Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fun with the Book of Kells

(or how to prepare your children to see great works of art!)

When I found out that we were going to visit Ireland during our fall break from school, I knew that I wanted to see the Book of Kells, the most famous of the illuminated manuscripts hand-drawn by Irish monks during the Middle Ages. (I left it to my husband, the best trip-planner ever, to figure out the logistics of getting us there!) In fact, I'd been waiting over twenty years to see this masterpiece and could hardly contain myself at the thought of seeing it in person.

The Chi-Rho page from the Book of Kells. It actually marks the beginning of the
Christmas story in Matthew's Gospel.
Source: Art & Culture
Naturally, I wanted to pass on this excitement to my son and daughter, who are ages 9 and 6 respectively. One thing that I have learned through the years is that children tend to appreciate famous works of art in a museum setting if they know something about what they are going to see beforehand. So, in preparing to see the Book of Kells, we pulled out Sister Wendy Beckett's Story of Painting to see what she had to say about it. (Sister Wendy was my first art teacher and I am indebted to her for most of what I know about art in Western civilization!) There, we examined the Chi-Rho page pictured above and found out that the playful monks had hidden butterflies, cats and mice, angels and an otter with a fish in his mouth with in the beautiful illuminated letters.

Well, as soon as these strange-looking Greek letters turned into a picture search game, the kids got excited. My son was the first to find the butterflies and the cats. We searched forever to find the otter, but finally had to give up. When we got to see the real thing at Trinity College in Dublin, we finally found the otter with the fish in his mouth and there was much rejoicing! The preparation made the Book of Kells Exhibit, which is definitely not geared toward children, meaningful for both kids.

Photography is not allowed inside the exhibit,
so this is the only proof I have that we were there!
We had a similar experience when we visited the National Gallery in London, England this summer. We had been reading the Katie series by James Mayhew that I have mentioned before here. These are books about a little girl who visits museums with her grandmother. The grandmother always manages to fall asleep and Katie is able to crawl inside the paintings and make friends with the people in them. As we entered the first hall of the National Gallery, the kids ran up to a painting of a man and started yelling, "Look Mommy! It's Princess Margarita's father!" As I took a closer look, the painting was indeed Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver by Velaquez, which is featured in Katie and the Spanish Princess.

As we went room to room, they recognized other works by Murillo, Seurat, Renoir, and Degas without our help. All because they had a context and emotional attachment to the paintings through the Katie series.

So here are my tips for preparing your kids to enjoy great works of art:

1. Show them a picture of what you are going to see and talk about it. Tell them why you like it and what you think is interesting about it. Ask your child what he or she sees in the work of art.

2. Read a children's book about the artist or work of art. There are so many fantastic children's books about art these days, that it shouldn't be hard to find the right one. Just make a trip to the public library. Even if you can't find a children's book, a normal art book like Sister Wendy's can be helpful.

3. Make a game of it. Play "I Spy" with the things within the picture. Or xerox a copy and cut it into a puzzle that the kids can put together. If you are going to a larger museum with multiple works of art, make a small Memory game by gluing pairs of works to index cards.

If you have other ways to help children make the most of museum visits, please let us know about it in the comments!

Linked to Waldorf  Wednesday at Seasons of Joy


  1. I can't wait to check out the Katie Series! Thanks for the tip.

    I heartily agree that getting a book about the artist is a great opening for kidlets. I actually just blogged a review of a couple of artist life story books this week (:

    Dover has a detailed color your own book of kells My 6 year old artist has been thoroughly enjoying the detail.

    What I really wanted to say is that I am so glad to find your blog because we've just purchased the first Berryman book after "stumbling upon" Godly Play through another blog ( We are so excited to start that and I just today started a 2 part blog post about our "Bible curriculum" -- next blog post --
    Godly Play! So glad to have found you!!


    I'm glad you linked up at our seasons of joy (:

    1. Hi there, Nice to meet you! Thanks for the great tip about the Book of Kells coloring book. I'll also look forward to reading your posts about the art book reviews and your Bible curriculum. It's so exciting to begin a Godly Play journey - it will be interesting to read your thoughts.

    2. Hey Sheila,
      Thanks for stopping by my blog. I hope you enjoy the art books (: I just requested two of the Katie books from our library!
      Can you tell me where you got your Jesus with Outstretched arms wooden figure for Godly Play. I can't seem to find one!
      Thanks so much!!

    3. Hi Mama,

      i purchased mine from the Diakonie Leipzig, a GP supplier in Europe, but if you live in the US, you might try this one from Godly Play Resources:

      Hope you and the kids have a great time with Katie!

  2. Interesting post. I wish I could see this exhibit.
    Karen at

    1. Thanks, Karen! And thanks for stopping by!

  3. I saw the Book of Kells, when it stopped over in Australia for an exhibition. It's breathtaking how ellaborate and artistic it is, and to think how old it is!

    1. Wow, you saw it in Australia! That's one place that I have yet to explore. Let's make a deal: you visit Ireland with the Naturkinder and I'll take my family to Australia . . . : )

  4. I love your practical ideas for exploring art. And The Book of Kells is one of my favorite things to explore.
    Thanks for linking up to Waldorf Wednesday. Hope to see you back this week!