Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Medieval Studies

First Advisor

Dr. Joyce Jubiski

Second Advisor

Dr. Otto Grundler

Third Advisor

Timothy Graham

Access Setting

Masters Thesis-Campus Only


The Book of Kells, a ninth-century Irish manuscript, is one of the most important works of medieval manuscript production. However, its scribes and illuminators are unknown, and the Insular manuscript center which produced it has yet to be determined. What is immediately evident is that it is a complex illuminated manuscript, embodying a myriad of artistic traditions and influences. Due to this complexity, the nature of much of the iconography remains mysterious today.

Because the Book of Kells is a Gospel Book, its iconography is generally interpreted as Christian. This scholarly tendency has obscured what I believe to be the pre-Christian origins of at least three pagan Celtic religious images, and their relationships not only to each other, but to Christian symbolism as well. Using examples from pagan Celtic art, religion, and mythology, I will demonstrate that the use of the images of the serpent, the salmon, and the disembodied human head in the Book of Kells is rooted in pre-Christian artistic and spiritual traditions. Furthermore, their use in a Christian Gospel Book visually demonstrates both religious and artistic syncretism, and the ways in which two disparate spiritual traditions became intertwined in the early medieval period.

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