In honor of St. Patrick’s Day 2023, this article has been completely revised and significantly enhanced with lots more information and new images. Enjoy!
Most people are familiar with medieval Irish art through the famous Book of Kells and through Celtic Revival motifs popular today. In this article, we’ll explore those motifs and discuss the most common types of Irish art to survive from the Middle Ages, primarily focusing on examples made before the year 1000 CE.
- The Book of Kells
- The Tara Brooch
- The Ardagh Chalice
- The Shrine of St. Patrick’s Bell
- High Crosses at Kells, Clonmacnoise, and Monasterboice.
Key Historical Context
Not a Classical Culture: Unlike nearly everywhere else in western Europe, Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. (Scotland wasn’t either, for that matter.) Therefore, its art and culture never included any classical elements to carry over into the medieval period. That’s not to say that no classical ideas had reached Ireland – read How the Irish Saved Civilization if you don’t believe me – just that there was no established Roman influence and values to carry over like in much of mainland Europe.
Irish Christianity: At the same time, Ireland was already a very Christian place in the early Middle Ages, thanks to St. Patrick himself. Its northern European neighbors, however, were not so much. For example, the ruler buried at Sutton Hoo, England in the early 7th century CE seems to have kept both Christian and pagan traditions. Ireland also had a strong network of monasteries, some of which included scriptoria producing beautiful illuminated manuscripts. Irish Christianity and monasticism were not yet closely tied to mainland European or Roman Christianity and maintained some of their own traditions. The majority of surviving Irish medieval artworks are Christian in meaning and function, but it would be a mistake to think that no aspects of pre-Christian Irish art or belief carried over.
The Insular Style: Since they were the main Christian force in the area, Irish monks established offshoot monasteries throughout the northern part of the British Isles, particularly on islands like Iona (Scotland) and Lindisfarne (northern England). This led to a shared artistic style and tradition throughout the Isles, typically called the Insular style (generally 6th-9th centuries CE) because of its island location. Especially in the illuminated manuscripts made in Irish-led monasteries, it’s very difficult for scholars to determine where in the British Isles a work was made just based on style, since it’s all so similar. The great Book of Kells was, in fact, probably made by Irish monks living at the monastery of Iona in Scotland.
Viking Invasions: The early Middle Ages were also the time when Vikings from Scandinavia were coming across the North Sea to both raid and settle in the British Isles. This was a huge problem for the Irish monks, because their coastal monasteries were easy targets with valuable possessions ripe for plundering. However, it also led to artistic exchange between the Vikings and the Insular world, and you’ll notice distinct borrowings from Scandinavian art into Celtic art, especially the use of interlaced animal motifs. There are also a lot of commonalities between Irish medieval art and that of Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, like that found in Sutton Hoo.
Irish versus Celtic: The term Celtic can apply to a variety of historical and current groups not only in the British Isles, but also in Europe at large. (The earliest known Celtic art was actually found in Switzerland.) In my understanding, the definition of what it means to be a Celtic culture or have a Celtic language, as well as the interrelation amongst the different Celtic groups, is very much up for debate in current scholarship. Suffice it to say that Irish and Celtic are not synonyms, because while the Irish are definitely Celts, they are not the only group that can claim that status. In this article, I will try to reserve the term “Celtic” for aspects of art and culture found across multiple Celtic groups and use the word “Irish” elsewhere, but please don’t read too much into my choice to use one word over the other.
- Interlace: Characterized by ribbon-like forms that curl, twist, and intersect, interlace is the best-known and most prominent motif in medieval Irish art. Painted, carved, or made from twisted metal wires, interlace appears across a variety of two and three-dimensional media but is thought to have originated in metalworking. Artworks often contain significant areas completely filled with interlace. Despite its prominence, the meaning and significance of interlace is still not clear, though it may possibly be associated with protection (making it apotrapaic). And despite its iconic status in Celtic art, it is by no means unique to Celtic cultures. The Celtic knots we might see on St. Patrick’s Day decorations or Irish dance costumes demonstrate one familiar type of interlace.
- Abstract ornament: Celtic art includes lots of abstract decoration made with curving lines, including spirals (lines that curl in on themselves), peltas (mushroom-like shapes), triskeles (three-pronged shapes), and trumpet shapes. These are common features that link Irish art all the way back to that earliest Swiss Celtic art mentioned before.
- Zoomorphs: These stylized animal forms don’t necessarily correspond to any particular species or creature. They often appear as part of interlace, so look for little heads at the very ends of interlace patterns, sometimes with their mouths clamped around their skinny interlace bodies. Some appear to be snakes or birds, though it’s usually hard to determine which kind of animal they are meant to represent. Insular manuscripts can even include human-headed interlace. Not every animal form in Irish art is necessarily made of interlace, though, so look for quirky and clever creatures, often with symbolic meaning, hidden amidst the rest of the designs.
- Profuse decoration: Look at almost any Irish medieval artwork, and you’ll quickly realize that nearly every surface is completely covered in interlace and other decoration, often at a really tiny and detailed level. All-over decoration like this is sometimes called horror vacui, a Latin phrase that means “fear of empty spaces” because it pretty much eliminates any blank space. There’s no reason to believe that any actual fear inspired this profusion of detail, but its precise connotations remain unknown.
- Bosses: Rounded projections that are usually raised in the case of three-dimensional objects. In metalwork, they may include gemstones. In manuscripts, they may be circles in contrasting colors. Bosses are found in a lot of Celtic art but are by no means unique to it.
- A stylized approach: In Celtic art, human and animal forms tend to be quite stylized, with their decorative potential being emphasized over naturalism and three-dimensionality. Zoomorphs with animal heads and super-elongated interlace bodies are great examples of this. We might thank the lack of direct Roman influence in Ireland for this freedom to not focus on naturalism.
Common Art Forms
Metalwork is one of the very oldest Celtic art forms, and it is durable enough to survive to the present day if not intentionally melted down. Celtic metalworkers were clearly incredibly skilled in techniques like filigree (twisted wires that make interlace), granulation (decoration through tiny beads of metal), and inset gemstones, often on a tiny scale. Their art appears in elaborate pieces of jewelry, weapons, and church objects like reliquaries, vessels for the Eucharist, and treasure bindings for manuscripts. The Tara Brooch (Irish) and Hunterston Brooch (Scottish) are famous examples of Celtic ring-shaped brooches called pennanular or pseudo-pennanular brooches. It is sometimes thought that most of Celtic art’s key motifs, especially interlace, originated in metalwork and were them copied into other media like painting and sculpture.
Many of the most important illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages, including the world-famous Book of Kells the earlier Book of Durrow, and the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels, were made in Insular monasteries. Written and decorated in multi-colored inks that are still incredible vivid today, they contain elaborate illuminated initials, abstract patterning, hidden animals, and stylized figurative imagery like New Testament scenes and portraits of the four Gospel writers. A special feature of Insular manuscripts is so-called carpet pages, full-page illustrations packed to the edges with mainly-abstract decoration, sometimes organized around a central cross shape. Elsewhere, the opening few letters in key sections of text are often enlarged to take up nearly a whole page and embellished with so much animal and interlace decoration that they can be difficult to recognize as text.
High Crosses – large, freestanding stone crosses carved on all sides – can still be found throughout the Irish landscape, often in current or former monastic sites. Of varying sizes and dates up through the 12th century, these crosses are carved in relief with motifs clearly derived from Celtic metalwork, as well as figurative scenes depicting Christian iconography alongside some non-religious events. Many have rings, called wheel heads, connecting their arms. The significance of wheel heads may have been either structural or symbolic, but the specifics are not currently clear. Their narratives, and thus their overall significance and function, can be difficult to determine because the imagery has often eroded severely after centuries out of doors. While ring-headed crosses may appear as gravestones today, the medieval versions marked out spots in the landscape for other reasons. England and Scotland also have related traditions of standing stone crosses and cross slabs.
The Celtic Revival
The Celtic Revival was a resurgence of Irish Celtic art, literature, culture, and mythology in the 19th century. It was one of several such national revival movements that took place at this time, and it was influenced both by Romanticism and the movement for Irish independence. Like the related Gothic Revival, the Celtic Revival both resurrected authentic medieval motifs and heavily adapted them to suit the tastes and desires of a new era. We still see Celtic Revival motifs used today in all sorts of contexts. One example of Celtic Revival art is Art O’Murnaghan’s mid-20th century illuminated manuscript Leabhar na hAiséirghe (Book of Resurrection). It’s through the Celtic Revival and its influence on today’s culture that we tend to be most familiar with medieval Irish artistic motifs.
- Colm, “Muiredach’s High Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth“. Irish Archaeology. May 25, 2017. Accessed March 16, 2023.
- Curated by Jenny Young, Donagh Mac Uidhir, Larry McDonagh, Adrian Kelly, Brian Crowley, Noreen Finnegan. “High Crosses, c. 800AD – 1150AD“. Heritage Ireland. Accessed March 16, 2023.
- Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1995.
- Laing, Lloyd and Jennifer Laing. Art of the Celts. London: Thames & Hudson, 1992.
- Meehan, Bernard. The Book of Kells. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2012.
- Moss, Rachel. “The Book of Durrow, A 1,300 year old masterpiece in the Library of Trinity College Dublin“. Google Arts & Culture. Accessed March 16, 2023.
- Paxton, Jennifer. “Insular Art: Insular Style of Manuscript Illumination“. Wondrium Daily. August 30, 2020. Accessed March 16, 2023.
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