Trinity College Library, Dublin - The Book of Kells and the Long Room
Trinity College Library
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
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.