Celtic Christian Art

The founding monastic communities of Ireland and Scotland, free of the political and religious strife of the mainland, developed into hubs of intellectual and artistic activity, which reached a peak in the sixth to eighth centuries. The ability of the monastic communities to draw membership from a variety of backgrounds led to a harmonious blending of artistic styles known as the Celtic Insular period. Some of the most fantastic art produced by the Celtic religious groups includes fine metalwork, intricate stone carving, and vivid illuminated manuscripts.

Fine metalworking of the period encompasses shrines and reliquaries, liturgical implements such as chalices and patens, ornamental covers for books, and personal ornamentation. Some of the finest examples include these works:

  • The Ardagh chalice is a fantastic liturgical chalice of gold, silver, and bronze that was created using numerous techniques, including casting, engraving, filigree, and enameling.

  • The Monymusk reliquary, housing the bones of Columcille, is covered in copper and silver and decorated with leaping beasts and intricate knotwork.

  • The so-called “Tara Brooch,” a decorative clasp of gold, silver, copper, and glass, is decorated with enamel, filigree, and gilt. At just under seven inches long, the brooch contains more than twenty tiny dragons in its decorations.

  • Illuminated Beauty

    The great illuminated manuscripts produced during this period are some of the finest ever created in Europe. The designs woven into and around the text of these brilliant illuminated books draw from both classical and ancient Celtic art. The texts are rich with intricate spirals and interlaced knots, loops, and whorls, as well as detailed portraits of angels, saints, and biblical figures alongside images drawn from nature. Typically, every free space not taken up by text is filled in with geometric designs, curling vines, mythological creatures, intertwined people and animals, and ornamented letters. Some of the finer examples of the art are the seventh century Book of Durrow and the Lindisfarne Gospel.

    These books were so elaborate, detailed, and magical in appearance that Christians of later periods believed them to have curative powers. A twelfth century commentator remarked after viewing one such book:

    If you take the trouble to look very closely, and penetrate with your eyes to the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so close together and well-knitted, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colorings that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but angels.

    The most precious and beautiful of all the Celtic illuminated books is the gospel manuscript attributed to the monks of St. Columba, the Book of Kells. The book contains the elaborately hand-copied text of the four synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each gospel is preceded by richly colored illustrated portraits of each evangelist. The book also abounds with Christian symbolism, including crosses, monograms of Christ, and images of the four tetramorphs representing the eponymous authors of the gospels.

    The Viking Invasions

    Sadly, the small renaissance of Celtic art came to an abrupt end with the arrival of Viking raiders in the late eighth century. Precious artworks were stolen, manuscripts destroyed, and reliquaries emptied of their remains. The Viking onslaught began with raids of monasteries in Lindisfarne and Dublin, and a new era of foreign invasions began.

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