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On the cover: Cats and Birds by Aidan Meehan.
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The Book of Kells Painting Book by Aidan Meehan,
Thames & Hudson, London and New York, 1999; 64 pp., 56 illustrations, 8.5" x 11", ISBN 0-500-28146-7



"Many publishers offer help with painting and design for the home, but few do it via a medieval manuscript. Aidan Meehan does just that, however, in Thames & Hudson's The Book of Kells Painting Book, which breaks down the fauna of this ancient work of art into four basic animal types. "
Publishers Weekly, Aug. 16th, 1999


These original studies of animal ornaments have been redrawn by contemporary Celtic artist and renowned author of many similarly beautifully produced books on Celtic design, Aidan Meehan. The Celtic animal patterns in this book are based on motifs found in the mid-eighth-century, Irish-style illuminated gospel book in Latin, The Book of Kells - considered the height of the Golden Age in the early Christian period of Celtic art throughout the British Isles. They are designed for pleasurable browsing or for actually painting in by people of all ages and backgrounds, but especially for designers and crafts workers.

Centrefold pages 8 and 9: Cats and Birds by Aidan Meehan.

The pages of this book have been folded and sewn together so that the two-page centrefold in each group of sixteen pages may be removed together and mounted to make a large 11 x 17 image.

For example, pages 8 - 9 shown below are printed across a double-page spread in this manner. The image is a detail of the central panel on the cover, which has been coloured using the same colour scheme as in the Book of Kells. An alternative colour scheme is also given on the surrounding border of the cover. Either colour scheme could be adapted for the other pages in the book. Most of the pages are arranged in matching pairs facing each other across the double spread. Where these occur on separate pages, they are designed to be painted and framed as a pair.

Aidan has developed the large-scale drawings from the four main kinds of animal patterns in the book of Kells - cats, birds, eels and little people - which are often difficult to make out or incomplete in the original. Where the original detail was too small to allow for the usual traditional treatments inside the bodies of the animals, he has borrowed the conventional treatment of similar but larger-scale images in the Book of Kells.

pages 8-9 from the book

Pages 12 and 13: Triquetra Lions by Aidan Meehan.

Pages 10 through 15 give all the variations of the beautiful intertwined lions from folios 3v and 4r of The Book of Kells, never before published. The originals are so very small and intricate, and in some cases damaged or incomplete, that this series of designs provides an important contribution to the reference library of a scribe or Celtic artist. For instance, where Aidan previously published a composite example of this type of design in his book, Celtic Design: Animal Patterns (London and New York, 1992, pp. 108 - 109), detailing the method of construction for freehand variations on this motif, the Book of Kells Painting Book would therefore provide the complete repertoire of this motif in large, finished format, which a Celtic artist would find particularly interesting).

On each page or double-page spread of the painting book is given the number of the corresponding folio in Book of Kells from which the design has been derived, so if you have any of several facsimile copies of the Book of Kells containing that particular folio, you can look up the original colour scheme used on that page, or check if a particular part of the design should be painted light or dark, as foreground or background, for instance.

Pages 24-25 from the book

Centrefold Pages 24 and 25: Four Lions Lunula by Aidan Meehan.

The half-moon design on pages 24 and 25 is based on a quarter-circle motif from folio 5r, flipped horizontally and joined together seamlessly in the middle, by reversing the weave in the second half, so that this is a new design, that also fulfils the intention of the original artist, who created the quarter-circle motif with a view to applying it to half and full circle designs. Aidan here demonstrates how to combine two such motifs into a half circle. This same design could easily be traced and rotated to make a large full circle design, suitable for transferring on to a traditional Irish bodhran drum, for instance. There are ten such semi-circular designs in a series in the book, six of them of little men wrestling or pulling each others beards, which a crafts worker in any medium would find useful.

Pages 36, 37 from the book

Pages 36 and 37: Folded Down Birds from folio 34r by Aidan Meehan.

The book is also valuable in its own right as a complete collection of the four main types of animal pattern from the Book of Kells. The two birds on pages 37 and 38 may be considered not only as two contrasting treatments of a Celtic bird design, but as an insight in to the deeper background of Celtic art, linked to traditions as old going back to earliest times, and preserved for centuries, perhaps millennia, before being enshrined in this ultra-conservative compendium of art from the early period of Northern European art - the beginning of the art of painting as we know it.

Such a two-dimensional treatment of an animal, flattened like a pelt as viewed from above, is not unique to the Book of Kells but is considered common to a whole group of ancient cultures found all across the far north from Canada to China: a common element in shaman art, along with painted drum animal mask, inherited from Pagan tradition. Wherever shamanism spread, this flattened-out animal motif is also found. This primordial basis of Celtic art makes it such an important contribution to the emerging world art of the present time because it relates to many different indigenous of in a way that Classical Mediterranean or Modern art does not.

  38 -39 from the book

Pages 38 and 39: Beard Pullers, two variations from folio 34r by Aidan Meehan.

Pages 38 and 39 give examples of the motif called Beard Pullers. It is a conventional way to treat the human figure, where animals are combined as biting each other's tails, people are combined using their hands to hold on to each other's beards. As you can see in these pictures, they the other hands are joined by holding each other. In the image on the left, the common line between the two legs of each man - or key-line used to build up the design in freehand drawing - is illustrated, which is the kind of detail found in many pages of the book that would be of interest to a Celtic designer or illuminator interested in reproducing the designs in miniature, freehand, as in the original manuscript.

This book would make an excellent present for a boy or girl of eight years or older interested in painting, or in learning Celtic art. The beautiful pen and ink drawings will inspire you to try out your own painting techniques and colour schemes on these classic ornaments. The pages may be considered works of art in themselves, and used as authoritative reference works for the treatment of animal patterns in the authentic Book of Kells style. They have also been reproduced in this book reproduced on a good heavy weight paper especially selected for painting with water colour, designers gouache, tempera paints, acrylic colours, coloured pencils or crayons, which you can colour in, and frame as a decorative artwork. Each design is easy to paint and the finished painting is suitable for framing as it is, or for tracing and reproducing by hand as an original work of art, making this the ideal gift for artists, designers and anyone fascinated by the Celtic legacy.


Multiple items bundled on request.
Ref: t0012
Text and Images copyright © 1999, 2005, 2006 Aidan Meehan.