Manuscript Writing and Illumination
Manuscript Writing and Illumination
The promotion of Latin literacy was a high priority for the young Irish church, and later tradition frequently describes Saint Patrick leaving the necessary books in churches that he had founded. Saint Columba (Colmcille; died at Iona in 597 c.e.) was said to have been involved in a dispute in his youth about copying a new version of the psalter, and to have been copying a manuscript on his last day on earth. In later times some books were regarded as precious relics and enshrined in metal reliquaries—a practice that may have originated in an Irish reflex of the Roman tradition of keeping the book for papal masses in a sealed casket.
Scholars have disputed the locations where important Irish manuscripts of the early medieval period were written. In some cases it is impossible to establish the provenance of a manuscript, so the term insular is often used in preference to more precise geographical ascriptions. The earliest extended text to survive from Ireland is the bundle of wax tablets from Springmount Bog, Co. Antrim, on which a student practiced the psalms in a script that owes much to late Roman cursive writing but is already distinctively Irish. The first almost complete manuscript that has come down to us is the Cathach of Saint Columba, a psalter, or book of the psalms, written on vellum in an Irish half-uncial script around the year 600 c.e. It was preserved until modern times by the O'Donnells (the saint's kin). The Cathach already shows the principal stylistic traits of later Irish manuscripts. Psalms begin with an enlarged capital, often embellished, followed by letters of smaller size that diminish in height until they merge with the body of the text—the effect is called diminuendo. The ornament is very simple: Letters are enriched by spiral scrolls and simple trumpet devices in the La Tène tradition, and Christian symbols (a dolphin or fish and the cross) appear. (The La Tène style is an abstract art form based on stylized vegetal motifs, spirals, and curvilinear scrolls associated with the Iron Age Celtic peoples of mainland Europe, Ireland, and Britain.) A fragmentary gospel book of about the same date in Trinity College Library, Codex Usserianus Primus, has a singe leaf devoted entirely to a painted cross of eastern style with an abbreviated Chi-Rho (monogram of Christ) and alpha and omega. Nothing further is known of Irish manuscript production until the later seventh century, by which time Irish missions in north Britain and on the continent had created an entirely new climate. Influences from Anglo-Saxon England, Gaul, and probably Italy gave rise to a new eclectic ornamental style in monastic scriptoria.
The first manifestation of the mature insular style is the Book of Durrow, a luxury codex of the New Testament with prefatory matter and canon tables, which was preserved at Durrow, Co. Offaly, until it was given to Trinity College in the seventeenth century. With its remarkable carpet pages devoted entirely to ornament and to the cross and its highly original depiction of the symbols of the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the authors of the Gospels), it is a splendid hybrid. The spiral and trumpet scrolls of the La Tène tradition dominate its decoration—one carpet page is a remarkable evocation of the spirit of the bronzesmith and enameller. The initial letters and diminuendo of the Cathach have been recreated here with great virtuosity and magnificence. Interlace, varied in rhythm and color, makes its appearance for the first time in insular art. A page devoted to animal art of Germanic inspiration has led some to attribute the manuscript to Northumbria or Iona. The careful observer will see even on pages that are ostensibly wholly "Celtic" stylized animal heads, but expressed in the idiom of spirals and trumpets. Gospels are prefaced by whole-page representations of the evangelists' symbols,and the genealogy of Christ in Matthew's gospel is introduced by a finely decorated Chi-Rho.
The Anglo-Saxon –style beasts have been compared to metalwork from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, suggesting an early seventh-century date for Durrow, but a late seventh-century date is more plausible. The arthistorical arguments can tell us nothing about provenance, for the style could well have been present in the Irish midlands in the seventh century. The Book of Durrow is associated with Columba, and it is clearly related to the tradition of the later Book of Kells. The style could conceivably have been practiced in Durrow, itself a Columban monastery. Probably, though, it was produced in Iona and belonged to a tradition that was intimately connected, as the evangelists' symbols show, with the emergence of very similar beast symbols on Pictish carved stones, and in contact with both the Irish and Anglo-Saxon worlds.
Two manuscripts now in Durham and probably originally in the monastery of Lindisfarne (founded by Aidan of Iona in the 630s) belong to the mixed traditions of Northumbrian Christianity, which owed much to Irish ecclesiastics. One of these shows the development of a more fluid animal style that would be greatly elaborated in the eighth century; the other has the imprint of a now lost crucifixion scene in which Christ's body is enveloped in a tightly wound garment. This is the earliest evidence that painted scenes were part of the insular repertoire.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, associated with the cult of Saint Cuthbert, are remarkable. The book may have been created for the translation of Cuthbert's relics in 698 c.e. to Lindisfarne. It is the greatest and most elaborate of the earliest insular gospel books. Arthistorically, a date of about 700 c.e. for the manuscript is plausible. Its animal ornament with tightly wound, fabulous, but entirely believable interlaced beasts, its elegantly caricatured birds, a remarkable cross-carpet page, stunning zoomorphized spiral scrollwork, and beautiful script make the book a tour de force. Symbolism of beasts and birds is prominent, but its evangelist portraits, bearing the unmistakable impress of the Mediterranean culture of the monasteries of Monkwear-mouth and Jarrow, place this manuscript at the heart of the Northumbrian Renaissance. Nevertheless, the style of ornament is uncannily close to that of the Tara Brooch and Donore Hoard—both from eastern Ireland—and of the Hunterston Brooch from Ayrshire in Scotland (almost certainly of Irish manufacture). These seem to locate the origin of its decoration partly in the art of the metalworkers patronized by Irish potentates. The legacy of Lindisfarne is apparent in the greatly inferior Lichfield Gospels and in the persistence of elements of the La Tène style in later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.
Irish and Anglo-Saxon manuscript styles diverged during the eighth century. The sample of Irish survivors is very small, and only a few "pocket" gospel books are known. These have a smaller, often cursive script, simplified decoration of capitals, and charming if rather naïve evangelist portraits and symbols. Good examples are the Book of Mulling and the Book of Dimma in Trinity College and part of the Stowe Missal in the Royal Irish Academy—the latter almost certainly dates from after 800 c.e.
Opinion is sharply divided on the date and origin of the famous Book of Kells. The current consensus is that it was created on the island of Iona toward the end of the eighth century. The book was probably brought to Kells, Co. Meath, a refuge of Columban monks from the Viking onslaught, in the tenth century c.e. It was at Kells in 1007 c.e. when it was stolen from the church and later found with the ornaments torn off the cover. The Annals of Ulster, recording both the theft and the recovery in that year, call it "the chief relic of the western world." It was given to Trinity College in the seventeenth century. Though 340 folios survive, the book is incomplete. Kells has highly decorated canon tables, carpet pages, evangelist portraits and symbols, and figured scenes (the Temptation, the Virgin and Child, the Arrest of Christ)—all the work of a number of artists who employed with élan interlace, animal interlace, and beast ornament, especially of felines (lions?), birds, and serpents. There are vignettes in minor initials and interlinear paintings—an eagle seizing a fish, a warrior, chickens, and butterflies—some of which reflect on the adjacent text. Christological symbolism is everywhere. A particularly important page is devoted to the Chi-Rho that introduces the genealogy of Christ. This is a remarkable composition based on La Tène spirals and trumpets, combined with tiny illustrations of cats, mice, and butterflies, and other extraordinary displays of fine, almost microscopic decoration. A fragmentary manuscript in Turin may have approached Kells in ambition, and another in the Library of Sankt Gallen shared the Kells scriptorium's interest in figured scenes, but neither approaches Kells in virtuosity and ornamental skill.
In the ninth century a gospel book decorated with animal ornament, evangelist portraits, and fine geometric ornament was written by MacRegol, abbot of Birr (d. 822). It is preserved in the Bodleian Library. A much more elegant product is the Book of Armagh, created by the scribe Ferdomnach for the Abbot Torbach early in the ninth century. It contains the four gospels, documents relating to Saint Patrick, and a life of Saint Martin of Tours. Its elegant script and evangelist symbols are in black ink.
The high style of manuscript production was dealt a fatal blow by the Viking wars of the ninth and tenth centuries, and later books do not approach in quality and ambition the work of the early period.
Alexander, J. J. G. Insular Illuminated Manuscripts, 6th to 9th Century. 1978.
Fox, P., ed. The Book of Kells Ms 58 Trinity College Library Dublin. 1990.
Henry, F. Irish Art in the Early Christian Period toAD800. 1965.
Henry, F. Irish Art during the Viking Invasions, 800–1020AD. 1967.
Meehan, B. The Book of Kells. 1994.
Meehan, B. The Book of Durrow, a Medieval Masterpiece at Trinity College, Dublin. 1996.
O'Mahoney, F., ed. The Book of Kells: Proceedings of a Conference at Trinity College, Dublin, 6–9 September, 1992. 1994.
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