Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Book of Kells

If you want to see The Book of Kells, it’s going to be crowded, and it’s going to cost you 8 Euros per person.

Pay it.

No one can describe it to you, and reproductions do not do it justice. But it’s not only The Book of Kells (800 AD) you can see; The Book of Durrow (675 AD) and The Book of Armagh (8th c. AD) are also on display in the Library at Trinity College. The Book of Kells is a decorated copy of the Gospels in Latin. It is now in four volumes, two of which are open to the public, one to a text page and one to a decorated page. The Book of Durrow is also the Gospels in Latin with decorated pages, and The Book of Armagh contains some of the earliest examples of Old Irish. All of these books are relatively small: the Book of Armagh measures 7.75 inches by 5.75 inches, and the detail is astonishing.

They are part of an exhibition called “Turning Darkness into Light” which places them into their historical context as well as shows how they were created, including making vellum and coloring ink. You learn about symbolism: the snake, while being a pre-Christian symbol of rebirth was similarly used in early Celtic-Christianity as a symbol of resurrection: reborn when it sheds its skin. There are also little monkish poems about cats, a riddle about vellum, and an odd little ditty about writing about god, that shows that, perhaps, at least some of these boys needed to get laid:

“St. Collum the Scribe”

My hand is weary of writing
My sharp quill is not steady
My slender-beaked pen juts forth
A black draught of shining dark-blue ink

A stream of the wisdom of blessed God
Springs from my fair-brown shapely hand:
On the page it squirts its draught
Of ink of the green-skinned holly

My little dripping pen travels
across the plain of shining books
without ceasing for the wealth of the great
whence my hand is weary from writing.
(11th c. poem in honour of St. Colum Cille)

I have written about writing before, but it never sounds quite like that. In fact, when I write about writing, there is far less jutting, streaming, squirting, and dripping.

The exhibit not only gives you background and context, it gives you an idea of the amount of labor and care that went into the creation of something that we take very much for granted today: books. It gave me the feeling that the written word was respected and the crafts of bookmaking and lettering were revered: a lot of time, resources, and thought had to be put into these books from beginning to end. While I do not want to be living in 8th century Ireland, I do sigh at the perseverance and dedication, not to mention eyesight, necessary for such works of art.

I have found that in museums or places of great historical import, people whisper, which is not only fine with me, but appropriate in the face of such human achievement. I know that most people probably find these works holy because of the subject matter, but I find these creations to be singularly human. Also, when people are whispering, you don’t have to hear what they are saying and be reminded that human achievement is not always great. My favorite comment at the Book of Kells was uttered by a young American woman as she looked at the detailed, beautifully illuminated manuscripts: “There’s holes in the paper.”

Wow! 8 Euros well spent! I wanted to send her back through the exhibit to read every single word. And then give me a report. It makes you realize that a lot of people who are on vacation only go to places because the guide books says so, not because they actually have a personal interest in the subject matter. It makes me wonder why some people leave home.

After we looked at the manuscripts — and we went back a couple of times to make sure that we got a good look at each page on display - we went upstairs to The Long Room where they had a display about Watson and Crick. The room itself is gorgeous, lined with 200,000 of the oldest books in the library’s collection, on stacked wooden shelves with iron spiral staircases and a gorgeous vaulted ceiling. You walk along a gallery of very dusty white marble busts of famous writers and thinkers that also contains Ireland’s oldest harp, said to be Brian Boru’s, and more importantly, used as the model for the harp on bottles of Guinness.

Best advice from the Long Room?
“Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science” by James Watson

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