Trinity College Old Library
Book of Kells
Image © Trinity College Dublin
The Book of Kells is one of the world's greatest medieval treasures. It is a lavishly decorated copy of the four Gospels, written in Latin with additional texts. It stands out from other manuscripts of the same period in the quality of its artwork and the sheer number of illustrations throughout the 680 pages of the book. This magnificent work was intended for ceremonial use on special occasions such as Easter, rather than as an article of everyday worship. Although, it is not known exactly when the book was written, it is thought to date from around 800 AD. It was written and illustrated by hand by three monks using their own handmade materials, including vellum, inks and pigments.
The Book of Kells is believed to have been written in a monastery founded by St Columba on Iona in Scotland. Viking raids were widespread at the time of its creation and it became too dangerous for the monks to continue living on the island. Terrified by the raids, the monks fled from Iona to their sister monastery in Kells, Co Meath, in around 806 AD. It is unclear whether the book was written wholly in Iona or partly in Kells, but we do know that it remained in Kells throughout the Middle Ages and was eventually placed in Trinity College Library by Bishop Henry Jones of Meath in 1661.
The Book of Kells was unveiled in its new display case in the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin on September 14th, 2020. The ninth-century manuscript, one of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures, is displayed in all its magnificence in a case specially designed by Goppion in the newly refurbished Treasury.
The curators' aim is to provide an even more inspiring experience for the visitor, under the banner of the highest standards of conservation and management of this world heritage icon, and to mark a revitalization of the cultural, heritage and tourism sectors as the country emerges from COVID-19.
The invaluable 9th-century manuscript is now for the first time displayed on a plinth in a tall freestanding case designed to facilitate the display of every single page in rotation. Some of the most ornate pages have not been on public display for many decades.
The pages selected for the opening are taken from the Gospel of St Matthew and include the depiction of the Virgin and Child (folio 7v), facing the text of Breves Causae (folio 8r), and are exhibited for the first time in 30 years. The illustration is the only important representation of a woman in the whole Book of Kells and, indeed, the earliest surviving image of the Virgin and Child in Western manuscript art.
Image © Trinity College Dublin
The display case
The display case takes the form of a freestanding square prism (1400 mm wide by 2000 mm high). Made entirely of certified non-VOC materials, it also houses a number of sophisticated conservation features. It boasts an air exchange rate of over 10 days and is equipped with an air filtering, a passive humidity control and passive fire and heat protection systems. As an additional safeguard, a fire curtain drops from the ceiling if the fire alarm is activated, isolating the case from the highly flammable external environment (wood), gaining time to introduce countermeasures. A data logger monitors the interior environment – temperature, relative humanity, instantaneous and accumulated light, and UV light.
Safeguarding the preciousness manuscript was a challenge, so the display case is equipped with a multi-latch door fastening system that provides firm, even compression around the perimeter, while the glass panes are glued inside the metal profile, thus offering greater protection against tampering.
The book is positioned on a lectern and the pages are held in place by a thin parchment band. Special brackets support the book and can be adjusted to different heights so it can be opened at the desired page without putting the spine or any other part under strain.
The contrast between the black display surface, the gilding of the case itself and the illuminated codex is enhanced by the LED lighting provided by 16 adjustable Goppion spotlights positioned on 4 magnetic tracks in the ceiling of the display case.
The showcase stands in the Treasury Room of Trinity College Library, whose walls are lined with subtly-lit pages of the Book of Kells. But these are no distraction, as the visitor’s attention is captured by the display case’s central positioning and guided by discreet step lights that also underline the sacred aspect of the manuscript.
Exhibition Design: Opera, Amsterdam