The Book of Kells: Worth a Visit?

Seeing “The Most Beautiful Book in the World”

Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

After seeing the Book of Kells, take in the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the Long Room at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

New Yorkers used to visiting the Morgan Library for their share of antique books might be tempted to skip a visit to Dublin’s Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the Gospel that dates from at least the year 800 A.D. As much as I love everything Morgan Library, I still cannot skip a visit to work called “the most beautiful book in the world” in an 1896 New York Times article. The Book of Kells, N.Y. Times, July 19, 1896, at 6.

This book is so special that certain callers actually get reported on. Presidential daughter Margaret Truman visited the book on July 16, 1952. Sees Historical Manuscript, N.Y. Times, July 17, 1952, at 15. Much earlier, boxer Gene Tunney got a special viewing: the book was removed from its case and he was permitted to touch it. Old Irish Relics Enthrall Tunney, N.Y. Times, Aug. 25, 1928, at 12.

The Campanile at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The Campanile at Trinity College, Dublin. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

When in Dublin. . .visit the book. Ultimately, how many opportunities will there be? It’s easy enough, centrally located as it is in in the Old Library on the Trinity College campus, an institution of higher education that has been in existence since the first Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Here, for around a dozen euros, you will learn about how the paper was made (from animal skins), how the vibrant inks were put together, and what some of the illustrations mean. Then, of course, you will get to see a couple of pages of the highly secured book itself. Having survived a theft in the year 1007, having made it through Cromwell, Irish independence, and two world wars, the book apparently was divided up in the 1950s into four parts.

Visitors might wonder a bit about the techniques used by ‘preservationists’ when saving some works. A few pages are on view in a darkened room beneath what seems like some very thick glass. One also can’t help but contemplate the security provided to important documents, both here and at places like the U.S. National Archives, which houses the American Declaration of Independence.

Trinity College campus, Dublin. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

The Book of Kells is housed on the Trinity College campus, Dublin. Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

What is interesting about the Book of Kells is, of course, the glorious penmanship—even if it is written in Latin, meaning this visitor could comprehend none of the book­—and the impressive illustrations, which tell the story of the gospel and also include some drawings of everyday life. Youthful adventurers might definitely appreciate the wisdom of learning via what is, essentially, a comic book. And yet, the book was written at a time when many could neither read nor write, hence the need for those images. But can you really ascertain the story simply by looking at the pictures? Try deciphering the page that you get to see.

After finishing your visit to the Book of Kells, be certain to take a quick walk through the aptly named Long Room. Trinity College’s Library has been responsible since 1801 for keeping a copy of every book published in Ireland.

—Lori Tripoli

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