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How ‘Celtic’ was Celtic Christian Art?
The art of the Early Christian Period has been “regarded as an Irish phenomenon representing the survival in Ireland of La Tene artistic traditions.” (Laing, 1975, 339) It has gained considerable attention due to its wealth of ornamental metalwork, illuminated manuscripts and stone structure. However there is still the debate ‘How ‘Celtic’ is Celtic Christian Art?’ The term must first be analysed in order to understand the characteristics of Celtic Christian Art. The high point of this Insular art of the early Christian era was the creation of a series of illuminated Christian manuscripts, notably the Book of Durrow (c.650) and the Book of Kells (c.800), as well as such metalwork masterpieces as the Ardagh Chalice, the Derrynaflan Chalice, the unusual Moylough Belt Shrine, famous processional crosses like the Tully Lough Cross and the Cross of Cong, and the secular Tara Brooch.
Within this essay I will attempt to summarise the origin and development of Celtic art in Great Britain and Ireland. As a result, this would assist my analysis on the significant influence Christianity had on Celtic art.
A breakdown on examining Celtic art, is to begin defining the term. The term ‘Celtic Art’ is defined by the people who spoke the Celtic language and embraced their traditions. Thus explains the characteristic decorative motives, for instance the divergent spiral were of foreign origin. However, one must understand that the conversion of the inhabitants of Britain from Paganism to Christianity was a gradual process, extending over a period of several hundred years. Therefore the evidence for the existence of Romano-British Christianity is scarce. “Out of the several hundreds of inscribed and sculptured monuments belonging to the period of the Roman occupation of Britain there are hardly any which bear Christian symbols or show traces of Christian art.”(Allen, 2001, 162) Moreover another misinterpretation about the term was that many believed the term came from art found in a church or a specific object. The term usually means art which embraces the character of Christianity.
A number of problems must also be considered such as assessing beyond the religious aspect of the Celtic Christian tradition, creates a challenge as distorts the image of the range of material which may once have existed. Robert Lloyd Laing supports this view as he suggests that the “Early Christian Art’ is a complex amalgam of artistic traditions which became blended together in the fifth to seventh centuries.”(Laing, 1997, 339)
Another issue of reliability of using other sources (for instance the La Tene Art), to assess the Christian Celtic Art, as it creates some imperative variations. “Whilst La Tene art is undoubtedly of the same genus as that of the early Christian Celts, the variety in vogue after the fourth century AD was markedly different.”(Laing, 1987, 5)
These difficulties must therefore be interpreted by using the Celtic’s traditions and its influences from outside elements. This would allow a descriptive analysis of the origin and changes within Celtic Christian Art.
Ireland was one of the very few countries that were never colonized by Rome. Unlike Britain and Continental Europe Irish Celtic art was neither influenced by Greek or Roman art. Between the end of the Iron Age and the gradual emergence of Christianity in Ireland a prominent feature within the Irish culture was its unbroken tradition of Celtic culture influenced only marginally by Roman art.
Furthermore, Christianity gained more attention with the arrival of St. Patrick in the 5th century CE. This along with the significant introduction of the renaissance of Hiberno- Saxon style or Insular art which was caused by the mission of Aidan of Iona in the 630s to the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, were was especially important in the later development of insular Celtic art and changed the Celtic Christian art. The spread of Christianity throughout Ireland introduced the Irish monastic art. Archaeological evidence such as the monasteries became the principal artistic centres which aid archaeologists, to understand the origin and development of Celtic Christian art. Thus emphasises the impact of Christianity on Irish art and should not be underestimated. A renaissance in the arts was created due to the close connection of the network of monasteries throughout Ireland, Britain (especially Northumbria) and parts of Europe. All these monasteries combined acted as centres of learning and artistic craftsmanship as well as places of religious devotion. Thus resulted to the illumination of manuscripts and the enhancement of Celtic designs taken from jewellery and metalwork produced for the Irish secular elite, but most insular art came about because of the patronage and direction of the Catholic Church. Christian Celtic art can generally be summarised by looking at stone crosses, illuminated manuscripts, and metal objects such as chalices, shrines and reliquaries.
The art of this period utilized traditional Celtic curvilinear designs enriched with foreign influenced brought back to Ireland by returning missionaries-motifs such as the Saxon use of entangled, interlocking animal forms in geometric decorations. The art of the Anglo-Saxons came into contact due to the Irish missionaries. They practised the traditional colourful animal style in metalwork which became a significant aspect within Celtic art as they associated the animals to individual gods and myths. This is supported by Paul Jacobsthal who analysed that “The Scythian animal style expresses a Eurasiatic beast-mythology, a totemism which was all its own.” (1935, 113) This shows a subtle influence Christianity had on Celtic Art as the people of the time are beginning to assess animals with religion.
However there are limitations with using the animal designs for understanding the changes within Celtic art. Allen suggests that “Animal forms are comparatively rare in Late-Celtic art, as they are not interlaced, so that it is almost useless to seek for the original inspiring idea in this direction.” (2001, 250) Nevertheless we could still establish a connection with the La Tene compositions and the animal ornaments. For instance from Donore a disc was found; it demonstrated an elaborate composition of trumpet scrolls in tinned bronze, placed against a richly textured background. The sophistication of this striking pattern may be compared to the great Chi-Rho page of the Gospel book, the Book of Kells, which was preserved at the nearby monastery of Kells, Co. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/irish-images/kells-chi-rho-page.jpgMeath for many centuries.
The Early Christian Mediterranean artistic traditions would be similarly seen amongst the Frank and Lombards in which these missionaries would have travelled. In addition this connection would have produced a shared manuscript for illuminators, metalworkers and later, monumental sculptors which enabled the basic houses to foster a new art form in northern Britain and Ireland. The most notable artefacts of Christian Celtic Art were dominated by ornaments such as trumpet scrolls, fine spirals often designed to be seen as a reserved line of metal in a field of red enamel. This pattern is best exemplified on the escutcheens of a series of vessels called “hanging bowls”. These bowls are most likely to be found in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in eastern and southern England. In addition these bowls have a distinct decoration which is more likely to be Celtic in character. Allen suggests that “The closest resemblance between the spiral decoration of the Pagan period and that of the Christian period is to be found on the discoidal ornaments with patterns in champlevé enamel, forming the attachments of the handles of certain bronze bowls, several examples of which have been discovered from time to time in different parts of England.”(2001, 243) the distinctive Celtic character is often argued, for instance some archaeologist believe that it represented booty taken by the conquerors from the Celtic lands and others believe it was uniquely religious.
Another important artefact of the time was the Book of Durrow. It is another illuminated manuscript of the Insular style. There are unique textual peculiarities which create a similarity with the Book of Kells.
It was seen as one of the most outstanding early manuscripts in the history of Irish art. The illuminated text includes the four Gospels of the New Testament, along with the six surviving carpet pages (which were believed to have been devoted for decoration). It is furthermore suggested that it was linked with the earlier patterns of Celtic metalwork.
Unusual symbols are assigned to the gospels which do not follow tradition: a man for Matthew, but an eagle for Mark (instead of the traditional lion), a calf for Luke, but a lion for John (instead of the traditional eagle). These symbols along with the cross which unites them amplify harmony if the Gospels and the argument that early Christian art had influences from the Celtic tradition. This is furthermore supported by the interlace pattern-work, spirals, zoomorphic triskeles, and knots, which were all derived from Celtic art. O’Sullivan agrees with this argument as they suggested that “In Durrow it is followed by a page of abstract design based on Celtic ornament, the first of five so-called ‘carpet’-pages, one of which originally faced the opening of each gospel.” (2005, 526)
In the late 7th to early 8th century, Irish missions in Europe produced the most impressive Celtic Christian art in Europe. This is shown in the illuminated manuscripts of the Bible, which were embellished with decorative borders and astounding intricate, inventive lettering. The complexity of the twining geometric designs dominated previous art, the rare representations of human faces and figures were abnormally stylized.
Another book which was considered just as important as the Bible and was seen as a masterpiece of its time was the Book of Kells. “The Book of Kells shares the monumentality of its conception with some of the later Pictish cross-slabs, decorated with a wealth of biblical and secular scenes” (Laing, 1979, 168) This book was deemed as the most famous, finest group of manuscripts of the 6th through to early 9th centuries, in the monasteries of Ireland, Scotland and England. The book had many similar features to the bible, it included the iconographic and stylistic traditions and the decorated letters, which were usually found in incipit pages for the Gospels.
Large stone crosses were also seen as a significant aspect in evaluating how ‘Celitc’ Celtic Christian art was during its time. During the later eighth and ninth centuries the form of the ringed High Crosses came of great importance. Many of the crosses are devoted to Christian scriptural themes but one early group, probably mostly ninth century in date, is dominated by abstract interlace ornament, the La Tene animal interlace, and key- and fret-patterns. Pure ornament plays a major part also on the crosses with figured scenes and frequently occurs in the form of bossed fleshy scrolls. These sculptural works reached their high point during the early tenth century, as evidenced by Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice, County Louth, and the Ahenny High Cross in Tipperary. “The free-standing crosses, in which the outline of the stone corresponds with the outline of the cross, are the most highly developed type of Celtic sculptured monument of the Christian period, and are therefore presumably the latest, with the exception of those of the decadent period just before and after the Norman Conquest.”(Allen, 2001, 188) These crosses were vital in understanding the Celtic Christian art, they were carved with interlacing relief decorations such as ceremonial religious objects, which ornamented with gold filigree and coloured enamel stud. An example of this type of cross would be the Ardagh Chalice. “The Ardagh Chalice largely conceals its Christian symbolism, but it carries two medallions on its bowl that contain prominent crosses of arcs.”(Duffy, MacShamhrian, Moynes, 2005, 141)
This highly sophisticated design is considered one of the finest works of Insular art. Stokes suggested that “The Tara brooch and the Ardagh chalice offer the most perfect examples of the use of this peculiar spiral that have been found in the metal-work of Irish Christian Art;”(2004, 63) The Ardagh Chalice itself is made from a silver-bronze alloy and its main features include delicate gold filigree work, ornate handles and the use of semi-precious and coloured stones and enamels. The overall impression is that of a master craftsman at work and probably dates from the eight century.
Another significant chalice was the Derrynaflan Chalice which was considered to be one of the most outstanding religious artworks in the history of Irish art. It was made in the eigth and ninth century by Irish metallurgists. These were highly skilled craftsmen who had superlative artistic skills during the Insular Art period (c.650-1000) in the ultimate La Tene style. Duffy, MacShamhrain and Moynes analysed that the Derrynaflan Chalice is less colourful than the Ardagh Chalice however “its filigree is of great interest because it shows elements of common Christian iconography – griffons, birds, beast, and quadrupeds, probably lions – that are widespread in early medieval European sculpture and metalwork as part of the Tree of Life and related motifs.” (2005, 141)
Brooches are also very useful in examining ‘How ‘Celtic’ is Celtic Art?’ In Ireland, the Celtic brooches were a perfect example of the type of jewellery the high-status people used to wear. Many of the brooches features include symbols that have come to epitomize the Celtic culture; examples such as Claddagh, the Brigids cross, the Celtic hound and the classic example of Celtic interlace are typical patterns for Celtic art.
The most popular Celtic brooch is the Tara brooch design. The Tara brooch design and the Hunterston brooch are considered to be two of the most important evidences in Celtic Christian art. Hourihane suggests that “It has long been recognized that while both brooches show elements from the native Celtic La Tene repertoire, their design also reflects outside influences and incorporates many foreign elements.”(2001, 211) The Tara brooch is a classic example of an artefact from early Christian-era Ireland. It dates around 700AD and features an embellished circle with a long, straight pin. It is a representation of the Celitc people’s brilliant craftsmanship. The Hunterston brooch is one of the earliest examples of decorative brooches from Britain and Ireland. Solid silver with gold and silver filigree and amber studs compose the head and pin of the brooch. The style of the brooch derives from the Pictish tradition in its presentation of zoomorphic creatures.Brooches can be found on monumental sculpture of the Mullaghmast stone, in which they appeared to be used for carrying variants of the early hanging bowl style.
Moreover during the period of 800-100AD, silver became exceedingly popular with the Irish and Anglo-Saxon metallurgists, thus led to the creation of well-noted brooches.
In conclusion Celtic Christian art was very Celtic as just like all art, it was inspired by religion. The Celt’s paganism was different to that of the Greeks and Romans as it was supported by the authority of druids, who were the guardians of writing, teaching, culture and most importantly religion. Their polytheistic ideas manifested themselves through animals, various monsters and collective goddesses, (Gods and demigods were usually depicted on coins). Thus, this explains the popular use of zoo morphology in their art.
In addition to understand Celtic art we must analyse the unity between the materials and techniques the people of the time used. For instance Celtic art consists of hard or hardened objects such as metal, stone, wood, leather, glass and clay. There is no painting (except on pottery), no wax, no wickerwork and virtually no weaving. Iron engraving and abstract sculpture in bronze both derive from the Ancient Celts who combined the techniques of engraving and sculpting most effectively. Their strong point was the creation of tiny sculptures, particularly for the embossed engraving of coinage.
Another form of unity was their common use of animals. Frequent subjects such as the quadrupeds, birds, fish and reptiles are often represented, along with the merge of plant designs which lend themselves into transformations. The Celts favoured using animals and plants than those depicted humans, thus makes it simple for an archaeologist to identify Celtic Christian art. The very human representations which were found are usually a form of an imaginary being for instance a monster, as though everything in the world were metaphysically linked. The treatment of these subjects is a source of bafflement for, in each case, the Celts present us with riddles.
In conclusion, to answer the question ‘How ‘Celtic’ is Celtic Christian Art?’ an archaeologist must look at the common traditional themes which continued through to the Early Christian art. The complex, twining geometric designs predominated; the rare representations of human faces and figures were abstract and stylized, would assist us in judging how ‘Celtic’, Celtic Christian Art was at the time.
- Allen J. R., 2001, Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times, Dover Publications Inc, General Publishing Company Ltd, 30 Lesmill Road, Don Mills, Toronto, Ontario
- Duffy S., MacShamhrain A., Moynes J., 2005, Medieval Ireland: an encyclopedia, Routledge, 2 Park Square Miton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OX14 4RN, U.K.
- Dumbleton W. A., 1984, Ireland, life and land in literature, State University of New Yotk Press, State University Plaza, Albany, N.Y., 12246
- Hourihane C., 2001, From Ireland coming: Irish art from the early Christian to late Gothic period and its European context, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeston University, Princeston, New Jersey, 08540
- Laing R. L., 1975, The Archaeology of Late Celtic Britain and Ireland, c.400-1200AD, Methuen & Co Ltd, 11 New Fetter Lane London EC4P 4EE
- Laing R. L., 1997, Later Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland, Shire Publications Ltd, Cromwell House Church Street Princes Risborough Buckinghamshire HP27 9AA UK
- O’Sullivan, 2005, ‘Manuscripts and Palaeography’ in A New History of Ireland: Prehistoric and early Ireland, Oxford University Press, New York
- Stokes M., 2004, Early Christian Art in Ireland, Kessinger Publishing,
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