Trinity College | The Book of Kells: Turning Darkness into Light

March 2, 2017

What do you do when you want to display one of Ireland’s finest national treasures, but it consists of four volumes, each 13 by 9½ inches, and you can only show two pages on any given day? Trinity College’s solution is this educational exhibit.

In contrast with the books themselves, many of the images of manuscripts in the exhibit are huge, over 6 feet tall, and sometimes this is showing a detail of just part of one page. And while the actual books are, for conservation reasons, kept in a dark room, the exhibit is full of back-lit panels.

The exhibit tells a number of different stories of the background of the books: the history of monastic life in Ireland, the history of these books (they were created in the 8th or 9th century in Iona Scotland and/or in Kells, Ireland), how the pigments and the parchment were made, how the books were originally bound. They also taught about the iconography of illustrations, how mistakes would have been corrected, and even some details about four artists who have been identified who worked on the manuscript. There is also information about Celtic art and how its “knot” style is similar stylistically to ancient art from other cultures around the world.

Book of Kells, Folio 292r, Incipit to John. In principio erat verbum.

Book of Kells, Folio 19v, Breves Causae ofLuke.

The last room is where you finally get to see the Book of Kells. On any given day, two of the four volumes is on display, and they are opened to different pages every day. When we visited, one volume was open to a page full of text, while the other was a full page illumination. A guide was stationed full time near the books, to answer any questions. I felt that all of the background information gave me a fuller appreciation of this unique artifact.


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