Wednesday 30 May 2018

The Book of Kells

The trouble with being famous for your literary genius is that - unlike art or architecture - there's nothing to see. This isn't a problem for tourists visiting the land of Michaelangeo, Botticelli, Raphael and Bernini. But what is there to see in the city of Joyce, Yeats, Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Shaw and Kavanagh?

Take to Dublin's streets and pubs and enjoy the craic - what unease the dullard must feel! - but as far as sights and attractions goes, Dublin is neither a fairytale showpiece like Prague or Edinburgh, or a great capital stuffed with the loot of empire like Paris or London.

There is one thing to see though, and it's a cracker. Fittingly for Europe's most literary land, it's a book. The greatest work of European art from the Dark Ages. The Book of Kells - crafted by Irish monks on the Scottish island of Iona.

St Oran's cell, Iona:

So why isn't it called the Book of Iona? We went to the book's home at Trinity College to find out.

Trinity's quads and lawns are a tranquil oasis on a hot Dublin day, the queue to enter the old library short, the staff chatty. There's background to the book, who made it, where the different coloured inks came from. And why it came to be in Kells.

Like other British islands, Iona was repeatedly raided by Vikings at the end of the 8th century and dawn of the 9th. And so the treasures of Iona were sent away for safekeeping. The gospels ended up at the inland monastery of Kells, where they witnessed various events before being sent to their current home in Dublin.

the book (source, Wikipedia):

The exhibit climax is seeing a couple of pages from the actual book: around A4 size, it may seem a little underwhelming at first, until you get right up close and look at the detail. It is incredibly detailed, something that doesn't quite come across in internet pictures. I wanted to get my nose right up to the glass and get my magnifying glass out.

You think that is it, but there is one further treat as you leave the exhibit: Trinity College's elegant library.

library detail:

There's something else though, something not mentioned in the exhibition you should know. After the fall of the Roman Empire - we're talking 5th century AD, before the Vikings - Christian Europe was overrun by pagan emigrations from the north and east - the Saxons, the Angles (who would name England), Franks (who would name France), the Allemani (Germans), Goths, Visigoths, Huns and Vandals. The Christian faith and the Roman habit of writing things down went out of fashion - except in Ireland.

Across Europe this time became known as the Dark Ages, and Irish missionaries set out for Britian and Europe to covert these pagans. In Christian Europe's time of straights, Ireland shone a light in the dark. It is a little-appreciated fact in Europe that Irish literacy kept the gospels alive, not to mention old tales of the Ultonian Cycle, tales of the Fianna, and the great Homeric classic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Though to be honest my favourite piece of text might be the charming rhyme Pangur Bán, scribbled in the margins of a religious textbook by Sedulius Scotus now found in a monastery on the German-Swiss border:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.