The Book of Kells, the 9th century illuminated Gospel manuscript that is one of the greatest masterpieces of medieval calligraphy and illumination (if not the greatest), is on display at the Library of Trinity College Dublin, but you can’t check it out or leaf through it, for obvious reasons. As Ireland’s best known and beloved cultural treasure, it is kept in a secure, climate-controlled display case.
The Book of Kells exhibition is artfully curated with large blow-ups of key pages of the manuscript so people can get a good look at some of the book’s contents in replica form. Visitors get an information leaflet and can rent audio tours. There are no guided tours and no photography is allowed.
Trinity College Dublin has created an online course for the many, many people around the world thirsty to see more of and learn more about the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece is a four-week course offered through FutureLearn free of charge to all comers.
The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) has been designed by academics from the School of Histories and Humanities, the School of Religion and staff from the Library. Using the Book of Kells as a window the course will explore the landscape, history, theology, and politics of early medieval Ireland and explore how that past is understood in modern Ireland. Rachel Moss, Associate Professor in the History of Art and Architecture, and one of the course designers, commented: “Every year the campus of Trinity fills with expectant visitors, keen to see the world famous Book of Kells for themselves. There are few experiences to beat the experience of gazing on these precious pages, and imagining who else has shared that privilege over the past 1,200 years. The longer you dwell, the more detail reveals itself, and the more intriguing the manuscript becomes.”
“In this course we look forward to being able to share the manuscript with those who have yet to see it for themselves, and share it again with those that have. The course will bring the learner beyond that initial encounter to explore its minute and intricate art, how it was made and what it might have meant to its makers. The course will not just dwell in the past. The manuscript is extraordinary in the way in which it has managed to grip the public imagination up to the present day. Despite centuries of scholarship, new research continues to disentangle some of the enigmas that it presents.”
A different aspect of the book will be the focus of each week, exploring how it relates to the wider context of Irish art. The course will cover the illumination and calligraphy as well as the substance of the Latin Gospel text and the physical object of the book itself. I hope some of the new research addressed in the course is the study of parchment that was able to extract DNA from Staedtler Mars eraser crumbs. Trinity College Dublin was part of the research team.
At the end of the course learners will be able to explain the function and meanings of medieval Irish art; understand how medieval manuscripts were made and engage critically with methodologies and scholarly debates which have shaped interpretations of the period. The course will also equip learners with knowledge of the distinctive features of the Irish Church in this era and an understanding of the visual, theological and historical characteristics of medieval material culture.
The course starts on my birthday, October 8th. Is that not the best present a history nerd could ask for? Downright auspicious, I call it. Register for The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece here.