Facsimile Art
June 30, 2005 9:52 PM   Subscribe

The Book of Kells is one of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts ever made, a fusion of Celtic motifs, Germanic forms and Christian themes. We can view the image gallerys, or even visit in person, but it's a soulfully thin experience compared to actually holding its weight and turning the pages. Enter the world of Facsimile Books, a faithful re-creation of the original to the extent that it is virtually indistinguishable from the original, where price is no concern, editions are limited, and can cost $20,000 or more and often sell-out quickly. Finns Fine Books is a leading distributor. A list of publishers, mostly European fine arts craftsmen.
posted by stbalbach (16 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Expensive facsimiles of medieval manuscripts published by luxury firms such as Faksimile Verlag in Lucerne are bought by German dentists with book fetishes and more ominously by major libraries, who increasingly force researchers to consult these facsimiles and deny access to the originals. Manuscripts such as the Book of Kells require restricted access given their age and fragility (although manuscripts are a lot tougher than you might think). However, no manuscript is made more are made more accessible to the public by a facsimile. Given that a decent facsimile can cost $50,000, they are about as hard to come by and as obsessively preserved as manuscripts themselves. And let us be clear: these simulacra are fake manuscripts and nothing will substitute for the experience of handling a medieval book. The facsimile presumes a historian has nothing to learn from contact with an object from the deep past, and that a modern reproduction of size, color, and iconography provides insight into medieval culture. This is sheer rubbish and should be resisted by anyone interested in the history of our collective material culture.
posted by Toolshed at 10:30 PM on June 30, 2005

posted by reflection at 10:35 PM on June 30, 2005

There was a vigorous discussion about a similar issue here recently viz: whether medieval manuscripts ought to be protected or opened to researchers or allcomers. The Book of Kells is special and even if robust, it would ultimately be trashed if the viewing populace were given any sort of direct access in any great numbers.
$50K for a facsimile? jayzuss!
posted by peacay at 10:48 PM on June 30, 2005

I saw the Book of Kells in Dublin a few years ago. Don't remember a facsimile being sold in the gift shop. Such a shame.
posted by justgary at 11:03 PM on June 30, 2005

So since the reasonable facsimile can never measure up to the real thing then the text should be something only heard of and never seen (if not handled)?
posted by ao4047 at 11:44 PM on June 30, 2005

$50K for a facsimile is a bit much, but you can get some very beautiful coffee-table books full of the images. Not as good, sure, and certainly not enough for a real researcher, but for someone with a relatively casual interest in the subject, the images are still damn beautiful even as full-color photos or scans. For a researcher, it makes sense to have access to the original, but as pecay says, it's not really possible to give the general public access. It seems to me that handcrafted facsimiles could still bring the public closer to the original than they'd otherwise get...

Tangentially, until a few years ago, most Irish step dancing costumes were homemade, and most girls' dresses were embroidered with designs adapted from the Book of Kells.
posted by ubersturm at 11:51 PM on June 30, 2005

Manuscripts like the Book of Kells are unique, priceless and irreplaceable, so any multiple edition of them is a good thing in my view, even if its dissemination is limited. I do wonder whether editions of lower price (but necessarily lower fidelity to the originals) might be preferable, though, to the super-deluxe publications of Faksimile Verlag, ADEVA, and their ilk. I think Toolshed’s view is rather harsh, and wouldn’t begrudge a wealthy German dentist this kind of pleasure, inauthentic as it may be. I know I really enjoy leafing through my copy of this book, and don’t lose any sleep that it’s a pale reflection of an original, when in all likelihood I will never see the manuscript, let alone turn its pages.
posted by misteraitch at 12:34 AM on July 1, 2005

Does anybody know of a good coffee-table reproduction of the Book of Kells? I've read The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin and it had some interesting info but not nearly as many reproductions of actual manuscript pages as I'd like.
posted by rhiannon at 1:43 AM on July 1, 2005

From lightly dabbling in related subjects, I've gotten the impression that the monks and motifs are more Anglo-Saxon than Celtic. Is that accurate?
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:17 AM on July 1, 2005

"Hiberno Saxon" is the phrase I've usually heard used, Zurishaddai, but the Book of Kells is pretty late in that period (people who know more than me suggest the Book of Durrow is a better example). But the Celtic motifs are definitely evident in both.
posted by jamesonandwater at 7:40 AM on July 1, 2005

Yeah it's considered Hiberno-Saxon, the apex really. Book of Durrow is the first solidly Hiberno-Saxon piece. After Hiberno-Saxon comes "Anglo-Saxon art" which is characterized by more Mediterranean, Carolingian and Byzantine influences. Hiberno-Saxon was made in Northumbria by Irish Celtic monks. Book of Kells was believed probably made in Iona and then brought to Kells, Ireland when the Viking raids started.
posted by stbalbach at 8:33 AM on July 1, 2005

I first read about the Book of Kells in "The Mountains of Pi" (self-link), a New Yorker profile on the Chudnovsky Brothers, but couldn't find any link with substantial information. Glad to see it on the blue finally!
posted by of strange foe at 8:41 AM on July 1, 2005

About six months ago I bought the CD mentioned at the bottom of the Wikipedia page (www.bookofkells.com), which I'd recommend to anyone interested. The entire book is captured on the CD, but only a few of the "regular" pages are featured, the main focus being 14 of the significant pages. There are also close-ups of the people and animals scattered about the pages. If you're interested in the history, the knotwork, or are looking for tattoo ideas (damn cultural appropriation, anyway) then have a look.
(no, i don't work for them, i just really like the cd)
posted by Zack_Replica at 8:42 AM on July 1, 2005

Thanks for those answers — it was the "Irish Celtic monks in Northumbria, England" part of the equation that hasn't stayed clear in my mind. I'll have to learn more about these roving missionaries!
posted by Zurishaddai at 9:35 AM on July 1, 2005

I think it's great people are making $50,000 copies of such books. If some catastrophe should befall the original, having a distributed set of extremely faithful reproductions, into which so much resources have been invested, would prove invaluable.

Those coffee table books, while this would probably be as good a topic for a coffee table book as any other, don't do the material any sort of justice. Those glossy, trimmed and scaled photos of the original, interspersed with some academic discussion, would detract from the true nature of the original tome to the extent that it would seem to do disgrace to it.

To that extent I agree with toolshed, the original is a connection to the past, unbroken, real and tangible. Priceless.
posted by nervousfritz at 11:11 AM on July 1, 2005

Can I get a facsimile of the original manuscript of the Bible?
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:44 PM on July 1, 2005

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