Attending a recent conference about ‘Art and Spirituality’ in Trinity College, Dublin presented me with a unique opportunity to see ‘The Book of Kells’.
This rare treasure is an illuminated gospel manuscript believed to have been created c.800. The manuscript today comprises 340 folios and is bound in four volumes. The leaves are on high-quality calf vellum and the elaborate ornamentation that covers them includes ten full-page illustrations. Every morning a page of this ancient manuscript is carefully turned, so that the part of it you see depends entirely on the day you visit.
We were visiting with the summer holiday crowds and so it was inevitable that I saw the Book in a room full of people. Despite the noise that was resonating through the hall of preceding information, once we made it to the inner sanctum where the Book belongs, the crowd did find a form of stillness. As we leant over the glass cabinet containing the Book – we looked and we listened. In the first instance we listened for the whispers that were shared in the room as people drew one another’s attention to the elements of colour, pattern and design that captured their attention.
There was however, an invitation to a deeper listening – a listening for what was stirred in our imagination as the Book provoked us to wonder. As I looked upon this Book, I wondered about the scribes who had poured themselves into the production of this work over the course of a lifetime. I wondered about the people who had kept this book safe for so many years and I wondered about the person who had the privilege of turning the page that very morning. I wondered if the Book had absorbed all of this attention. In the distance that existed between my own body and Vellum pages beneath the glass, I became aware of what I can only describe as the presence of attention, and it was this that the Book seemed able to offer me as a viewer, firmly grounded in 2016.
I wonder if the scribes had ever imagined that the designs they so patiently created and curated would one day be expressed in a pair of socks!
And yes, I did buy a pair.
There is something fabulous about a good pair of socks and something deeply reassuring about the way these images have survived the passage of time and still call us to wonder, even if only as tourists who are passing by.
by Libby Byrne