June 2022: Book Review
Reviewer: Mary Adamson
IMAGE & VISION
Reflecting with the Book of Kells
Veritas Publications, 2022
978 1 80097 008 3 • pp 172
Despite all our hopes and aspirations for a happy post-pandemic 2022, we are acutely conscious that all is not well with our world. Our newspapers and our screens remind us that our world is beset with discord, humanitarian catastrophes and conflict. Our exposure, on a daily basis, to humanitarian disasters such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and our detailed consumption in real-time of the horrors of war, are potential disruptors to our communal peace of mind and our sense of a benevolent Creator. It can be tempting to retreat from present-day woes and seek solace and comfort in a putative glorious past, a time of saints and scholars. In that golden era of Irish history from the 7th to 9th centuries, monks in Ireland crafted some of the finest artefacts of medieval Christian art in the form of illustrative manuscripts and high crosses, such as the famous Book of Kells and the Celtic crosses of Monasterboice.
Interestingly, as if to validate the French writer, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s (1849) famous epigram ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, Rosemary Power, in her exquisitely crafted and scholarly oeuvre, Image and Vision: Reflecting with the Book of Kells, acknowledges that political turbulence and social upheaval served as a backdrop to the production of the Book of Kells, one of the greatest works of art/theology of all time. It is thought that work on the manuscript was started around 800 CE on the island of Iona to commemorate Colmcille’s bicentenary. Viking raids on Iona and the subsequent plundering of their monastery forced the monks to flee. Bringing their most treasured possessions with them for safekeeping, they sought refuge in the newly constructed monastery in Kells where the precious masterpiece was finally completed. The cacophony of war and displacement of innocent people resonate with us today but this, however, is not the main focus of Power’s book.
As we read Image & Vision: Reflecting with the Book of Kells, we embark on that shared universal pilgrimage of every human soul seeking the truth. Via the book’s sacred art, carefully chosen spiritual poetry and Rosemary Power’s own scholarly guiding principles, today’s reader is inspired to negotiate the self-same path to enlightenment as the monks of old. The Book of Kells was originally planned as a devotional and liturgical work for its own monastic community and for those associated with it. In her fascinating analysis, Power elucidates, for a modern readership, the intricacies of the art and the monks’ faith and belief whilst crafting a compelling story and an evocative portrait of 9th century monastic life. She manages to engage those larger mysteries of faith, a ‘theology of beauty as a means to the divine’ (p.151) and ever-present Christian hope without sacrificing the lyricism of her language or the deeply-felt spiritual depth of her narrative.
As people of the book, the text or tweet, we are comfortable with the written word as a method of memory and communication. However, our world understands little of the recollection keys built into the psalms, the importance of the storytelling-stained glass windows in the medieval cathedrals, the scriptural stories embossed on high crosses or the wealth of meaning and depth incorporated in the illuminations in medieval books. In short, it is difficult for us to imagine a cultural reality where so very few were literate. Due to Power’s scholarly and sensitive interpretation of selected illuminations we come to understand the purpose of the Book of Kells’ artwork – to ‘illuminate the reader’s own reflection on God’ (p.24). These artists believed that through the gospels, the story of Jesus on earth, God speaks to each individual and to the community at large.
It is reckoned that the Book of Kells contains almost 2000 decorated initials. For this study, the author has selected twelve of the magnificent illuminations and offers an in-depth exploration of the full-page images and display script, including an almost forensic examination of some of the recurring elaborate, minute decorations. Guided by the author, we delve into the most hidden depths of the Book. We are shown how the anonymous illuminators and scribes strove to make timeless what is transient, to make visible the invisible, to infuse spirit into matter and to express the ineffable through physical forms and striking colours.
We know that there are further challenges, further dark days ahead but under Rosemary Power’s insightful tutelage we, too, can find God in the ordinary, simple aspects of life through making time for prayer, meditation and study, for ‘we are not human beings on a spiritual journey; we are spiritual beings on a human journey’. Paulo Coelho