CARVED STONES AND ANCIENT BELLS

Item Posted: Tuesday 27th October, 2009

CARVED STONES AND ANCIENT BELLS

Kilmartin Museum is always worth a visit, but this year it should be on everyone’s ‘must visit’ list. You would normally have to travel to Trinity College, Dublin Edinburgh to see two very special artefacts – the Book of Kells and the Torbhlaren Bell.
Many readers will have seen pictures of the book – the original of the Book of Kells is the centrepiece of an exhibition which attracts over 500,000 visitors to Trinity College Dublin each year. Written around the year 800 AD, the Book contains a richly decorated copy of the four gospels in a latin text based on the Vulgate edition. The gospels are preceded by prefaces, summaries of the gospel narratives and concordances of gospel passages compiled in the fourth century by Eusebius of Caesarea. The script is embellished by the elaboration of key words and phrases and by an endlessly inventive range of decorated initials and interlinear drawings. The book contains complex scenes normally interpreted as the Arrest of Christ, His Temptation, and images of Christ, the Virgin and Child, St Matthew and St John. Although the Kilmartin Museum’s Book of Kells is a facsimile, this takes nothing away from the power and the beauty of the book, and I (for one) would not know the difference from the original.
The Torbhlaren Bell and Shrine usually reside in The National Museum of Scotland collection in Edinburgh, and has never been on view before in Argyll even though it was found locally, hidden in a wall at Torbhlaren Farm very close to Kilmichael Church, in 1814. There is a mystery even about the find, as the grandson of the minister at the time of the find claimed it was found ’at the back of the manse, about the site of the old church.’ Whatever the truth, the name has stuck, and it is appropriate that the year of Homecoming sees its return to Argyll.
In fact many of these early medieval bells apparently have great homing instincts! Stories abound, such as the removal of the St.Ninian’s bell from the altar in its ruined chapel will result in the person removing it being cursed. When a thief tried to steal another bell from Struan, the bell apparently stuck fast to a rock Even more extreme is the story of the bell at Ardchattan. Often taken out to heal the sick in the surrounding countryside it had to be returned home immediately, or it would fly back home of its own accord, ringing out ‘the most melodious music ever heard by human ear’! So maybe the Torbhlaren Bell has worked its own wee miracle in the year of Homecoming by being brought back to Kilmartin from Edinburgh, albeit for only a few months.
Such bells and shrines were part of popular devotion to saints. The Torbhlaren example is an early 9th century bell within a highly decorated bronze 12th century bell shrine casing, and was probably hidden when the cult of saints came under attack from the Protestant authorities after the Reformation. In 1581 the Scottish Parliament banned the cult of saints, forbidding the ‘dregs of idolatry’. Maybe if this had not happened, and someone had not hidden this fine bell away, we would not now have the opportunity of seeing it again.
The Kilmartin Museum exhibition is open until the end of the year.


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