By LOUIS ELY O’CARROLL, B.A., B.L.
In the dark ages of Europe, whilst new civilizations were in the making and all was unrest, art and religion, like the lamp of the sanctuary, burned brightly and steadily in Ireland, and their rays penetrated the outer gloom. Scattered through the libraries of Europe are the priceless manuscripts limned by Irish scribes. The earliest missionaries to the continent, disciples of St. Columbanus and St. Gall, doubtless brought with them into exile beautiful books which they or their brothers of the parent monastery had wrought in a labor of love; or mayhap many a monk crossed the seas bearing the treasured volumes into hiding from the spoiling hands of the Dane. Yet, fortunately, in the island home where their beauty was born the most superb volumes still remain.
From almost prehistoric times the Irish were skilled artificers in gold and bronze, and, at the advent of Christianity, had already evolved and perfected that unique system of geometrical ornament which is known as Celtic design. The original and essential features of this system consisted in the use of spirals and interlacing strapwork, but later on this type was developed by transforming the geometrical fret into a scheme of imaginary or nondescript animals, portions of which, such as the tails and ears, were prolonged and woven in exquisite fancy through the border. The artistic features of Celtic book decoration consist chiefly of initial letters of this nature embellished with color. Amongst the ancient Irish there was a keen knowledge of color and an exceptional appreciation of color values. Thus it was that in the early centuries of Christian Ireland the learned monks, transcribing the Gospels and longing to make the book beautiful, were able to bring to their task an artistic skill which was hereditary and almost instinctive. The colors which they used were mostly derived from mineral substances and the black was carbon, made, it is conjectured, from charred fish-bones; but with them was combined some gummy material which made them cling softly to the vellum and has held for us their lustre for more than a thousand years. It is noteworthy that neither gold nor silver was used for book decoration, and this would appear to be a deliberate avoidance of the glitter and glare which distinguish eastern art.
The Book of Durrow (in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin) is the oldest specimen of Celtic illumination and, if not the work of St. Columcille, is certainly of as early a date. Each of the Gospels opens with a beautiful initial succeeded by letters of gradually diminishing size, and there are full page decorations embodying such subjects as the symbols of the Evangelists. The colors are rich and vivid and all the designs are of the purest and most Celtic character.
The Gospels of MacRegol (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) is the work of an Abbot of Birr who died A.D. 820. It is a volume of unusually large size, copiously ornamented with masterly designs and containing illuminated portraits of Saints Mark, Luke, and John. The first part of the book with the portrait of St. Matthew is missing. The Book of Kells (in the Library of T.C.D.) is the all-surpassing masterpiece of Celtic illuminative art and is acknowledged to be the most beautiful book in the world. This copy of the four Gospels was long deemed to have been made by the saintly hands of Columcille, though it probably belongs to the eighth century. Into its pages are woven such a wealth of ornament, such an ecstasy of art, and such a miracle of design that the book is today not only one of Ireland’s greatest glories but one of the world’s wonders. After twelve centuries the ink is as black and lustrous and the colors are as fresh and soft as though but the work of yesterday. The whole range of colors is there–green, blue, crimson, scarlet, yellow, purple, violet–and the same color is at times varied in tone and depth and shade, thereby achieving a more exquisite combination and effect. In addition to the numerous decorative pages and marvellous initials, there are portraits of the Evangelists and full-page miniatures of the Temptation of Christ, His Seizure by the Jews, and the Madonna and Child surrounded by Angels with censers. Exceptionally beautiful are these angels and other angelic figures throughout the book, their wings shining with glowing colors amid woven patterns of graceful design. The portraits and miniatures and the numerous faces centred in initial letters are not to be adjudged by the standard of anatomical drawing and delineation of the human figure, but rather by their effect as part of a scheme of ornamentation; for the Celtic illuminator was imaginative rather than realistic, and aimed altogether at achieving beauty by means of color and design. The Book of Kells is the Mecca of the illuminative artist, but it is the despair of the copyist. The patience and skill of the olden scribe have baffled the imitator; for, on an examination with a magnifying glass, it has been found that, in a space of a quarter of an inch, there are no fewer than a hundred and fifty-eight interlacements of a ribbon pattern of white lines edged by black ones on a black ground. Surely this is the manuscript which was shown to Giraldus Cambrensis towards the close of the twelfth century and of whose illuminations he speaks with glowing enthusiasm; “they were,” he says, “supposed to have been produced by the direction of an angel at the prayer of St. Brigid.”
The Gospels of MacDurnan (now in the Archbishop’s Library at Lambeth) is a small and beautiful volume which was executed by an abbot of Armagh who died in the year 891. A full-page picture of the Evangelist precedes each Gospel, and a composite border frames each miniature in a bewildering pattern of intertwining strapwork and wonderful designs of imaginary beasts. Ornamental capitals and rich borders give a special beauty to the initial pages of the Gospels.
The Book of Armagh (in the Library of T.C.D.) was carefully guarded and specially venerated through the ages in the erroneous belief that it was in part the handiwork of St. Patrick. It was written about the year 800, and would appear to have been copied from documents actually written by the patron saint of Ireland. The book is exceptionally interesting by reason of the fact that it contains St. Patrick’s Confession, that beautiful story of how he found his mission, how the captive grew to love his captors, and how, after his escape, he came back to them bearing the lamp of Holy Faith. Although the ornamentation of the manuscript is infrequent, there are occasional beautiful examples which compare in richness with those in the Book of Kells.
The Liber Hymnorum (in the Franciscan Monastery, Dublin) contains a number of hymns associated with the names of Irish saints. The ornamentation consists of colored initials, designed with a striking use of fanciful animal figures interlaced and twined with delightful freedom around the main structural body.
The Garland of Howth and the Stowe Missal (both in Trinity College Library) belong to the eighth century and are beautiful examples of early illuminative art. The former, which is very incomplete, has only two ornamental pages left, each containing figure-representations inserted in the decorative work.
The Gospels of St. Chad (in the Cathedral Library at Lichfield) and the Gospels of Lindisfarne, which are “the glory of the British Museum”, form striking examples of the influence of Celtic art. St. Chad was educated in Ireland in the school of St. Finian, where he acquired his training in book decoration. The Gospels of Lindisfarne were produced by the monks of Iona, where St. Columcille founded his great school of religion, art, and learning. This latter manuscript is second only to the Book of Kells in its glory of illuminative design, and, from its distinctive scheme of colors, the tones of which are light and bright and gay, it forms a contrast to the quieter shades and the solemn dignity of the more famous volume.
The Book of the Dun Cow, The Book of Leinster, and the other great manuscripts of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries are interesting as literature rather than as art, for they tell the history of ancient Erin and have garnered her olden legends and romantic tales. It is only the Gospels and other manuscripts of religious subjects that are illuminated. In the apparel of the ancient Irish, the number of colors marked the social rank: the king might wear seven colors, poets and learned men six; five colors were permitted in the clothes of chieftains, and thus grading down to the servant, who might wear but one. All this the scribe knew well. We can picture the humble servant of God, clad in a coarse robe of a single color, deep in his chosen labor of recording the life and teachings of his Master, and striving to endow this record with the glory of the seven colors which were rightly due to a King alone. As we gaze on his work today its beauty is instinct with life, and the patient love that gave it birth seems to cling to it still. The white magic of the artist’s holy hands has bridged the span of a thousand years.
O’Curry: Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History (Dublin, 1861); Brunn: An Enquiry into the Art of the Illuminated Manuscripts of the Middle Ages, Part I, Celtic Illuminated Manuscripts (Edinburgh, 1897); Robinson: Celtic Illuminative Art in the Gospels of Durrow, Lindisfarne, and Kells (Dublin, 1908); Westwood: The Book of Kells, a lecture given in Oxford, November, 1886 (Dublin, 1887); Gougaud: Répertoire des fac-similés des manuscripts irlandais (Paris, 1913).