As I previously mentioned in my St. Patrick’s Day post about Celtic Revival artist Art O’Murnaghan, I have recently become interested in Irish art. To be more precise, I have recently become more interested in Irish art that before (but I challenge you to name one type of art I’m not at least somewhat interested in). I am part Irish, but I didn’t grow up with any real sense of Irish heritage, probably because the Irish side of my family had already been in America for well over a century when I was born. I have always had the idea in the back of my mind that learning more about Irish art might be a good way of getting closer to my Irish roots, but it wasn’t until I started doing research for my Tara Brooch article on Headstuff that I actually decided to give it a try. I feel particularly connected to the Celtic tradition because of my love of medieval art, so that’s where I’ve chosen to get started.* I’ve selected a few common themes and motifs in Celtic art to illustrate and talk about below. I’m also reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and I’ll report back as soon as I’m finished with it.
Interlace is probably the best-known motif in Celtic art. It is certainly among the most prominent. Interlace appears in many different two and three-dimensional media, but it is thought to have originated in the metalworking tradition, where it was rendered using a number of different methods including filigree. It sometimes incorporates animal, birds, snake, and human heads or bodies. Many theories exist about the symbolic meanings of interlace in the Celtic world and elsewhere, as it also appears in many other cultures’ artistic traditions. Other types of abstract ornamentation, including knots, braids, spirals, frets, peltas, and trumpet shapes, were prevalent in Celtic art as well.
Metalwork is one of the very oldest surviving Celtic art forms. Among the most common types are jewelry (specifically bracelets, brooches, and a type of choker called a torc), implements of war (including swords, scabbards, helmets, and shields), horse trappings, decorative pieces for chariots, and a variety of vessels (such as urns and chalices). The most famous examples of the Celtic metalworking tradition include the Tara and Hunterston brooches and the Ardagh Chalice.
Many of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, including the world-famous Book of Kells, were made in Irish and Scottish monasteries. They were written and decorated in polychrome inks (still incredibly vivid today) and contain elaborate illuminated initials, abstract patterning, figural imagery, and so-called “carpet pages” covered entirely in a dizzying selection of interlace, spirals, knots, and letters sometimes terminating in human or animal heads. Some have elaborate gilt and jeweled covers.
Stone High Crosses can still be found throughout the Irish landscape. Of varying size, these crosses are decorated with interlace and other abstract patterning, decorative bosses, animal imagery, and figural scenes depicting both religious and non-religious events. Many have rings, called wheel heads, connecting their arms. Also from the Celtic tradition, most commonly found in Pictland (part of what is now Scotland), are decorative crosses carved in low relief into unshaped stone; these are called “cross slabs”.
*The terms “Celtic art” and “Irish art” are not synonyms and should not be used interchangeably. The Celts and related tribes settled throughout the British Isles and elsewhere in Western Europe. Everything I am discussing in this post applies to Celtic art made in Ireland, but much of it is also relevant elsewhere, particularly in Scotland. But I just said, I’m interested in pretty much everything, so I’m not going to ignore interesting aspects of Celtic art simply because they are not strictly Irish.