of Solomon's throne which was also decorated with lion's heads, and so, like Solomon, an indication of Mary's wisdom.

Skip to 0 minutes and 50 secondsShe's dressed in purple, a colour reserved for royalty. And the sheer translucent nature of her skirt, showing a hint of her legs beneath, is suggestive of silk, a very high status imported cloth. The pattern of three dots is found on contemporary fine fabrics from the east, but some have also suggested that it may represent a symbol of the Trinity, or even an allusion to the virgin's milk. The little diamond shape on her breast may represent a brooch, but might also be an allusion to the lozenge symbol of Christ. In common with contemporary images of empresses, Mary is also surrounded by four courtiers, in this case replaced by angels.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 secondsThese have been identified as the four archangels, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. Three of the angels hold flabbella, or liturgical fans, and the fourth possibly an instrument for sprinkling holy water. The Christ child is seated on her lap with his hand placed on the virgin's clearly visible breast, an allusion to Mary as mother of God and perhaps also to the milk of Christian instruction. The elaborate frame around the image may reference the artwork that inspired the Book of Kells' artists. The composition and symbolism of the image find some close parallels in panel paintings of the Virgin and Child from the Byzantine east.

Skip to 2 minutes and 19 secondsIts appearance so far northwest seems to coincide with the growing cult of the Virgin Mary that was being promoted by the Columban churches around the time the Book of Kells was made. Six small heads in profile are set into the frame of the image. These direct the viewer's gaze across to the next page. This contains the synopsis of events recounted in Matthew's gospel, and more particularly, the passage that announces the birth of Christ.

Virgin and Child

There is only one depiction of a woman in the entire Book of Kells. This is found on folio 7v and is the earliest known, or surviving, image of the Virgin and Child in Western manuscript art.

Contrary to the biblical description of Mary coming from relatively humble origins, here she is shown as an empress, enthroned and wearing the type of clothing associated with royalty. She is surrounded by four ‘courtiers’, in this case replaced by angels. The Christ child is seated on her lap, with his hand placed on the Virgin’s clearly visible breast – an allusion to milk of Christian instruction, and also perhaps the fons vitae – the fountain of life. The elaborate frame around the image is perhaps an allusion to its ultimate source.

The composition and symbolism of the image finds some close parallels in panel paintings of the Virgin and Child from the Byzantine east.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

Trinity College Dublin

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