A Student of History

June 10, 2007

New light on an old book

Filed under: Ireland — John Maass @ 9:00 pm

From the Irish Independent of today:

The Book of Kells will be examined scientifically by lasers to examine some of its mysteries.

Modern scientific techniques are being applied to tease out some of the unknowns. The first step is to subject it to analysis by laser in order to know the make-up of the colours and establish how they have retained their power and vigour.

In this process, a laser beam is directed at a small point on a piece of pigment. According to the Trinity librarian, Robin Adams: “That source of energy excites the particles of the pigment which respond and bounce back the energy in a particular wavelength. From that pattern a machine can identify what material is used.”

The lasers, which will not damage the book, are the first part of a long-term detective process which is expected to include applying infra-red rays and X-rays. DNA testing would be more problematical.

The Book of Kells is one of the masterpieces of Western art and a symbol of Irish nationalism. Where it was produced is controversial. Some scholars suggest Iona, the island monastery founded by St. Columba. It is thought to have been the work of several individual scribes over many years, likely before A.D. 806. The manuscript was held at Kells until 1661 when it was moved to Dublin where it remains as the chief treasure of Trinity College Library. 

The Book of Kells is a copy of the four Gospels in Latin. It is known for the extraordinary array of pictures, interlaced shapes and oranamental details. A 13th century scholar, Giraldus Cambrensis, writes of the Book of Kells “… you might believe it was the work of an angel rather than a human being”.

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