Work of angels
The principal qualities of Irish art of the late Celtic period are reflected in the metal objects that have survived. Stone monuments and manuscript illuminations produced in the same era are far less numerous. Celtic metalwork such as brooches, sword scabbards, and bracelets were portable, and valuable enough to hide if their security was at risk. This was particularly prevalent during the period of the Viking raids, and many caches, or hoards, were buried by their owners, and sometimes by the raiders themselves. As a result, numerous examples survive.
A recent exhibition on Irish Celtic metalwork entitled The Work of Angels exhibited 230 objects, the cream of the national collections of Ireland and elsewhere. Hundreds of other less dramatic
In the period from the sixth until the tenth centuries, Celtic artists produced a range of objects that were directly descended from the work of earlier Callic craftsmen. Over the centuries these Irish artists developed their skills, making their metalwork rank among the most exquisite decorative objects ever produced.
Right: The 8th-century "Londesbrough brooch" is of heavy Irish silver, cast with a complex of animal and bird motifs. It is unusual for the period in that no filigree work is used and the intricate decoration is cast rather than applied.
pieces are also extant. Enameling was practiced in Ireland from the fifth century, and during the early Christian period its use became widespread.
Ornamentation also became more commonplace, and semi-precious stones and glass were both used extensively, usually in combination with gold filigree settings. The millefiori (thousand flowers) technique involved the use of glass threads of different colors, fused together and sliced to form flat inlay patterns. It became commonly used for floral decoration, such as on the Ardagh chalice and the Tara brooch (see thefollowing page).
Filigree—where twisted braids of gold or silver are soldered onto the metal object—was raised to a high art form by late Celtic metalsmiths to decorate numerous fine pieces of jewelry. Another widespread techique is granulation, a process in which minute drops are dripped onto the surface of an ornament before it is finally soldered into place.
Above: This silver Viking hoard, found on the banks of the River Ribble, Lancashire, England, was probably buried about 905. Because much of the silver is of Irish origin, it is likely that this was the plunder of Vikings who were expelled from Dublin in 902.
Left: A brooch from the seventh century, showing off some fine filigree work, enameling, and glass inlays. Found in Baslieur. Meurthe-et-Moselle, France, this object is only 2 inches in diameter.
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