While the inaugural 4 Corners Festival ended last week with a cross-town, boundary-crossing prayer event, efforts to encourage the spirit of the festival to live on continue this week through the launch of a creative arts initiative focused on the Book of Kells. There’s an information meeting tonight for an art exhibition, described this way on the 4 Corners Facebook page:
Calling all Artists – 4 Corners Art Exhibition
We want to draw together through art a vision for a shared future in Belfast by looking back at the transformation of Ireland through the Gospel in the 5th Century.
All submissions should reflect the exhibition’s theme of “The Book of Kells – The Hope of Something New”
Artists Objective: To produce a piece of artistic work influenced and inspired by The Book of Kells and its symbolism of a time in Ireland when there was dramatic transformation.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
For all interested Artists or those just interested in the subject – there is a seminar on the transition between pre and post Christian Irish Art and a discussion afterwards over coffee on themes of hope and new vision the Gospel brought into Irish Art, today, Thursday 31 January at 7:30pm 17 Castle Arcade. (second floor, buzzer says ‘storehouse’)
The series of events focused on the Book of Kells has been organised by Carol Rossborough, who has explained her motivation on Rev Steve Stockman’s blog.
The first event, which was incorporated into the 4 Corners Festival, was a lecture by art historian Dr Angela Griffiths of Trinity College Dublin. Because I am currently based in New Mexico, I was unable to attend the lecture, but I was able to listen to the recording made on the night, which is available here.
I’ve written previously of the cynics amongst us (and I sometimes include myself in this category!) who are suspicious of appropriating Celtic Christianity (including the Book of Kells) helter-skelter to suit whatever agendas we have.
Even if I am sympathetic to the agenda – as I would be in the case of contemporary Christians drawing on the resources of Celtic Christianity to promote reconciliation – I still think that it is wise to be honest about history.
So I was pleased with the informative and scholarly tone of Griffiths’ lecture, albeit disappointed that the audio recording couldn’t include the images which she was displaying for the audience.
Griffiths presented a sweeping account of how the Book of Kells was produced, comparing it to other illuminated manuscripts, and demonstrating how it drew on artistic styles across the length and breadth of Europe.
Her emphasis on the integrity of artists as those who draw on whatever sources most nourish their creativity – rather than being slaves to nationalistic or political agendas – was a welcome one and served as a timely warning against appropriating artefacts like the Book of Kells for modern-day propagandistic purposes.
I hope that Rossborough’s Book of Kells initiative has a similar emphasis on the integrity of artists as creators of beauty, beauty that invites people to explore their world in ways that they would not have dreamt of before.
But Griffiths was also clear that the monk-artists of the Book of Kells had a Christian agenda. This is of course to be expected, given that the production of the book was surely, in large part, a devotional exercise meant to educate viewers about the Christian faith.
Notice here my emphasis is on viewers rather than readers. Griffiths explained that the size of the book – coupled with the extent of its artwork (there is an illustration on every page, which is unusual for illuminated manuscripts) – meant that it was most likely intended to be on display in a church where both literate and non-literate could gaze on its pages.
In a world quite unlike ours, where we are bombarded with multiple images nearly every second, the impact of the colourful art on the pages of the book must have been immense. As Griffiths said, it was intended to awe and inspire.
And that awe and inspiration came at a cost. The pages of the book are made from cattle skins, and in a culture where wealth was measured in cattle, Griffiths said that this was the equivalent of literally writing on money.
The paint used for the illustrations was also sourced from abroad, which would have added to the expense.
This leads me to wonder if Christians today appreciate the power of art to the extent that they would be prepared to invest in it so significantly?
The Book of Kells also embodies a Christian symbolism that contemporary viewers don’t always readily grasp. For example, Griffiths explained that the snake, the peacock, and the lion were all understood as symbols of the resurrection.
The snake, while now associated with Satan or with evil, then had positive connotations. People of the day likened the snake’s shedding of its skin each year with a new birth akin to the resurrection.
In the case of the peacock, people of the day observed that the feathers of a dead peacock did not fade, again reminding them of the resurrection and eternal life.
As for lions, Griffiths said that people then believed that lion cubs were born dead, and that they were ‘born again’ when the father lion breathed on them. This would have been based on their observations of male lions licking or smelling their clubs shortly after their birth.
In an increasingly post-Christian culture, it’s not just the symbolism of the Book of Kells that is lost on most of the people around us. And of course, art depends on symbolism and suggestion to engage people with all their senses. When people today look at the Book of Kells – indeed, including the artists that Rossborough hopes to attract to her venture – how will they use or adapt the symbols found there in ways that are meaningful and inspiring?
Finally, Griffiths’ lecture includes descriptions of multiple notable pages or images from the Book of Kells. She said that scholars are not always certain about what the images mean. In light of the 4 Corners Festival’s focus on transformation and reconciliation, I was taken by her description of an image of cats and mice.
The cats, she said, appeared to have discs in their mouths, which some scholars suggest are reminiscent of the Eucharist. While the idea of cats receiving Eucharist might seem counter-intuitive or even offensive to some, I was intrigued with this possibility when Griffiths pointed out that the cats in the image appeared to be at peace with the mice.
This is of course a contrast to the ‘real world,’ where cats and mice are enemies – predator and prey. And why not portray the Eucharist stylistically as an event where sworn enemies are at peace with one another?
Events about the Book of Kells continue with the exhibition in March. I’m excited to see what the artists of Belfast, and maybe further afield, will create.