Dublin is a spirited rollicking travel wonder pulsating with lively pubs, expressive people and a rich culture. Famous for its thick black Guinness brew, its most fascinating sight comes from more pious and humble backgrounds.
The Book of Kells, named after the abbey it was housed in for most of the first half of its rich existence, is a remarkable book or artwork representing the four Christian gospels. Considered by some to be the finest book ever produced, it was written over 1200 years old. The pages were painstakingly scribed in ornate Latin script onto vellum (cowhide) and lavishly illustrated by four monks. Ten different colours are used (sourced from items as diverse as beetle wings and seashells) and the detail in the illustration is overwhelming. In modern times, the book was bound into four volumes and totals around 680 pages. Today, visitors to Dublin queue for long periods for a chance to witness this extraordinary illustrated manuscript.
As for many medieval relics, it is remarkable that it survived the pillaging of the Vikings (who are thought to have stolen the jewel-encrusted cover but discarded the book), countless battles, fires, religious arguments and theft and has been protected by Trinity College since the mid-1600s. Most famous for its library, the college is worthy of a visit in its own right with its elegant grey granite buildings.
Once thought to be the work of angels, the best way to see the Book of Kells is to line up before opening time and head past the displays on the history of the book and straight for the darkened room where the book is displayed. Two illustrated pages and two text pages were shown the day I was there (the pages are turned each day). It is mesmerising to stand in front of something where so much time, dedication and skill was invested so long ago to create such a stunningly detailed work of art. Each letter is carefully shaped and crafted with several elaborately decorated while the microscopic details in the intricate patterns of woven lines in the illustrations are almost impossible to fathom.
Wander back to enjoy the displays which details the history of the document, the creation of the vellum and binding and the books circuitous history to Dublin. The picture to the left shows the most renown page with the stylised chi (X, pronounced “ch”) and rho (P, pronounced “r”) which are the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name and make the famous “XP” symbol of Christ. Another shows four pictures which illustrate the four gospels authors – Matthew (man), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle).
The connected Long Room library feels like something from Harry Potter and contains around two hundred thousand rare and historic hand-bound books from over the centuries including a collection by Sir Isaac Newton (his Principia is on display) and two or three other pre-tenth century religious books. Among its treasures on display is Ireland’s oldest harp, immortalised on Guinness labels and the Irish Euro coins.
I left Trinity College with the feeling of privilege at being able to see this truly historic and awe-inspiring travel wonder. I doubt there is anywhere in the world where people queue for the opportunity to view a couple of pages from a single book but the Book of Kells is surely worth it.
The Long Room photo is taken from a postcard and the various Book of Kells images are all public domain (after all, its copyright expired some time ago!!).