Facsimiles provide a hands-on treat

Facsimiles provide a hands-on treat
See a new historical replica each month at the Library
28 August 2015

Rare, beautiful, historically significant or unusual works can be an inspiration and a joy to behold. However they are often either locked away in the hands of collectors or, if held by a public institution, might be so fragile they can seldom be displayed or loaned for exhibition and definitely not handled by the public. Digitisation has enabled images of some iconic illuminated manuscripts and other treasures of the bibliographic world to be made available for viewing online. However, while this does provide the opportunity for everyone to zoom in and see the items in great detail, the digitised version cannot capture the size and feel of the original, the glow of the gold leaf, the imperfections that speak of past owners and the hands that have held it over time.

Fortunately for those unable to view the originals, there is a partial alternative—the facsimile reproduction. These facsimiles can be works of art themselves as they endeavour to copy the scale, format, colour, contents and feel of the original. They also try to capture imperfections such as holes, stains, tears and annotations. Due to the handcrafted nature of these facsimiles, often sumptuously bound and with accompanying commentaries, they are produced in very limited editions and so also become collector’s items.

The Library is fortunate to hold a number of facsimile editions of illuminated manuscripts, as well as rare early printed texts, first editions of significant literary and academic works, some children’s books and other more unusual items. To enable visitors to the Library to see some of these and have a “hands-on” experience (delicately of course), we will be displaying a different facsimile each month in the Special Collections Reading Room. The first on display for the month of September will be the facsimile of the illuminated manuscript Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells was created around AD 800, probably in a Columban monastery in either Iona or Kells, although there is considerable debate about its exact place of origin. The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, which was its home for centuries. During the reign of Cromwell, it was brought to Dublin for safety reasons and around 1661 Henry Jones, Bishop of Meath, donated it to the library of Trinity College.

Abbey of Kells

Round tower and cross from the original Abbey of Kells, Wikimedia commons

The Book of Kells contains the Latin text of the four Gospels, preceded by prefaces, summaries, and canon table with concordances compiled by Eusebius of Caesarea. Of the 680 pages all but two are decorated with a wealth of symbolic imagery which is woven into intricate designs. At the beginning of each of the four Gospels, the words are placed within a richly ornamented page filled with brightly coloured animals, faces and figures which are entwined round the letters with great skill and artistry. The colours are amazingly vibrant considering the age of the manuscript. In addition to the decorated pages of text, there are more than 30 full page paintings.

Canon table

Canon table from the Book of Kells, Wikimedia commons


Book of Kells,  c. AD 800, Folio 27 v, Wikimedia commons

The beauty and size of the work indicate that it was not intended for daily use or study purposes but was created as a sacred work for display on the altar of the monastery to represent the Word of God. However, the monks that created it also had a sense of humour and you can feel their personality reaching across the centuries to us in some of the illustrations. For example, there is an amusing vignette on folio 48 showing a mouse, having stolen a consecrated wafer, being chased by a cat and the initial N letter of the Bible verse “No man can serve two masters” consists of two men pulling each other’s beards.

Cat chasing mouse

Book of Kells, Folio 48 (detail), c. AD 800, Wikimedia commons

The facsimile edition held by the Library is one of a limited edition of 1480 numbered copies. It was produced in 1990 by Faksimile Verlag Luzern, and was ten years in the making. It faithfully captures the elaborate and highly detailed designs and required a mix of specialised photographic, printing and computer technology together with craftsmanship from experienced lithographers.

Firstly, a photograph was taken of each page and then a colour transparency made and examined under a computerized scanner to analyse the shapes and colours of the design. The computer then assigned numbers to each gradation of colour, with the numbers corresponding to formulas for the mixing of inks to be sent to a printing machine for production of a “testing” page. Each of these pages was then carefully compared against the original by a team of up to five specialist craftsmen to ensure the accuracy of the colours, tones and brightness and any necessary adjustments made. Finally once everything was perfect, the printing machine was programmed to print the final version of the facsimile page. Even the tiny holes in the original manuscript caused by imperfections in the vellum, ageing or wear were cut into the facsimile by another machine. Each page was also then cut to match the original irregular outline of the parchment.

The facsimile itself really is a work of art, as well as providing an authentic experience of the original Book of Kells. Take this opportunity during September to see it in the Library’s Special Collections Reading Room, and make sure you return each month to view another of the Library’s interesting facsimiles. Just a teaser—the next one for October will be something quite different.