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BOUND TO PLEASE / Resurrecting hues of unknown scribes from 1,200 years ago

The Japan News

By Atsuko Matsumoto / Japan News Staff Writer The Book of Kells

By Misae Hagiwara

Kyuryudo, 150pp

Imagine a page about A4 size in front of you.

Misae Hagiwara dedicated a little over 15 years to reproducing 23 pages of this size from a Latin manuscript.

This reveals how painstaking her attempt was in re-creating the illuminated pages of the Book of Kells, a handwritten copy of the Christian Gospels believed to have been created about 1,200 years ago in monasteries in Scotland and Ireland. It is now considered one of the most magnificent manuscripts in the world.

“Ireland’s Greatest Treasure: The Book of Kells — Reproductions and Comments on Colouring and Images” is a compilation of the meticulous work and insights by Hagiwara, also known as Misae Tanaka.

Her tireless efforts are beyond imagination. To re-create the medieval work as precisely as possible, she prepared vellum sheets and traveled to Central Asia, the Caucasus and other regions in search of pigment materials.

The Book of Kells is known for its extremely intricate designs. Reproducing them on her own seems a superhuman endeavor. This book explains about the process, and some details about coloring may sound too technical to those not familiar with tempera and other painting skills.

However they will soon realize her obsessive attitude toward the attempt is the central attraction of this book. Occasionally inserted comments that voiced her emotional state also make this book more approachable and intriguing.

“My nerves would be going mad,” she recalled when facing tortuous — and torturous — interlaced lines. Confronting illegible parts, she wrote as if to herself, “To force oneself to decipher is to read patterns that do not exist.”

The author had to scrape off parts painted with lapis lazuli following a recent study that concluded the pigment was not used in the original. Hagiwara lamented, saying, “Tears welled up in my eyes.”

This book also exhibits her findings such as microscopic differences in motifs. Her discovery sheds light on designs long believed inconsistent, which she declares intentionally follow a significant pattern with an emphasis on the Trinity.

In comparison with Asian aesthetics, she gave a fascinating observation about lines in drawings. Unlike the Oriental arts, in which people appreciate movement and calmness in “lines that sprout into the air,” the monks embodied “a chain of life” within the lines in the Book of Kells, thus they “do not finish waving in the breeze.”

The ancient manuscript is still veiled in mystery. But Hagiwara’s words, which come from years spent tracing the masterpiece, resonate convincingly and will help stir readers’ imagination about the scribes who did not even leave their names for the historical artwork.

Some readers may wonder what drove her to this time-consuming and challenging task, particularly when she is neither Irish nor Christian. But the more pages are turned, the more trivial this question becomes.

Hagiwara wrote: “After working thousands of hours over many years concentrating on reproducing their art, my heart is filled with great respect for these unknown artists.”

Many readers would probably develop a similar feeling toward her as they find themselves captivated by the complicated, odd, but mesmerizingly beautiful decorations that regained the splendor from 12 centuries ago.

Where to Read

Anywhere you can be temporarily away from secular life. Turn off your smartphone, TV and radio. (But don’t forget a magnifying glass.)

Price: ¥6,000 plus taxSpeech

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