Monday, November 21, 2011

Visiting the Book of Kells

Am I in focus yet?

I've been lucky enough to have seen the Book of Kells once before on a trip to Ireland in the 1980s. It seems to me we walked into the Long Room of the Trinity College Library and looked at it in a glass case, open to one page. The story they told us then about the one thousand year old manuscript was that a page of it was turned each day, so that visitors could come and see something new and beautiful in it each time they were there.

The ancient illuminated Gospels, known as the Book of Kells, is a big draw at the Trinity College Library in Dublin.

Nothing stays the same. Now one must buy a ticket to see the Book of Kells and the exhibit follows the Disney formula exactly: there is a pre-show, a show (the book, open to one page of the illuminated manuscript and one page of text) and the whole thing ends with the final and most important part of the formula--the post-show, which is always an exit through the gift shop.

The pre-show is filled with helpful background on the astonishing beauty and age of the Gospels and the anonymous scribes who created it by hand, most probably in the monastery on Iona, off the coast of Scotland, founded by the Irish Saint Columba, otherwise known as Colm Cille (there are several spellings of this name) in Gaelic. 

It is especially helpful to those who haven't bothered to read about this wonderful thing in advance.

The Book of Kells pre show.

The truth is that nobody really knows if it was created during St. Columba's lifetime (during the 6th century) or even at Iona, the monastery he founded, or at Kells where it spent most of its life, until it was donated to Trinity College in the 17th century. 

The Vikings did a lot of raiding in Iona and Kells and monasteries there were constantly either losing or hiding their treasures, eventually closing down their coastal monasteries entirely and moving them to safer ground until those nasty Vikings decided to settle down, marry the local girls and turn Ireland into a Danish-Celtic land filled with red-headed children.

More Book of Kells pre show. You can't actually photograph the book itself.

Anyway, visiting this treasure of Western Civilization was nevertheless a delight. I could have done without the pre-show and the post-show-cum-gift-shop, but it is standard these days--for both the sacred and the profane. I suspect the increase in tourism made it necessary to create a a traffic flow for the crowds--though since I'm off season I didn't have to worry about that.

The gift shop.

The weather was cloudy as I exited the college, and on the stroll back to the hotel I felt my first sprinkles of Irish mist. Time to go sit by the fire in the cozy hotel lounge. And though that's partly show too--it's a gas fire--I'm not letting it get me down.

"Things aren't what they used to be," my father was wont to say near the end of his life, putting on his deadpan face.  And then he would laugh and add: "And what's more, they never were." 

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