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Exhibiting the Book of Kells

Exhibiting the Book of Kells
Felicity O’Mahony is assistant librarian in the Manuscripts and Research Library here at Trinity College. Among other things, her work includes the curation and presentation of the Book of Kells to the wider public. Working with the Book of Kells has been probably the greatest privilege of my career working here in the library. It’s been, in a way, like serving an apprenticeship, a lifelong apprenticeship, because every day, you’re learning something new about the manuscript, everything from its historical background to the imagery behind the decoration. It’s an ongoing, lifelong learning process. The story of Kells never really stops. Part of my earliest training with the Book of Kells was learning how to handle it properly.
When I was first given the responsibility of turning the page in the Book of Kells, I can remember the absolute thrill of touching the manuscript for the first time. My heart was literally pounding in my chest, and I really had to focus on just keeping my hands steady while I very slowly and very carefully turned the page. And really that sense of awe never goes away. Well, the Book of Kells is made from calfskin, which we call vellum. And that material, it really doesn’t always behave the way you want it to or expect it to. It can react very quickly to the environment it’s in.
So every time we prepare to turn the page in the Book of Kells, we have to work in a pre-conditioned, very controlled environment. So what we’re looking for is a constant humidity, constant temperature, very low light level, so there’s no light damage. We’re looking for as relaxed a state for the pages in the Book of Kells, so they’re absolutely in their optimum condition. Contrary to urban myth, the page of the Book of Kells is not turned every day nor every week. In fact, we change the page about eight times every year. And this limits the physical handling of this precious manuscript, which is much better for its long-term preservation.
Because the Book Of Kells is so ancient and really quite fragile, scholars have had very limited access to the manuscript over the years. And one of the most important developments in recent times was the production of the first complete full-colour copy of the Book of Kells. And this work was carried out by a Swiss publishing house called Faksimile Verlag Luzern in 1990. And it took over two years for the Swiss team to complete the work of imaging every single one of the 680 pages and then comparing those images to the original in the Book of Kells.
And one of the greatest challenges for the Swiss team was capturing the colour of the vellum because that varies quite considerably, really, from one opening to another in the manuscript, particularly the more famous pages in the Book of Kells that would have been exposed to light over several centuries. These are considerably darker than the pages of text that have very little decoration and wouldn’t have been exposed to light quite as often. Following on from their production of the facsimile, in 2013, the images that were used were rescanned within the library by our own photographers.
And these are now freely available online on the college website, so that everyone can spend time looking at the pages in the Book of Kells and poring over the detail. And this resource allows you to magnify details, to zoom in, to zoom out, to move easily from one page to another. And it really leaves you with a greater appreciation of what these monks achieved back in the ninth century.

We look at the privilege of curating the Book of Kells. Looking after a manuscript of this age and fragility presents its own challenges, particularly in relation to the conditions under which it needs to be displayed.

In the past this has meant very limited access to the manuscripts for scholars. This changed in 1990 with the production of a new facsimile of the manuscript. In more recent years photography of the manuscript has been digitized and published online, allowing all to look at the details in the book.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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