By Jennifer Krisch
Folks interested in venturing into their Irish roots on this St. Patrick's Day can merely step into Alden Library for a peek at the "Book of Kells."
According to art historian Charles Buchanan, who acquired a high-quality copy of the book for Ohio University, the Book of Kells is one of the finest examples of illuminated manuscripts in existence. In simple terms, that means its text is accompanied by painted decoration -- though the manuscript is anything but simple.
"It is an extremely sophisticated work of art," said Buchanan, an associate professor in Ohio University's School of Interdisciplinary Arts.
Considered one of the greatest examples of Irish Celtic art, the Book of Kells is believed to have been created by Irish monks around 800 A.D. It contains the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, written in Latin. Though its origins are not entirely known, the book was discovered in a monastery in Kells, Ireland, and since the 17th century has been housed at Trinity College in Dublin.
The handwritten manuscript features intricate decoration and ornamentation covering nearly every page, often encompassing the text.
"It has many different types of decoration," said Buchanan, who researches 11th century Italian manuscripts. "So much of the decoration is a substitution for initials -- usually at the beginning of a written passage. They substitute letters with figural ornaments, bending human bodies or animal figures to represent the letter."
The art is very abstract and two-dimensional, a method applied in the medieval period as a reaction to the classical tradition and to make the beings appear more holy.
"They thought the way the divine looked was not the same as humans looked here on Earth," he said. "They wanted to represent the holy as not looking earthly, but looking heavenly. The Book of Kells is a prime example of this abstraction."
Throughout the text, the magnificent use of delicate and subtle interlace is staggering, from figural representations to letter substitutions. Each is decorated with swirling, coiling lines that appear lacey at first, but on closer inspection are more serpentine, many with tiny heads of beasts or snakes.
"Every time I take my students to see it, they are absolutely floored."
At least once each quarter, Buchanan and his students immerse themselves in the history and ornamentation of the Book of Kells, housed in Archives and Special Collections. Buchanan secured the facsimile -- valued at more than $25,000 -- at the bargain price of $12,500 and received an 1804 Fund grant to cover the purchase.
"When I found out it was half price, I thought that it would be fantastic for teaching," he said.
One of fewer than 1,000 copies ever printed, the book was recreated by photo reproduction. The copy so closely represents the original manuscript, Buchanan said it is easy to forget it's not the real thing.
Created on parchment made of animal skin, the true Book of Kells contains a number of imperfections. Sores on an animal's hide created holes in the parchment that the monks incorporated into some of their decorations, often drafting text or illustrations around the holes. Likewise, from extensive wear during the book's creation, tears occurred in the parchment, and the original is dotted with tiny reparative stitches.
The facsimile includes both the holes and the stitches.
"It is truly authentic," he said. "It looks like you're looking at the original."
Buchanan recently returned from sabbatical in Italy, where he was researching texts for an upcoming book on 11th century Italian manuscripts.