contributor.author: Leslie Webster

title.none: Farr, Book of Kells (Webster)

identifier.other: baj9928.9810.006 98.10.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leslie Webster, The British Museum, l.Webster@british-museum.ac.uk

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Farr, Carol. The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience. The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: Univerist y of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. 196. $75.00 (HB) ISBN 0-802-04337-2. ISBN: $25.00 (PB) ISBN 0-802-08157-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.10.06

Farr, Carol. The Book of Kells: Its Function and Audience. The British Library Studies in Medieval Culture. Toronto: Univerist y of Toronto Press, 1997. Pp. 196. $75.00 (HB) ISBN 0-802-04337-2. ISBN: $25.00 (PB) ISBN 0-802-08157-6.

Reviewed by:

Leslie Webster
The British Museum
l.Webster@british-museum.ac.uk

Rather like Beowulf, the Book of Kells is one of those subtle sirens of early medieval Insular culture which both invite and confound a comprehensive reading. The most spectacular of all the great Insular gospel manuscripts of the 7th to 9th centuries, its magnificent and complex decoration has been the subject of a very considerable literature, and scholarship has ranged to and fro over its precise date and origin. Iona and Pictland, as well as Ireland itself, have been invoked as possible sources, and its decorative and textual relationship to other early medieval gospel books has been vigorously debated. In recent years, scholarly attention has swung towards a closer examination of its iconographic content and liturgical function, asking what light such considerations might shed upon the function and context of this remarkable work. Among others, the approaches of Eamonn O Carragain, Jennifer O Reilly and of Carol Farr herself have been particularly instructive in Dr.awing our attention to the complex exegetical machinery which underpins these intricately beautiful images, and the implications they might have for our wider understanding of the manuscript as a whole. An accessible book which summarises the results of these new readings has long been needed; so the appearance of this volume, setting Dr. Farr's own closely focused researches within the background of current thinking, is an eagerly awaited event.

As her preface makes clear, Dr. Farr's book is the product of years of dedicated and delicate unravelling of the relationship of image to text, and their place in liturgical events. She speaks, in her preface, of a process of ideas gradually snowballing into a kind of glaciation; and this image of a work which is slow-moving and immensely solid, rather than an avalanche of thought, is an apt one indeed. In one sense, however, this cool and careful scholarly examination delivers both less and more than one might have hoped for. The publisher's word on the series emphasises the nature of the books in it as original and important contributions to manuscript research, placed within their wider cultural context; and on both counts, this volume does not disappoint. It is a distillation of sustained scholarship which will be a valuable work of reference for all in the field. But which field, or rather, which constituency, exactly? For there remains a sense of uncertainty about which audience is being adDr.essed here. The book's attractive price and format suggest that it is aimed at more than a narrow specialist readership; and indeed, the introduction, on the Book of Kells' place among Insular gospel books in general, and on the historical background in Britain and Ireland, gives a succinct and very useful summary of this material, pitched at a level that is fully accessible to the student or any other intelligent and reasonably informed reader. On the other hand, the central part of Dr. Farr's book is, at times, a very dense read indeed, stylistically somewhat cumbersome and repetitious, and, in general, presented in a rather less accessible manner than the introductory matter; while her appended tables of marginal notations for lections, and comparisons of certain textual articulations are scholarly apparatus of certainly more specialised interest. This is in part the nature of the subject, of course, and any work which has both to engage its audience, and present a complex set of technical arguments has to wrestle with a similar problem. Yet Dr. Farr shows in her introduction how elegantly she can summarise and present detailed information, without loss of rigour and complexity; one is left feeling that complex as its arguments are, the main body of the book could have been a more accessible experience.

Once penetrated, however, this study presents a wealth of detail about the nature of the Book of Kells; or rather, of some of it. The title implies a comprehensive review of the manuscript, its function and audience; so it is with a slight sense of disappointment that one discovers that the study focuses largely on discussion of only two of the major decorated pages, the Temptation of Christ (f 202v) and so-called 'Arrest' of Christ (f 114r), which form the subject of the two central chapters of this four-chapter study (the other two being 'Gospel Manuscripts and Early Medieval Liturgies' and 'Conclusion'). Dr. Farr very properly distinguishes the evidential validity represented by these two major illustrations, as pages which are securely in their original textual contexts within the manuscript, from that of the other full-page illustrations of Christ, such as the Christ in Majesty and the Virgin and Child, whose original placing is uncertain. Her discussion of these two selected scenes is exemplary, and full of illuminating insights, based firmly on their relationship to the adjacent text and its content. Yet the detail in which these are discussed sits in awkward contrast to the much more cursory attention given to the other full-page paintings, which are rather oddly relegated to a walk-on part in the final chapter, 'Conclusion'. As she herself acknowledges in her short but stimulating discussion of the Virgin and Child page, thorough analysis of this complex icon would require a full-length study; but it is precisely because the appetite is whetted by her detailed reading of the Temptation and 'Arrest' pages, that one looks in vain for more. To take but one instance; how, in the light of her subtle analysis of the onlookers in the Temptation image, might the very distinctive groups of spectators in the Virgin and Child page, f 7v, and on f 124r, Matthew 27.38, be interpreted?

The close reading of the two selected pages which forms the core of the book is presented as a paradigm of how the manuscript at large can be understood, and its overall function and context more clearly assessed. These two illustrations are, as Dr. Farr demonstrates, rooted in an Insular tradition of asceticism. Her analysis of their liturgical context, and of the lection systems involved, is presented in a meticulously detailed and highly structured argument. It is full of insight into the role that a prestige gospel manuscript such as this played in the religious life of a community, and into the nature of that community itself. Thus, through this account, we may for example see more clearly some of the ideas and rituals enacted in an early medieval Insular monastery around the end of the Lenten fast, and Holy Week; the integration of the illustrations within the text permits a close analysis of their likely relationship to liturgical enactments, and beyond that, to the role of clergy in these events.

To what extent an equally intensive study of the pages not examined in detail here might alter the conclusions drawn remains open to question. In her discussion of the Virgin and Child and Christ in Majesty pages, she acknowleges the likelihood that these images explain something about the book's overall identity and purpose, and glances briefly towards certain avenues of investigation -- a possible link with church dedication in the case of the Virgin and Child image, for example; but no doubt constrained by the scale of the monograph, she resists the temptation to explore these ideas in detail. Very probably, indeed, it would have made little difference to the overall interpretation of the manuscript's function and audience; but it would certainly have modified and enriched the detail. As Dr. Farr's analysis stands, the setting is firmly liturgical, the context essentially monastic, and the primary audience elite. The broader political context is sketched, though it might deserve further consideration; Dr. Farr treads delicately around the still somewhat contentious issue of this manuscript's place of origin, though her lectional observations give strong support to the view that it was made in a Columban monastic context, and quite probably on the Irish mainland.

This study is the latest addition to the British Library's bold new monograph series, Studies in Medieval Culture, which aims to bring new scholarship into the public domain at reasonable cost, and very properly does not confine itself merely to those manuscripts which happen to be in its own magnificent collections. This clearly targeted, attractively produced and well-priced series should be a model for other such institutions. Despite the minor gripe that pages 171-178 of the bibliography were missing in this reviewer's copy, making what might have been just a slightly quirky reference system pretty well useless, Dr. Farr's book is a very worthy addition to a useful series; and the Book of Kells has found a fine exegete.