Fulfilling a Scholarly Dream: A Study Abroad in Dublin, Ireland

Calligraphy of Sophia Rose Hart next to a sheet with several calligraphy letters.

Many students have the dream of one day being able to study abroad in a different country while in college. During high school I was one of those students who couldn’t wait to learn outside of the United States, and to travel in general. At the top of my list was Dublin, Ireland, especially to study art. I had almost convinced myself I wouldn’t be able to make it happen while at Henry Ford, but I was proven wrong last fall when the opportunity to study in Dublin graciously fell into my lap through the Honors Program.

I will be spending a week at Trinity College this May to study The Book of Kells with Dr. Bernard Meehan, the Keeper of Manuscripts at the college. The Book of Kells is an 8th century illuminated manuscript attributed to the scriptorium of the monastery founded by St. Colum Cille on Iona, an island off the coast of Scotland. In 806, following a Viking raid, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath.

However, there is no way of knowing if the book was produced entirely at Iona or Kells, or partially at both. It contains the four Gospels in Latin, based on the Vulgate text, along with many paintings and expert script known as “insular majuscule.” To produce the book the monks used vellum, a prepared calfskin obtained from about 150 calves.

The Book of Kells was something that fascinated me even before l learned I was going to study it. I had first heard of it in previous art history classes, and being a painter myself, was in awe of the intricate designs. I was also captivated by the calligraphy, having already had previous experience with writing script.

Since the beginning of this semester I have been working with Mrs. Geraldine Grunow, one of the most incredible people I’ve met, and who I’ll be traveling with in May. She has helped guide me in all of my studies and supported all of my incredibly involved plans for art projects I’ve wanted to do in connection with the manuscript. I’ve spent time learning about the history of Ireland and The Book of Kells, practicing italic calligraphy and teaching myself insular majuscule calligraphy, as well as studying the different carpet pages, designs, and decorative letters. We’ve spent time together translating many lines from the manuscript using the Latin Vulgate Gospels and deciphering intricate decorative texts, which can be a headache sometimes!

I’ve done a study of the script using my own name and have been working on reproducing animal designs directly from the book. I am learning firsthand just how involved and difficult these illustrations were to make, and I have even enlarged their size a great deal. This has inspired an even greater admiration and awe in me for the artistic skill levels of the Columban monks who created the Book of Kells.

Much of my time has also been spent researching the effects of the Viking raids on Irish art and manuscripts. I have discovered a great deal about who the Vikings were and why their actions towards the Irish and other peoples are so important. Many literary works during that time were bound in precious metals and gems, The Book of Kells being one of them. However, as the Viking’s primary source of income at the time was through pillaging and raiding, many of them were attracted to stealing the various bindings. This happened to The Book of Kells in 1007, and unfortunately, the binding and various missing pages were never found again. This, of course, contributed to the view many people had towards the Vikings during that time and helped develop the perception we have of the Vikings today.

If anyone is interested in my future research and my time abroad in Dublin, I will be giving a presentation on Friday, April 29 on campus in the ASCC building. I am posting updates through my Facebook page, Sophia Hart’s Art.