Sunday, September 25, 2011

History


Illuminated manuscripts entrance me. I once sat in a tiny park next to a busy arterial road so engrossed in a folio sized book about the Lindisfarne Gospels that I didn’t notice the light was failing until I couldn’t read the text anymore. It had nothing whatever to do with the subject matter of those manuscripts, I’ve never been religious, but for some reason that style of illustration triggers in me a sense of history like nothing else.
Years later my girlfriend, eventually my wife, wrangled a work sponsored trip to VeloCity, the world cycling conference when it was being held in Dublin, Ireland. She asked if I wanted to go along and I struggled for an answer because the cost was prohibitive. The tipping point came when I realised that I could see the Book of Kells.
It’s housed at Trinity College in it’s own special exhibit. It’s a good bit of theatre that exhibit. You walk in through a maze-like set of rooms with the history of the book, the places and history of where it’s been kept covering the walls with text and pictures.
The room in which the book, or rather the pages that are being displayed at that time, resides is dark with down lights shining on a flat glass display case the size of a moderate kitchen table. When I reached that room the display was completely surrounded. The small throng was slowly circling it counter clockwise, there were several other illuminated works to view. I got into the circle and was working my way towards the Kells pages but got more and more annoyed as people would enter the room and rather than get in the queue they would push in right where the Kells pages were.
Realising that I was getting so annoyed that I wouldn’t enjoy the experience anyway, I bailed and went to look at what else there was to see. This mostly consisted of The Long Gallery in which hundreds if not thousands of antique volumes are kept. It was practically empty and it was a bibliophiles absolute nightmare. All those treasures, literally just out of reach protected only by a dusty velvet rope. Well a rope and a guard.
We got to chatting with the guard and at one point I mentioned my frustration in not being able to see the Book of Kells. My wife, being a more practical sort, asked him when was it not busy. He looked at his watch and said “Well, right about now is usually not too bad.”
He was right. I walked in and there was only one other person. I got to stand and gaze at that illuminated piece of history for maybe five minutes undisturbed.
It was different than looking at reproductions even though it was behind glass. Profound. Moving. I think the main difference is that seeing the physical object that was created with so much love and skill so very long ago makes the passage of time real in a way that reproduction cannot. It is essentially different because all those years happened to that actual object right there and because that object is indisputably real then those years are made real too. And in exactly the same way it makes the artist who painted it real.
It’s not mysticism, it’s not metaphysics, but it is emotion, very human emotion. In order to connect with things as abstract as memory and history sometimes we need a real, physical object to remind us of the reality of the past.

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The Mister said...

That... is amazing. I find my awe almost paralyzing even when I'm just holding a manual to some old tube gear from the 40's. I'd probably have to be carried out of the Kells exhibition on a stretcher.

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