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Celtic Art
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Just What Is Celtic Art?

The forms that we commonly know as early Celtic art have come down to us mainly through grave goods, jewellery, metalwork and stone monuments. Much of it was fairly simple and based on natural forms, enhanced with tiling and compass work; complex knots were very fashionable!

It was in literature, however, that the full blossoming of this art form found fulfillment; and for that we have to thank the Christian Church, in Ireland.

Early Celtic Writing: Ogham

The first Celtic alphabet was Ogham; this is believed to have been modelled on Roman scripts, with possibly a Greek or Runic influence. Few people will have understood it so it could have been used as a means of communication, unintelligible to most people, or as a means of marking boundaries, graves or ownership.

The Roman conquests in Europe saw the gradual fading away of Ogham and it's replacement with Latin.

The Dark Ages

The fall of the Roman Empire caused immense changes across Europe, leading to invasion of many lands by so-called barbarians; Ireland, however, was relatively free of the chaos that fell over much of Europe during the period known as the Dark Ages, and the Christian Church in Italy decided that the country was ripe for converting to their growing religion. St Patrick was sent there to effect this; and he was responsible for not only spreading the Christian religion, but also, as a direct consequence, of giving Celtic art a great leap forward.

The creation of sculptures, and metalwork, reflecting Chrsitian worship, was magnified, often echoing the use of the complex spirals, knots and step patterns of earlier centuries. It was in the illuminated scrolls however, painstakingly created by monks in the monasteries that St Patrick was ultimately responsible for, that the art form reached it's zenith.

The Spread Of Literacy

In those days before printing the only way, apart from the verbal tradition, to store and pass on knowledge was by writing. Copying out manuscripts was a long, arduous and painstaking job but the Church of Rome was wealthy and they wanted their manuscripts to not only pass on the knowledge of the scriptures but to glorify them too. At a time when most of the population was illiterate the monasteries became centres of literacy, art, learning and culture; and the tradition of creating illuminated manuscripts was born.

These became extremely valued objects; hardly surprisingly considering the countless hours of hard work, at a time when even paper was unheard of in Europe, that went into creating them. They were kept firmly under lock and key, being brought out only on special ceremonial occasions, but this did not stop pagan raiders from destroying many of them; one of the greatest acts of vandalism of early civilisation. Fortunately some have survived now, as priceless historical relics.

The Book Of Durrow

One of the first produced was the Book of Durrow, which was possibly created around the mid seventh Century. It was named after the Monastery of Durrow in Ireland where it stayed until the dissolution of the monasteries - another act of supreme vandalism - and then it passed through several hands, not all of which treated it gently, until it was given to the library at Trinity bCollege, where it is now kept.

The Cathach Of Saint Columbia

Perhaps earlier that that is the Cathach of St. Columba; this is a collection of psalms on vellum and is believed to have been created during the early seventh Century. It was venerated as a battle talisman originally, and again it passed through several, not always gentle, hands, and it is now kept, albeit incomplete and damaged, at the Royal Irish academy.

The Book Of Kells

Probably the most famous source of Celtic art is the Book of Kells, which was never finished but remains a colourful masterpiece of illuminated manuscript and has survived in fairly good condition. During the medieval period it was kept safely in the abbey at Kells, in Ireland, and it is now preserved on display at Trinity College Library in Dublin. Who created it and where is the subject of much speculation; but we will probably never know the truth.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Lindisfarne Gospels, a manuscript of the gospels of Mathew Mark Luke and John, is complete; which is very fortunate considering it's great age, and the depradations of the pagan Vikings who terrorised Northumbria, destoying the church on the Island of Lindisfarne in around 793, carrying off priceless treasures and massacring many monks. It was commissioned by the Bishop of Lindisfarne in homage to God, all the saints and particularly Saint Cuthbert and the binding was adorned with gold and gems. These were stolen during the Viking raids but happily the book survived. Initially it was taken to the monastery in Durham; after the dissolution of the monasteries it was aquired by antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton.

In 1852 a new binding was paid for by the the then Bishop of Durham Edward Maltby; and the book is now kept in the British Museum, with a facsimile on display at Durham Cathedral.

To be continued .....

This website is very much a work in progress. Over the coming months we will be adding more articles about Celtic art, as well as a large library of free-to-use clipart.

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