Later Insular Art In Britain And Ireland

It is not within the scope of the present study to trace in detail the progression of later Celtic art in Britain and Ireland through the emergence of elaborate Early Christian cross-slabs of Scotland or the metal-work, manuscripts and high crosses of Early Christian Ireland into the Medieval period. Many other studies (Henry, 1965; 1967; 1970; Henderson and Henderson, 2004; Harbison, 1999) have dealt with this rich field from an art-historical or archaeo-historical perspective much more fully than would be possible here as a postscript to earlier Celtic art. Nevertheless an examination of the origins and nascency of later Insular art, its principal influences, and political, social and economic context, is instructive in comparison especially to the origins of early La Tene art in Central Europe.

A fundamental issue is whether we should include later Insular art within the scope of Celtic art at all, whether we subscribe to the older conventional belief that Britain and Ireland were in some meaningful sense 'Celtic' in the Iron Age. Linguistically there can be no dispute that both Scotland and Ireland emerge in the historical period as Celtic-speaking, though the evidence for the earlier Iron Age is by no means so clear. 'Pictish' names and place-names were recognized as Celtic by Jackson (1955), even though he suspected non-Celtic and even non-Indo-European survivals. Furthermore, the territory that constituted 'Pictland', at least up to the seventh century, has itself recently come under review. Based on the criteria advanced at the outset for defining Celtic art, however, it is legitimate to include Northern Britain and Ireland in our discussion of later Celtic art. Having broken the exclusive equation between Celtic art and La Tene art, it also follows that for the later Insular Iron Age, any La Tene component may be minimal or at any rate significantly suffused over time to make direct correlations less meaningful.

The term 'Insular' is here adopted to cover developments of the post-Roman period in Southern Britain, Scotland and Ireland, simply because common themes and styles and evidence of mutual or reciprocal influences may be regarded as equally significant as evidence of regional differences in artistic practice. In the case of illuminated manuscripts, the artistic milieu of the scriptoria evidently transcended local stylistic traditions, so that attribution to place of production may still be a source of scholarly dispute. Exchange of specialist skills and techniques among high-status metal-workers (or between their patrons) may likewise make it difficult to assume place of manufacture from archaeological provenance.

One major difference between the corpus of later Celtic art and that of the earlier Iron Age is in the range of media represented in the later period - high-status metal-work, elaborate monumental sculpture and illuminated manuscripts, often with common motifs or themes - in contrast to the largely metal-work-dominated corpus of the earlier Celtic art. Ceramic art is non-existent in early historic Scotland and Ireland, where there is, with the exception of the Northern and Western Isles, no significant tradition of pottery production in the earlier Iron Age either. In fact, in contrast to the earlier Iron Age in insular and Continental Europe, there is very little that could be described as vernacular or domestic art: for the most part, we are looking at highstatus goods or artefacts of special, in this context generally of religious or related significance.

A question that conventionally has arisen in treatments of later Insular Celtic art is the extent to which, if at all, it can be regarded as derivative from earlier Celtic traditions. Françoise Henry and others used the phrase 'Ultimate La Tène' to cover the appearance of triskeles, peltae and S-spirals in Early Christian manuscript art and metal-work, and similar motifs in the later 'Pictish' cross-slabs have prompted similar attribution. It has to be admitted that if this were the basis for describing later Insular art as 'Celtic', it would amount to a very indirect and diluted inheritance, which is not to deny altogether that legacy. Taking a broader definition of Celtic art as outlined earlier, however, it is not necessary to place undue strain upon such selective links with earlier La Tène styles, though they certainly warrant examination.

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