Wednesday 22 March 2017

Notes of Alignment. [veneration of the book]

(this post was first published as Collective Investigations: Wednesday Post)

The first book I remember seeing was the sacred book, at Mass; it had been placed in full view on the altar, and the priest turned the pages with great respect. My first book was therefore an object of worship. (Carriere, p.294)


Ley lines mark alignments formed by sacred sites or sites of spiritual significance. Arnolfini Ley is a reading line, which runs between the Library of Trinity College in Dublin and the Library of Alexandria, connecting book related sites. They are special locations marked by the book - an object of spiritual veneration, yet a very material one.
Book indeed is an ambiguous object, reliant on the reader to transform it from an object to an abject. Its existence is defined not solely by its physical presence, but also by its immaterial content: book can be a heavy volume of the Bible as well the sacred word of God it contains; it can be an intricately luxurious Sangorski binding and the ethereal rubaiyats of Omar Khayyám included into it. Holding the book allows us to admire it as an object. Reading, however, allows transmission of the intangible between the book and the person. 

Levantine Jews were the first to turn the act of reading into a ritual, the practice, which will later be picked up by Christians and make the base of Christian liturgy.
Babylonians and Assyrians had greatly respected magical texts. […] The respect had never entailed veneration of the written word itself, that is, the sanctification of writing and its physical material. The Levantine Jews introduced just such a sanctification, thereby adding a whole new dimension to reading. (Fischer, p 60)

In discussing ritualistic reading of Leviticus, Wesley J. Bergen suggests, that reading can even replace ritual sacrifice. Text, he says, is not a ritual. It is a text about ritual and it is a sign of absent ritual. It was written to be read and performed, to encourage participation.  Like in the contemporary Christian liturgy, “text becomes part of sacred space and time, the reading of the text becomes part of the ritual.”
Thus, the ritual “reading” Leviticus’ becomes a subsitute for the ritual animal sacrifice. […] Thus, the textualisation of the ritual is balanced by the ritualisation of the text. The command by God to Moses (to speak these words) is fulfilled even while no animals are killed. The movement from animal sacrifice to reading of texts involves some loss and some gain, as all change does. So there is no loss of ritual, only it’s transformation. (Bergen, p7)

Book as the embodied word of God existed throughout the Middle Ages at the center of Christian ritual. Heavily adorned Bibles, often containing relicts of the saints, were seen as incarnations of Christ himself. Early parchment bindings must have made the “body of Christ” metaphor even more visual: the books were made of animal skins, with pores visible on the surface of the page along the words God.  There is certainly something macabre yet sublime in having earthly flesh support the holy scripture.
The analogy between the body of Christ and the letter of scripture would become a Christian commonplace, leading to a long Christian tradition that attempted to apprehend the mystery of Christ as Word through visions of Christ as book. (Kearney, p. 14)
First class relic of Saint Pope John Paul II incased in a Golden Bible
Curiously, I found the idea of incarnate Word explicitly reinforced as as recently as 1965,  by Pope Paul VI in Dei Verbum ( the Second Vatican Council).
The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God's word and of Christ's body. She has always maintained them, and continues to do so, together with sacred tradition, as the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles. (Dei verbum

A good example of a ritual book is the Book of Kells, currently kept at the the Library of Trinity College in Dublin, our first point on Arnolfini Ley. This elaborately produced manuscript was produced with the purpose of it being displayed and worshiped. The book remained in Kells through Middle Ages, venerated as the gospel of St Colum Cille, a relic of the saint, brought to Kells together with another book (possibly Book of Durrow) (Library of Trinity College Dublin). The current binding of the Book of Kells exists as four  volumes. The original, however, was one heavy and substantial object. Not unlike religious architecture, such book was not meant to be carried around. It was also not designed to be used for study or even reading. Like churches and cathedrals which housed such manuscripts, medieval altar Bibles were there to evoke awe and reverence, elated to an ineffable and noetic religious experience. They were mediators between the God and the man, in the same way that other icons, relicts, and the the church itself were.

The Book of Kells

It was Reformation that shook up the idea of book as a venerated gilded icon: a process that led Christianity from piety focused upon image to piety focused upon word (Kearney, p. 25) As Erasmus said - scripture and not picture should be at the center of religious experience. Reformation, of course, overlapped with the invention of printing press and a remarkably rapid growth of available printed texts across Europe as well as the spread of literacy.  While Kearney calls this period "the crisis of the book”, it was a period of crisis only in understanding of its the place in faith and liturgy.  All agree, that reading is a transformative act, powerful enough to convert the reader to “true religion” (yet, the reader can be easily corrupted, of course). Seemingly, it was in this period that veneration of the ineffable content of the book overtook veneration of book as an icon. It is not a viewer in the presence of the scripture that benefits from the book, it is the reader.

Veneration of the book needs an active reader, to transform it from an object to an abject. Adoration is not directed purely at the material qualities of the book, but at the noetic aspects of the experience. Like sacred sites, relics, cathedrals (or even, us, people)  books stand not only as solid structures, but also as embodiments of the metaphysical ideas and experiences.


At a Book (c.1882). Marie Bashkirtseff (Ukrainian, 1858-1884). Oil on canvas. Kharkiv Art Museum.

There is an interesting story which takes worship of the Word of God one step further, bridging it into veneration of any material text.
Ernst Curtius records an anecdote concerning Francis of Assisi in which “the saint picked up every written piece of parchment which he found on the ground, even if it were from a pagan book. Asked by a disciple why he did so, Francis answered: “Fifi me, litteme sum ex quibus componitur gloriosissimum Dei nomen. [My son, these are the letters out of which the glorious name of God is formed].” Here, the incarnation of the logos means that all language - fragments of text, scraps of parchment - has been glorified. Writing itself is sacred. (Kearney, p15)

Bergen, Wesley (2005) Reading Ritual: Leviticus in Postmodern Culture.  New York: T & T Clark International
Carriere, Jean-Claude; Umberto Eco (2009) This is not the End of the Book. London: Harvill Secker
Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum: Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul V on November 18, 1965 [Online]. Available at   (Accessed:  19 March 2017)
Fisher, Steven Rodger (2003) A History of Reading. London: Reaktion Books.
Kearney, James (2009) The Incarnate Text: Imagining the Book in Reformation England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
The Book of Kells [Online]. Available at     (Accessed:  19 March 2017)

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