The Book of Kells and the Long Room

Trinity College is Ireland’s oldest university, established by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592. Its founding might be seen as an act of British social and religious colonialism since only Protestants were admitted for nearly three centuries. Today the majority of Trinity students are Catholics rather than Anglicans; the sun has set on the British Empire after all.

Situated in the very heart of Dublin, the college has a campus setting with buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as well as some (rather undistinguished) contemporary architecture in the midst of attractive open green lawns. For the visitor, it is the Old Library with its extraordinary Long Room and the illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells which are of primary interest. Be warned that every tourist in Dublin will be tromping through these spaces; the crowds inevitably dilute the aesthetic pleasures to be had, but pleasure is to be had nonetheless.

In the Middle Ages, it was the Church that carried the torch of learning as well as the propagation of the faith. Irish monastics, living disciplined lives of obedience, work, and frugality, were also missionaries whose influence was felt throughout western Europe. They carried pocket books of the gospel for use in their work. But the Book of Kells was not a work for day-to-day use; it is thought to have been altar furniture used for special occasions. Scribes (who held high status within the ranks of the monks) painstakingly copied, in Latin, the four gospels of the life of Christ, with quill pens on vellum – stretched calfskin. (It is estimated that 185 calves’ skins were used for the Book of Kells.) Beyond the handsome calligraphy, though, it is the embellishment and illustration of the book in brilliant colors that transforms it into a masterpiece of medieval art. The glowing colors were achieved with an astonishing range of pigments, from crushed oak apples to lapis lazuli to beetles’ wings. Complex imagery with multiple symbolic meanings includes peacocks, snakes, animals, spirals and triskeles, and, of course, crosses of various styles. Images of saints are used, some rendered with great style and draftsmanship. Together these elements achieve both an immediacy and a sense of mystery; scholarly research will doubtlessly continue to interpret and reinterpret the work endlessly.

Created around 800A.D., the Book of Kells has been in the possession of Trinity College since 1661.It is exhibited in dim, conservation light, and only four pages (from two volumes) are displayed at once. An accompanying exhibit, "Turning Darkness into Light," offers comprehensive background information and blown-up images which effectively help to convey the significance of the work.

If the Book of Kells is a testament to the artistry and faith of its creators, the Long Room (immediately upstairs from the exhibit) is a testament to the secular worship of learning: it is a cathedral of the book. This main chamber of the Old Library is 65 meters (210 feet) long and stretches two stories high and further to a beautifully timbered, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Some 200,000 of the oldest books in the library’s collections are held in oak bookcases and shelving, running the length of the room in a series of alcoves on either side, not unlike the side chapels of a baroque church.Contrasting with the dark wood and bindings of the books are white marble busts that punctuate the alcoves, celebrating great writers and philosophers.

With a collection of such aged materials, damage by light, heat, and air pollution has taken its toll. Extensive information on the process of conservation and restoration of the old books is presented here, and visitors are assured that there are ultraviolet filters on the windows. But one takes pause at the lack of a crucial archival standard: the room is not climate controlled and the damp air of Dublin flows freely in through open windows.

Aside from such concern, the rich presence of both art and scholarly materials in the Old Library inspires reverence for the centuries-long cultural heritage preserved here and the ongoing vitality of the institution charged with the care of both the artifacts and the intellectual tradition.

Arthur Lazere

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San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.