The great insular Gospel books were often meant to be seen, as well as read, at a time when most people were not ‘literate’ in the modern sense, but were well-versed in decoding sign, symbol and image and would have heard accompanying text read aloud during performative public liturgy and preaching. They thereby participated in a shared cultural narrative with the professional religious who penned and illuminated manuscripts.
Together they formed complex ‘communities of reading’ which enjoyed multi-level relationships with such books – rather like film audiences today who might focus on the action of the storyline, the intertextual referencing of other works, the aesthetic imagery, the underlying symbolic and psychological meaning, or any or all of the above. For multivalence is the key to reading much of the imagery of the early Middle Ages; one could see the onion as an onion, but could peel away the layers of meaning to get into the intense flavour of the heart and also consider the symbolic meaning of the onion and what it signified.
As a Visiting Fellow of the Trinity Long Room Hub I have spent some time examining the Library’s insular manuscripts; as part of this work I led a masterclass comprising library curators and conservators, faculty, researchers and students, who gathered as a ‘community of reading’ to share their perspectives and views on the Garland of Howth, a manuscript which was supposed to have been owned by the monastery of Ireland’s Eye, Howth, at the dawn of the early modern age. The Garland was not as splendid as the Book of Kells or the Book of Lindisfarne, which were made as foci of leading pilgrimage cults, and is not as well preserved, but it would have been impressive in its own right. Discussion of the materiality of its script, decoration and codicology led the class to consider it as perhaps a product of the ninth century, exhibiting early Viking influence, with some intriguing stylistic affiliations to other works associated with the Irish West Midlands, focusing on Birr, Roscrea and Lorrha. The excavation of such complex artefacts serves as a portal into their age and a mirror of how we approach them today, and together our applied vision led us to look back beyond the book’s provenance and further afield than Dublin and Island’s Eye itself.
My warmest thanks go to Dr Laura Cleaver of the TCD Art History Dept and to other colleagues in TCD, and other leading cultural institutions in Dublin for facilitating my stay.
Professor Michelle Brown
School of Advanced Study, University of London