ILLuminate Manuscmpts

The first instances of illuminated manuscripts arc during the late sixth century and reflect the establishment of monastic workshops of illumination and metalwork in Ireland, Dal Kiada, and possibly also in Celtic Britain. While regarded as masterpieces, they also possess a hidden message—the Celtic church was not as isolated as its adversaries in the Church of Rome believed.

The Cathach

H^K ne of the earliest known examples is the Cathach of St. Columba, a work that was allegedly written in the saint's own hand. Most scholars now agree that it was actually produced in the early seventh century, after the death of St. Columba on Iona in 597. This psalter lacks the color and ornamentation of later works, but contains the decorative features that were to make manuscript illumination one of the lasting glories of the Celtic world.

The concept of illuminated initials originated

Below: St. Mark, symbolized by his lion, pictured writing his gospel. A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

in the eastern Mediterranean, but these late Roman works lacked the characteristic diminuendo (diminution) of Celtic illumination. This referred to the way the large flourish of the opening letter was reduced over the next few-letters until the letter size conformed to those in the rest of the manuscript. Celtic monks produced works in monasteries on the mainland of Europe following the principles demonstrated in the Cathach of St. Columba, and the basic style of these illuminations was formed.

The spirals, scrolls, trumpet shapes, and pelt as (shaped like the "spade" symbol in a card pack) of Celtic metalwork were adapted and introduced onto the page of these manuscripts. Art historians have noted the influence of non-Celtic traditions. In particular Anglo-Saxon traditions helped to shape the development of traditionally insular Irish pieces of decoration. Some manuscripts were even produced using Celtic scribes, but were designed for Anglo-Saxon religious patrons. Prime examples are the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Gospel Book of Durham. Others, such as the Book of Kel/s, demonstrate influences from Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire).

One of the most impressive assimilations of insular and exterior influences in Irish illumination is the Book ofDurrow, a gospel dating from the mid-seventh century. The work is a virtual compendium of European decorative art, and while its text is drawn from the Roman world, its decorative elements are Celtic or Germanic, although Byzantine features have also been detected. Some of the symbols used to represent Evangelists have direct links with the mysterious Pictish symbols in eastern Scotland, while other decorative features have Ix-en traced to eastern Europe. Ornamental animal friezes are probably Anglo-Saxon, while other aspects are decidedly Celtic Irish.

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