Early Christian manuscript art

We have already considered the problems of the apparent 'hiatus' between the end of Roman occupation in Britain, and the rather less clearly defined end of the earlier Iron Age in Ireland, and the seventh/eighth-century floruit of Insular art. Had Jacobsthal published a study of Early Christian manuscript art, he might have observed that it was 'an art with no genesis'. He might then have proceeded to identify its three principal roots as native 'Ultimate La Tène', innovating Germanic (Hiberno-Saxon) influences and exotic Mediterranean, including Coptic, stylistic elements introduced with early monasticism. The sense of déjà vu is not necessarily coincidental, since the catalyst for early La Tène art and later Insular art both entailed the convergence of disparate influences under powerful patronage. The only difference is that in the early Christian period that patronage was overtly ecclesiastical as well as temporal authority, whereas in the earlier case, while the archaeological evidence may imply a stratified society headed by aristocratic patrons of craft workshops, we can only indirectly infer the religious agenda.

In Ireland, the advent of Christianity is documented linguistically and in historical sources, and archaeologically in the occurrence of early cross-slabs. Old Irish contains a substratum of pre-Patrician loanwords resulting from contacts with Christianity in Roman Britain (Mitchell, 1977), and there is evidence for Christianity in the south of Ireland in the fourth century. It was here in the south-west that the ogham script first makes its appearance in the fourth or even later third centuries, though not initially with Christian associations. In the fifth century, the missions of Palladius and Patrick are well documented, and, by the sixth century, monasticism is attested in the monasteries founded by St Columba in Ireland and Scotland such as Derry in 546 and Iona in 563. Archaeologically, however, few if any of these ecclesiastical foundations have yielded evidence of activity at such an early date, and the surviving remains at most of the major sites like Skellig Michael, Glendalough or Gallarus are significantly later.

The earliest Insular manuscript, the so-called Cathach of Columba, a psalm book dating to the late sixth or very early seventh century, certainly in its embellished lettering (Figure 11.7) reflects the limited range of motifs that had characterized Celtic metal-work of the early centuries ad. Initial letters included spirals, trumpet motifs and peltae, and though fish and animals may betray Coptic influence, there is as yet no interlace of either later variant, which does not appear until the mid-seventh century, in the Book of Durrow, the oldest illuminated Insular gospel book. Megaw and Megaw (2001, 251) summarize the enigma of the Cathach's incipient illumination: 'it uses Celtic designs to illustrate an artefact of a non-Celtic religion, in a non-Celtic language, and in a medium of writing with ink on vellum alien to the Celtic visual and oral tradition'. Interestingly, it is in the embellishment of initial letters that

Cathach Writing
Figure 11.7 Initial letters from the Cathach of St Columba: left, Psalm 53 Deus in nomine; right, Psalm 55, Miserere mei.

the 'curvilinear Celtic' or 'Ultimate La Tene' elements most frequently manifest themselves in the illuminated manuscripts, invariably as embellishments to the top and bottom of letters, or as finials.

Taking the seventh- and eighth-century Insular manuscripts as a group, several distinctive artistic components can be isolated:

• The 'Ultimate La Tene' component evidently has parallels and antecedents in metal-working, notably in the 'hanging bowl' escutcheons, pins and brooches discussed earlier. It comprises a limited range of motifs, principally trumpet-linked spirals, or more accurately yin-yang whorls. Compared with earlier La Tene metal-working, however, it remains repetitive and even symmetrical, lacking the 'assured irrationality' of earlier artists in metal-work. The 'Ultimate La Tene' component seldom dominates quite as centrally as it does in f. 3v of the Book of Durrow (Pl. 11). Here the two larger and four smaller circular devices are rotationally symmetrical in varying degrees of complexity. The lower pair encloses linked yin-yang whorls in a triskele arrangement, with trumpet leaves around the perimeter of the circlet. The upper pair is more complex, with each whorl of the triskele spawning a subordinate whorl, separated from the next primary whorl by a three-pointed ('Mercedes') star. The main central pair each encloses two larger circlets, these in turn containing triple whorls, and two smaller spiral circlets. Trumpet leaves linked to peltae form the outer binding of these larger circlets. All six circlets are linked with extended trumpet spirals, with three-pointed stars filling interstices.

• With the Book of Durrow comes broad, ribbon interlace, a style that is commonly attributed to Coptic or at least Mediterranean origins, assimilated perhaps through Italy and integral to the dissemination of monasticism itself. Interlace may be boldly rounded or more angular, but it is essentially geometric, as writers since Romilly Allen have recognized, based either upon vertical or diagonal grids, or upon compass-work. As Guilmain (1993, 92) observed,

Often the principles involved in the structuring of the ornament, though they may lead to the creation of astonishingly complex designs, are very simple, and it is quite possible that they were known in many places within the Mediterranean world, or were discovered independently at several different times and places.

Colour changes within the same ribbon introduces variety into what otherwise may be a very repetitive formula.

• One carpet page of the Book of Durrow, f. 192v (Pl. 12), is ornamented with an innovative form of animal interlace derived from the so-called Germanic Style II. The overall impression of a maze of writhing creatures belies the ordered composition of the page. Around the central circlet, in which an interlaced design rotates around a small central cross, are arranged two vertical and four horizontal panels of animal interlace. The two inside horizontal panels, in which the beasts bite their own tails, are exact replicas of each other. The two outer horizontal panels, in which they bite the next in line, also replicate each other's design, but with the colours reversed. The processions of animals in the side panels match each other in rotational, anti-clockwise sequence. This basic symmetry or order pervades the interlace of the illuminated manuscripts, even into its most intensely complex manifestation in the Book of Kells. By the end of the seventh century, animal interlace in the Lindisfarne Gospels has transcended its Germanic origins, so that the 'ribbon birds, swinging and rolling in bewildering, but controlled waves' (Guilmain, 1993, 94) have become an integral part of the new Insular Celtic style.

• Human and zoomorphic representation is plainly central to the scriptural and liturgical role of the illuminated Gospel Books, reaching its apogee in the Book of Kells. Rendering of the human form, however, is often curiously un-naturalistic or anatomically impossible, while seemingly constrained within the naturalistic genre. In the Virgin and Child of the Book of Kells, f. 7v (Pl. 13), the child is simply a small adult with two left feet, one with only four toes, held by a Virgin with two right feet. The left arm of the figure normally identified as St John in f. 291v of the Book of Kells (Pl. 14) is attached to his chest rather than his shoulder, an anatomical impossibility that can hardly be attributed to ignorance or incompetence. The presence of a figure spread-eagled behind the composition, whose head, arms and feet poke out from behind the frame, and more especially some of the human contortionists wrapped up in initials, are bizarre, and underline the deliberate intent of these so-called 'drolleries' (Rynne, 1994). Human representation, as we have seen, is not a major element in earlier Celtic art, so that the portraiture of the manuscripts bears no obvious debt to older Celtic conventions. Nevertheless, as Megaw and Megaw pointed out (2001, 252), the figures on the Rinnagan, Co. Roscommon, gilt-bronze plaque (Figure 11.8A) of the later seventh century show a remarkable similarity in their lentoid eyes and fringe hair-styles to earlier La Tene face-masks. Equally it might be said that the human heads that terminate the densely entangled interlace flanking the Virgin and Child, or human head, cats and mice, and otter with fish that lurk within the scrolls of the Christ autem initials on f. 34 were all in the spirit of the older Disney tradition.

It has been argued earlier that too much has sometimes been made of rather tenuous similarities between animals depicted in the illuminated manuscripts and the animal carvings of symbol stone art. Among examples where the similarities are detailed and convincing the eagle of St John in Corpus MS 197 B f. 1 is strikingly

Celtic Crucifixion Plaque
Figure 11.8 'Ultimate La Tène' in Ireland. A: Rinnagan crucifixion plaque. B: Lagore belt-buckle. Photos: Copyright National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, reproduced by permission

similar to the carving from the Knowe of Burrian, Orkney, down to the curving emphasis of breast and wing, depiction of plumage, and the rendering of legs and talons (Figure 11.6A, 3 and 4). By contrast, the eagle of the Echternach Gospels, f. 176v, despite its talons and beak, has the posture of a pigeon, and derives from a different aviary altogether. This must imply a connection more than indirect between scriptorium and sculptor's workshop, whether through the agency of Columban missionaries or even through the former existence of 'Pictish' Gospel Books (Henderson, G., 1987, 96). Unfortunately there is little archaeological evidence for the date of the Knowe of Burrian sculpture, but if the sculpture was the 'model' for the manuscript, rather than vice versa, as current opinion probably rightly argues, then a mid-seventh-century horizon is no more than a terminus ante quem for the inception of the symbol stone style. Another feature that must derive from symbol stone art is the emphasis of limb-joints and muscles by the use of scroll lines, as in the wolf from the Book of Kells, f. 76v, recalling similar emphasis on the Ardross wolf or the Burghead bulls (Figure 11.6A, 5 and 6; Figure 11.6B). The comparison is underlined by the fact that highlighting of the thigh and shoulder joints of the calf in the Book of Durrow, f. 124v, is achieved by contrast with 'Ultimate La Tène' spirals. • Other distinctive elements of illuminated manuscript art include the geometric, rectilinear style, whether check, step or key patterns or diagonal fretwork. Like the interlace designs, these are based upon ordered geometric structures, but they may also reflect the influence of the metal-worker's craft, in examples like the chequered cape of St Mark, f. 21v of the Book of Durrow (Figure 11.9), widely recognized as simulating millefiori settings. Comparisons are likewise made between ornamented panels on the carpet pages of the Book of Durrow and cloisonné mounts of gold and garnet from the Sutton Hoo treasure. By the end of the eighth century, in the Book of Kells, other devices, such as rosettes and floral motifs, appear as finials and spandrel fillings.

A progression in the composition and execution of Insular manuscript art can undoubtedly be traced through the seventh and eighth centuries. Compositions become more complex and intricate in later manuscripts, but the constituent elements in terms of non-representational designs, 'Ultimate La Tène', ribbon interlace and animal interlace, never actually integrate, even though juxtaposed in subtle relationship. Only occasionally in the Book of Kells is there any sense that integration might be imminent. To this extent, Insular manuscript art differs fundamentally from early La Tène Celtic art. In the earlier style, the component influences, 'Hallstatt', classical and orientalizing, are deconstructed by the Celtic artist and re-assembled into a new, vibrant and independent style that transcends its sources. In manuscript art, 'Ultimate La Tène' is never fused into the Germanic or Mediterranean interlace. The reason is presumably that the formal geometric templates upon which these styles, including the 'Ultimate La Tène', were based, simply did not permit that integration. A question that arises is whether different artists might have been responsible for different sections of the design. For the Book of Durrow and Lindisfarne Gospels, Henderson (Henderson, G., 1987, 40) was adamant that artist and scribe were one. In the case of the Book of Kells, following Françoise Henry (1967, 73—7), it is generally agreed that several artists may have been responsible for individual pages, even though their work was

Figure 11.9 The Book of Durrow, f. 21v. Photo: The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

skilfully combined. Equally, Henry argued for three separate scribes, so that the production of the work was collective, and one may even suggest perhaps cumulative. Indeed, taking the Book of Kells as a whole, rather than its selective highlights, one could believe that numerous different hands were involved as artists and scribes, especially if the work was disrupted by Viking raids and a retreat from Iona for completion in the comparative refuge of Kells.

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