Monday, August 1, 2011

The Mouse in the Book of Kells

When my family and I visited Dublin two weeks ago, we enjoyed the National Gallery of Ireland.

Among the many interesting paintings we found was Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ which, like many of the artist's work, is a moving and earthy depiction of a biblical event. (The unibrowed fellow on the right is presumed to be a self-portrait). Nearby was a painting with which I was unfamiliar or had forgotten, Velazquez's Kitchen Maid at the Supper of Emmaus. What an interesting painting: the maid is in the forefront while the meal of Jesus, Cleopas and his friend happens through the door in the background. I found this site which nicely explains the theological and ethnic significance of this work:

In some future post I've love to explore the "spirituality of art": the diverse role of Orthodox iconography, Gothic church windows, and other kinds of art in spiritual reflection, and also visualization meditation in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Down the street from the National Gallery is Trinity College, which houses the Book of Kells and an interesting exhibit that explains the manuscripts many features. You may know that the Book is Kells is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels (the Vulgate as well as earlier Latin translations), plus other material. But the calligraphy and the insular illumination makes the manuscript a candidate for "Ireland's finest national treasure," as the online Catholic Encyclopedia puts it. ( According to that source:

"The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasize the themes of the major illustrations...."

The manuscript has been called the "Book of Columba" after the 6th century saint (also called Columbkill) beloved in Irish and Scottish memory. One of my best friends was married in a Parma, Ohio, church named for Columbkill, so his name stands out to me whenever it's mentioned. Once attributed to the saint himself, the Book of Kells possibly was written and illustrated to honor him many years later.  The enthusiastic encyclopedia author continues:

"The most characteristic ornaments of the Book of Kells, as of other illuminated Irish of the period, are the closely coiled spirals connected with each other by a number of curves and terminating in the so-called 'trumpet pattern'. Almost equally characteristic are the zoomorphic interlacements, coloured representations of fanciful beings, or of animals, birds, horses, dogs, and grotesque, gargoyle-like figures, twisted and hooked together in intricate detail. Other frequently occurring designs are a system of geometrical weaving of ribbons plaited and knotted together, and a simpler ornamentation by means of red dotted lines. The versatility and inventive genius of the illustrator surpasses all belief. ... The artist shows a wonderful technique in designing and combining various emblems, the cross, vine, dragon, fish, and serpent. The drawing is perfection itself. It has been examined under a powerful magnifying glass for hours at a time and found to be, even in the most minute and complicated figures, without a single false or irregular line. ... Especially worthy of notice is the series of illuminated miniatures, including pictorial representations of the Evangelists and their symbols, the Blessed Virgin and the Divine Child, the temptation of Jesus, and Jesus seized by the Jews."

This site provides a few examples of some of the pages:

I purchased the book by Bernard Meehan, The Book of Kells (Thames & Hudson, 1994). Meehan notes how many human figures are found in the manuscripts: biblical characters, soldiers, and people in different kinds of activity---including a man who seems to have drunk too much wine (p. 71). Among the many animals and birds are peacocks, symbolic of Christ because of the supposed incorruptibility of the bird's flesh (p. 57). One image that I enjoy is a cat chasing a mouse, which in turn has a piece of the host in its mouth. Meehan notes that preserving the communion bread from rodents was probably a concern at the time (pp. 44-45). This humorous image stands out to me; in a different way than the Caravaggio and Velazquez paintings, the image vividly shows how Christ reaches into even the smallest and most everyday cares of our lives.

Looking for online sources about the book, I found this very recent article about increased funding for the manuscript and its related tourism:

But on the subject of providence, I need to relate a story from Dublin's National Museum, too.  As the three of us looked at the many displays, my daughter said, "I wrote a paper about this!"  It was the Cross of Cong, 12th century processional cross that supposedly once held a portion of "the true cross." ( She hadn't known or had forgotten that the cross was at the National Museum.

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