This paper is a short exploration of ‘The golden age of Irish art’ (c.650 – 950 CE) with consideration to the art style of the period, its various elements and its origins in antiquity. “The early eight century saw the perfection of Irish art.” The Romans had left Ireland two centuries past but had left behind a highly creative ‘La Tene’ pastiche relying heavily on Greek models that would never entirely vanish from insular Irish art.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, early medieval Ireland, like other regions of north-west Europe, saw a dramatic development of independent kingdoms; “The ideology which underpinned these kingdoms was constructed from a mixture of native traditions and systems of knowledge from the Mediterranean world acquired through Christianity.”
The ‘golden age’ was a time when Religious Monasteries were flourishing across Ireland. These monastic settlements, combined with Romanesque techniques, influenced the aesthetic beauty of artistic architecture and design defining their impact as an imperative part of cultural life. This influence is immediately obvious even in self-adornment, “The pennacular brooch – a form adopted earlier from the Romans – became the high status garment par excellence.”
Art was very much existent in the minds and hearts of these primeval people and it manifested itself in illuminated manuscripts, metalwork and stone sculpture. Ireland was saturated in examples of the artistic achievements of this culture. Buildings and high crosses, precious jewellery, ornaments and adornments, manuscripts with intricate and sophisticated detail using materials and tools which were, by modern standards, primitive yet, in the hands of nascent man fashioned such complex work that it remains a perplexity as to how such exceptional creation was achieved.
Fine metalwork, manuscript painting and sculpture by the mid-8th Century had come to a level of excellence demonstrable with the appearance of certain pieces such as the Tara Brooch which reveals that Irish artists were inspired and imaginatively fertile; “The form of this brooch is in fact one of the finest representatives of shapes composed with a complete coherence – an ‘endless knot’ – of geometrical ratio.”
The artisan feat of elaborate decorations of circular arcs, straight lines and geometric patterns remains to defy explanation or definition but implies a long term development in craftsmanship dating back into antiquity. It further infers that this complex form of design was prevalent across Irish artistry; “That form shares the principles of design which were employed regularly in the creation of early high crosses of Ireland, and the magnificent illuminations in early insular gospels manuscripts.”
A further example of this artistic expertise can be seen in the design complexities of both the Derrynaflan Paten; “The Paten is an extremely complex structure consisting of many separately manufactured components” and The Ardagh Chalices. These are examples of a range of elaborate techniques of ornamentation based on imported inspiration yet customised to a developing Irish distinctiveness; “The elaboration of the filigree, the stamped ornaments of the side of the paten, the glass settings, and the knitted mesh of its rim and the organisation of the ornament place the paten clearly within the same aesthetic as the Ardagh Chalice.” The Derrynaflan and Ardagh silver chalices are strikingly similar.
Both are complicated in their design and construction and, “What is obvious about these chalices is the essentially Irish character of their manufacture and design.” These chalices are evidence of the fading Romanesque influence to make way for a unique developing Irishness in artistic pursuits; “The native metal working traditions enjoyed a new vogue, but in a modified form.” The commissioning of extravagant sacred objects such as the chalices from Derrynaflan and Ardagh demonstrates not only a desire for artistic splendour but an unparalleled ability to achieve it.
Some of the best examples of early Christian fine art were the Irish illuminated manuscripts dating from the mid 6th Century CE. These beautifully illustrated books were produced by scribes and artist monks in the scriptoriums of abbeys and monasteries all over Ireland. The monks made little money and no acknowledgement from their work but the Church had no hesitation in heaping money on the works of art themselves; “materials in regular use were gold dust, foil or leaf, silver and other precious metals and expensive natural colour pigments.” The accomplishment of Manuscript painting as an art form remains enigmatic.
The Book of Kells (Leabhar Cheanannais) brings together the traditions of animal ornamentation, interlacing and scrollwork combined with both decorative text and narrative scenes. It was created by Celtic monks and is a masterwork of calligraphy and epitomises the pinnacle of insular illumination. “The manuscript itself contains a clue indicating that those who produced it held Saint Columba in the highest veneration.” The curious feature about the Book Of Kells is that it is written with a unique ‘Irish’ hand defined as ‘half uncial, derived from Roman cursive, an advanced and uniquely developed form; ‘the Irish Hand attained a perfection and beauty which still dazzles the eye.’ The full, rotund form of the half-uncial was typically used in the transcription of Latin tracts notably, in the earliest known Irish manuscript, the Cathach, and, magisterially, in the Book of Kells. From this we can see why the ‘Golden Age of Irish Art’ was a carefully nurtured era of artistic perfection and excellence.
This concept is further enforced by The Book of Armagh, a near complete copy of the New Testament, with its sophisticated and elegant pen and ink illustrations; The text is written in two columns in a fine pointed insular minuscule’ and though it lacks the artistic enthusiasm of the Book of Kells it remains an exquisite masterpiece of Irish medieval art. “(It) shows the other side of artistic activity from the exuberance of Kells.”
Throughout the 8th Century the most affluent and honourable members of society adorned themselves with precious metals befitting their status. The Ballinderry Brooch (c.600 CE) and The Tara Brooch (c.700 CE) were both ambitious pieces of their time and worthy specimens of the magnificence of the art form of early medieval jewellery making. Clearly the advancing design complexities combined with fading Romanesque influences replaced with Anglo Saxon inspiration had occurred over the century between the two pieces. The development of craftsmanship is clearly visible.
The Ballinderry Brooch was an efficient and primarily functional pennacular piece which had an incomplete circular clasp at the top and was used as a clothes fastener. Its highly ornate design implies its use by the elite of medieval society. The Ballinderry Brooch clearly marks the beginning of a process that would culminate, over a Century, with the creation of The Tara Brooch.
The progressive artistic golden age was fuelled by new tastes and desires, “New types of objects had come into fashion; pennacular brooches decorated with spiral scrolls and enamels; hand-pins, sometimes enamelled or decorated with millefiori.” The Tara Brooch, found near the River Boyne in County Meath is consistent with the progressing Irish design; “Like many early high crosses and Gospel illuminated pages, the ‘Tara’ Brooch has a form consisting of circular arcs and straight lines.” Both these pieces yet again show Ireland’s artistic individuality emerging and developing to an advanced and idiosyncratically Irish stage.
Celtic High Crosses are a form of functional free standing sculpture which were mostly constructed on sites of religious significance. These crosses fall into two different groups, firstly there are crosses decorated with circular patterns and the second group being those decorated with Biblical scenes. It is still uncertain as to whether these crosses were painted but it is most likely that they were. With the addition of colour many of the designs on the crosses would have greater clarity.
The ‘High (Celtic) Crosses’ demonstrate a high point in Irish sculpture and the oldest, estimated 9th Century, are located at Ahenny in Co. Tipperary. The North and South crosses are carved with intricate geometrical Celtic designs and also Biblical scenes on the base. Scholar of early Irish art Franoise Henry, inspired at Ahenny, introduced her publication on Irish High Crosses with a chapter on ‘General Features’, where she offered an unchallenged description of the form of the monuments; “These high crosses are self-contained monuments, articulated into various elements: a large, somewhat cubic or pyramidal base, a separate block of stone indented with a deep rectangular hollow at the top, into which the stem of the cross can fit securely. The cross itself has a nearly square or rectangular section. The shaft tapers slightly towards the top. The stone ring which often connects the arms is usually in open-work, but in some cases it has been left as a sort of solid wheel. It is not necessarily always present, but occurs often enough to be considered as a characteristic feature of the Irish crosses.” Her writings clearly indicate that, although High Crosses are found across Europe, the Irish High cross is both distinctive and unique.
This paper through exploration of the output of ‘The Golden Age Of Irish Art’ has shown that the early eight century artisans accomplished the perfection of Irish art. By looking at an evolving innovative artistic culture in Ireland, with its origins in antiquity, traced through its metalwork craftsmanship, manuscript artistry, jewellery making and sculpture we can see that Ireland was not lacking in individuality and was feasibly a more cutting-edge artistic culture than other European countries.
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