Writing for Illumination

I recently visited the Book of Kells exhibition at Trinity College in Dublin.

It wasn’t the first time. It was probably the third time in fact. So why the history of the Illuminated Manuscript should move me so this time puts me in a quandary.

Entering the display one is greeted with portentous announcements about bringing light out of the darkness. There is a cruel irony in the image of Medieval monks scratching at vellum in the candlelit gloom, wrecking their eyesight and their posture, painstakingly reaching for enlightenment with every flourish of their pen.

I’ve always imagined, and technically this appears to be accurate, that Illumination referred to the stunning colours and gold leaf of the text. However reflecting on some of the monks’ non-illumined writings gives me reason to believe Illumination is not just about elaborate decoration.

The ordinary poetry the monks produced to test their ink, their technique, or simply to express their own voice, to me was far more moving, though less of a spectacle, than the intricate works of art they made of the Gospels.

They speak of birdsong, of the comforting shelter of the trees and the dappling of the sunlight as they sit and write during their breaks. Their words are their own, not those of some apostle or saint. And yet they are no less saintly for that.

They recognise the sacredness of the nature around them, and of the action of writing, bringing them ever closer to the word of God.

I wonder whether they ever suspected they were closer to that word out in the sunlight instead of huddled over candlelight; whether their own poetry delivered them to enlightenment more than the illuminations that gave them bed and board.

I feel a bond with those monks of old. With them I share a delight in writing, seated in the sunshine, in my garden, during my breaks from paid work. There may be more than a thousand years between us but the joy in writing is timeless and eternal. And through that I could not stop my tears.

Book of Kells on Wikipedia


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