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Visiting Research Fellow highlights fascinating scholarship behind the study of the Book of Kells

9 June 2017 - Dr Heather Pulliam completed her PhD on the Book of Kells as an art history student at the University of St. Andrews, which she developed into a monograph, Word and Image in the Book of Kells (Dublin: Four Courts, 2006). Now a Senior Lecture in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, she recently returned to Trinity, and the home of the Book of Kells, to undertake a fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub in collaboration with the School of Histories and Humanities.

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Discussing her two long-term research projects which she will be progressing during her stay at Trinity College, she talked at length about the Book of Kells, colour and iconography, as well as her two current projects with her mentor Dr Rachel Moss during a recent Fellow in Focus at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

The Book of Kells is one of Trinity Library’s most prized possessions; famous worldwide for its intricate and lavish decoration, it is visited each day by hundreds of visitors to the Long Room Library.  

‘There’s so many layers and it’s so nuanced - it’s extremely difficult to understand. I don’t think people who come to see the Book of Kells realise how many images it contains. There’s no comparison anywhere else in this period, where every page has an image in it. They may be tiny and they may be decorated initials but they’re intricate.'

Talking of her earlier work on the Book of Kells through her PhD and subsequent monograph, Dr Pulliam commented that she would have benefited hugely from a digitised copy. She examined, at that time, something of which very little work had been carried out on – the decorated initials and the margins of the book, as well as the human figures. She was trying to figure out why these figures were there.

 ‘It was purposeful……it was about hidden meanings and understanding the truth and people who were failing to recognise Christ couldn’t understand his message’, she said.

‘Wherever human figures were, they were always talking about either understanding the word of God or failing to understand it’, according to Dr Pulliam.

Dr Heather Pulliam’s fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub will help her progress two long-term research projects.

The first project Dr Pulliam is looking at involves a book-length project titled In Living Colour: Rethinking Insular and Carolingian Art, and is concerned with the analysis and use of colour in early medieval Britain and Ireland.  

‘I was really interested in iconography –images of the Virgin Mary or images of the Crucifixion, and I realised that because we always studied these things in black and white, as art historians especially in the 80s and even in the 90s, we’ve had an innate distrust of colour. There are still a lot of books being published in black and white because this distrust of the reliability of colour’, she said.

She admits that a lot of publications in the past have gotten it wrong in relation to colour, particularly when colour is photographed. But, she says ‘it meant that medievalists when they talked about Virgin and Child, they never talked about the colour. Very few people if anyone really talked about the colour in the Book of Kells other than what it might tell us about the process of making the manuscript.’

Dr Pulliam became more interested in how colour is made and what happens to colour over time. However, the project also encompasses a strong inter-disciplinary element in understanding the concept of colour in the early medieval period, and the study of linguistics. ‘Before we are able to consider the symbolic meaning of colour in an artwork, we must first ascertain not only how the colour originally appeared but also how it was perceived and described. Linguistic studies, for example, have demonstrated that both Old Irish and Anglo-Saxon colour terms reveal a perception of colour that radically differs from our own, where saturation is given primacy over hue.’ 

In terms of the Book of Kells she says that it may not have been one phase of colouring, and it may have been touched up at different stages. However, she says her studies indicate that the Book of Kells have more in common with the Carolingian manuscripts of the time – those which were made in Germany and France – than the likes of the Lindisfarne manuscript.

Her second project sees her moving away from manuscripts to the study of crosses and the environments they inhabit, and specifically their interaction with rainfall. Drawing on Éamonn Ó Carragáin's work on crosses and sunlight, she said she became interested in seeing how, in Ireland and Scotland particularly, considering the frequency of rainfall, these crosses interact with the rain, which might tell us something about how the depth of relief might have been manipulated for dramatic and emotive effects. ‘This project investigates the interaction between the viewer and the object: how our size, orientation, perspective, physical senses, motion, focus, gaze and perception of sequential time alter our experience and understanding of the art object.’

Dr Heather Pulliam was part the Trinity Long Room Hub’s 2016-17 fellowship programme.  The Institute’s 2016-17 programme brought over 20 leading international scholars to the institute for periods of two weeks or two to three months.

From 2017-18 to 2019-20 the Trinity Long Room Hub will offer a 12 month fellowship programme co-funded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions. The first call to this programme for 2017-18 fellowships is now complete and details on the second call will be announced shortly on the Institute website.

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895

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