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Changing meanings

Changing meanings
At the beginning of the course, we asked the question why almost a million people visit the Book of Kells every year. Over the past three weeks, we’ve looked at its background, how it was made, and some of the meanings that its creators may have intended in its art. But does this really answer the question why so many people of different nationalities, age, and faith make the pilgrimage to come and see the Book of Kells every year? One of the remarkable aspects of the book is its age. At almost 1,200 years old, its survival in itself is miraculous. Over time, the meaning and values of the Book of Kells have changed.
Up until the mid 19th century, the Book of Kells was visited only by a small elite of biblical scholars. That was all to change in the mid 19th century when it began to be put on public display for the first time. We’re all familiar today with the concept of influencers, people who promote a particular product or trend. In the mid 19th century, the ultimate influencers were Queen Victoria and her husband Albert. In both 1849 and 1853, the couple visited Dublin, and on both occasions came to the library of Trinity College to view its collection of manuscripts. Writing in her diary of 1849, Victoria singled out the gospel book of Columcille for particular comment.
From that time, the popularity of the manuscript grew and it became a must-see for both Irish and visitors to Dublin alike. The mid-19th century was also a time of reawakening of interest in history – in particular, national history. The book of Kells, dating to a time before the anglo-Norman invasion, was seen as being an expression of pure Celtic, or Irish, art. As such, it joined with the shamrock, the round tower, the Celtic cross, and the Irish wolfhound as a symbol of Irishness, becoming particularly popular with the Irish diaspora, those who had emigrated to America and beyond.
Over time, the religious symbolism of the imagery of the Book of Kells gradually transformed, becoming as much a symbol of cultural allegiance as of faith. The Book of Kells holds resonance for more than just the Irish and Irish diaspora. The almost magical quality of its intricate illuminations and its great age place it far away from the contemporary world. Just as the otherworldly appearance of Skellig Michael, the almost contemporary church settlement that now has become Planet Octu of Star Wars fame, so too the Book of Kells has provided inspiration for fiction and science fiction. It’s the pages of the Book of Kells on which Martian history is documented in one Marvel comic.
It also provides the centre point of the cartoon the Secret of Kells, which tells a different dreamlike story of the creation of the manuscript. George Bernard Shaw’s description of Skellig Michael as an impossible, incredible, mad place, part of our dreamworld, is equally applicable to the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells now holds more meanings than it was ever intended. This creates particular challenges. How should it be displayed? What stories should be told about it? How does one provide access to the growing numbers of people who want to visit it? These are some of the things that we’ll be exploring this week.

This week we will be looking at the more recent history of the Book of Kells.

For much of its early life in Trinity College the Book of Kells was only visited by a small elite who had a particular interest in biblical studies. But that was all to change in the mid-nineteenth century, when it began to be made available for the wider public to view.

Growth in nationalist sentiment, coupled with the fashion for revivalist jewellery and luxury items saw the reproduction of motifs from the manuscript on a range of goods, and so its fame began to spread worldwide. Its almost ‘magical’ appearance also proved a muse to artists and writers alike and over the past couple of centuries it has provided inspiration for a very wide range of art and literature.

Don’t forget to consult the glossary which explains some of the key terms used in the course.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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