Insular art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, is the name given to the style of art produced in Britain and Ireland during the Medieval Period. It is part of the larger style of Celtic art and the name “Insular” is in reference to how different the style was from that present in the rest of Europe during this period. The style originated after the Roman withdrawal of Britain in the 5th century and its beginnings are thought to lie within Irish monasteries that sought to merge Celtic art with Christian purpose. The golden age of Insular art was between the 7th – 9th centuries, before Viking raids across Britain drastically set back cultural life and ravaged many monasteries that were known for their production of illuminated manuscripts and other artworks.
Characteristics of Celtic art include a focus on abstract, geometrical decoration, far outnumbering figurative subjects, the latter only appearing rarely and in highly stylised forms. Common designs featured are circular forms, spirals, triskeles, Celtic knots, plant forms and other curvilinear forms. There was an avoidance of straight lines and symmetry, resulting in a fluidity of form and unique, often maze-like imagery. Many of these elements would be adopted into the Insular style and merged with Christian iconography and symbolism, resulting in an interesting array of designs and images.
“Common to Celtic art over a wide chronological and geographical span is an exquisite sense of balance in the layout and development of patterns. Curvilinear forms are set out so that positive and negative, filled areas and spaces form a harmonious whole. Control and restraint were exercised in the use of surface texturing and relief. Very complex curvilinear patterns were designed to cover precisely the most awkward and irregularly shaped surfaces.”
Catherine Johns, The Jewellery of Roman Britain: Celtic and Classical Traditions, Routledge, 1996
A Celtic heritage was present in Ireland before and throughout the Roman era of Britain (the Roman Empire failed to spread to Ireland). When Christianity arrived, Irish art found influence in Mediterranean and Germanic traditions, the latter through contact with the Anglo-Saxons, which led to the creation of the Insular or Hiberno-Saxon style. This was the dominant style of art until the Viking invasion of Ireland resulted in Scandinavian influences appearing in the art late in the period. The original Celtic style work ended with the Norman invasion (1169-1170) and the subsequent introduction of the general European Romanesque style.
A masterpiece of Insular art and a stunning example of the decorative illuminated manuscripts produced in Britain and Ireland during the Medieval Ages, the Book of Kells is proof of sophistication even in the darkest of ages. Illuminated manuscripts were laboriously crafted and lavishly decorated, taking years to produce due to the unprecedented level of intricate detail and handwritten text. The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels based on the Vulgate text, handwritten in Latin on velum (prepared calfskin). There has been much debate as to the place of origin as the creators of the book were Columban monks from the monastery founded by St Colum on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. However, in AD 806, close to the approximate date of production, Viking raids on the island forced the monks to seek refuge in a monastery at Kells, County Meath, meaning that the Book could have been produced either at Iona or Kells, or even partially at both. Today the Book of Kells is on permanent display at Trinity College Dublin and consists of 340 velum folios, collected into four volumes. The Trinity College Digital Collection allows for online viewing of the book, and it is clear to see why it is considered such a national treasure.
The book itself is written in insular majuscule script by three different scribes in a variety of coloured inks. However, the wonder of this illuminated manuscript lies less in the written content than the decoration. The fully developed Insular style is seen in all its resplendent glory on the pages of this book as traditional Christian iconography is combined with swirling motifs, mythical beasts, stylised human and animal figures, Celtic knots and elaborate lettering, all intertwined among interlacing patterns whose creation would defy normal levels of patience. The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, including the oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript (folio 7).
“[S]ome pages of The Book of Kells can be best viewed as work in progress, the monks filling in gaps with elaborate coloured puzzles, snaking and looping lines, knots and interlacings. They used decoration for its own sake and colour for the delight it offered; they brought calligraphy to a fine and playful art.”
The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan – review, Colm Tólbin, The Observer, 9 December 2012
The lavish decoration is not limited to just the major pages as throughout the text are to be found decorated initials, small figures of humans and animals often twisted and tied into complicated knots, a feature characteristic of Insular and Celtic art, and also somewhat reminiscent of the spiralling, ribbon-like animal bodies found in Viking art. The letters themselves, along with borders, are further decorated with intricate spirals and knot work, many zoomorphic in nature, giving an organic feel to the work.
The aesthetics have certainly been given priority over functionality as often the decoration is so elaborate as to made the text illegible. An example of this is on folio 29r, which consists of only two words, Liber generationis (“the book of the generation”), yet the letters are barely distinguishable from the ornamentation. The lib of liber is turned into a giant monogram dominating the page, while the er is an interlaced ornament within the letter b. Gernerationis is split over three lines, contained within an intricate frame in the lower right of the page. All of this is contained within a border consisting of complex spiral patterns and accompanied by stylised human figures.
The Book of Kells is often met with one of two responses; that is it wretchedly ornate to the point of excess, or that it is a great work of art, a masterpiece of craftsmanship from Britain and Ireland, dispelling the assumptions that the Dark Ages lacked culture and sophistication. The level of ornamentation may be excessive for the purpose, but it is a thing of beauty because of the time and effort that must have gone into producing such a level of intricate, complex detail.