For historians and curators, the imaginative recreation of the past presents particular, but frequently unacknowledged, difficulties. The skills needed to establish chronologies, or to tease out the causation behind historical events, or to make academic judgements about works of art, are quite different from those needed to convince an audience of the reality of the past. For this, works like Michael Crichton’s Timeline, or the movie of The Name of the Rose, allow us to glimpse a remote physical and intellectual past. In the animated film The Secret of Kells, nominated for an Oscar award in 2009, the atmosphere of Ireland’s medieval monasteries and their famous artistic output is captured brilliantly by Cartoon Saloon of Kilkenny. Dwelling on the turbulence of the times, the film reveals a monastic world which is both open to visitors from abroad yet at risk from outside forces. In its inspired artistic asides, it mirrors the extraordinary qualities of the Book of Kells itself and seems to follow in a technical line from the work of the stained-glass artist Harry Clarke. When snow falls on the monastery, individual flakes take the form of crosses drawn in a myriad of designs. Such scenes call for repeated viewings and live long in the memory.
In this new publication, Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart of Cartoon Saloon explain how they did it, and, of equal interest, they say who did what. We learn that Ross Stewart designed the scriptorium at Iona, that Tomm Moore devised the individual characters in the scriptorium, one of them a tribute to the actor Mick Lally, who played Brother Aidan and died in 2010, shortly after the release of the film, and that Adrien Merigeau was responsible for a different realisation of the scriptorium. Many a scholar of the Book of Kells would wish for such a guide.