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Seeing and not-seeing: The Book of Kells in Dublin

On holiday in Dublin, my wife and I decided to look at the Book of Kells, the famous ninth century illuminated bound copy of the Gospels made by Columban monks.


Photo Herry Lawford
– Dublin. Flickr – License Public Domain Creative Commons

Steve Latham


The Book belongs to Trinity College, and is kept in an exhibition in their library. So we cleverly booked in advance online, to avoid the insanely long queue to get in, and went along.

First, however, you pass through a large information room, devoted to educational displays and infographics about the Book.

After walking through this entrance lobby, the actual book is a bit of a disappointment. Stuck inside a display cabinet, visitors have to crowd round for a brief glimpse.

In a dark room (presumably to protect this historical artefact), the Book is itself rather dull-looking. The intricacies of the illuminated manuscript are still present, but lacking lustre.

It’s also difficult to catch sight of it, you have to either push your way to the front, or patiently hang back, until a space opens up at the glass case, as people move on.

Photo: Pixabay

No doubt the reverence with which onlookers view the object still demonstrates some of what Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of the art-work.

After all, this is what people, demonstrating their commitment, have come to see, commanded by their tourist guidebooks, or online by Tripadvisor.

The Book of Kells, plainly a masterpiece, is overshadowed, however, by the huge apparatus of explanatory info-tourism, in the preceding room.

To inform the masses about what they are seeing, large wall-mounted boards contain background details of the Book’s production techniques and provenance in the monastic life.

But the pictures, blown-up, enlarged, magnified details from the Book’s illustrations, are brighter, more colourful, than the original, trapped beneath glass, in the protective dark.

Photo: Pixabay

These super-real, hyper-real, images (to use Jean Baudrillard’s term) seem more real than the real “thing-in-itself” (apologies to Immanuel Kant for my misuse of his concept).

If anything, there is more “aura” manifested by these educational montages than by the genuine article.

This despite what Benjamin wrote about the “aura” being lost in the “age of mechanical reproduction”. Their sheer size guarantees that.

Benjamin hadn’t foreseen the combination of hyper-realism in postmodernity, and the tourist industry.

Here visitors to historical sites are guided carefully through managed exhibitions, along production lines of cultural consumption, satisfied with the surface image over the spiritual icon.

Furthermore, the object is lost, in its own specificity of purpose. For a religiously illiterate culture, the writing on the wall is needed to help them understand the Book.

Photo: Pixabay

But most of the writing concentrates on the methods of production, and the (often quirky) details of the pictures, rather than the meaning of the Book in its ecclesiastical lifeworld.

The object is aestheticised under this museological, curatorial, regime of interpretation. Its use-value is reframed as an art-object, ripped from its context.

Perhaps I am being too cynical? But it’s what I felt, as I confronted this example of the distance we put between ourselves and immediate experience.

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