Irish Art

Patrick Weston Joyce

67. Penwork. In Ireland art was practised in four different branches:—Ornamentation and illumination of manuscript books; metal work; sculpture; and building. Art of every kind readied its highest perfection in the period between the end of the ninth and the beginning of the twelfth century. All cultivation degenerated after that, on account of the Danish irruptions and the Anglo Norman Invasion.

68. The special style of pen ornamentation was quite peculiar to the Celtic people of Ireland. Its most marked characteristic is interlaced work formed by bands, ribbons, and cords, which are curved and twisted and interwoven in the most intricate way, something like basket work infinitely varied in pattern. These are intermingled and alternated with zigzags, waves, spirals, and lozenges; while here and there among the curves are seen the faces or forms of dragons, serpents, or other strange looking animals, their tails, or ears, or tongues elongated and woven till they become merged and lost in the general design. This ornamentation was chiefly used in the capital letters, which are generally very large. One capital of the Book of Kells covers a whole page. The pattern is often so minute and complicated as to require the aid of a magnifying glass to examine it. The pen work is throughout illuminated in brilliant colours, which in several of the old books are even now very little faded after the lapse of so many centuries.

69. The Book of Kells, written in the seventn or eighth century, is the most beautiful Irish book in existence. Professor Westwood of Oxford, who has examined the best specimens of ancient penwork all over Europe, says:—"It is the most astonishing book of the Four Gospels which exists in the world: there is nothing like it in all the books which were written for Charlemagne and his immediate successors."

Speaking of another Irish book, Mr. Westwood says:—"I have counted [with a magnifying glass] in a small space scarcely three quarters of an inch in length by less than half an inch in width, in the Book of Armagh, no less than 158 interlacements of a slender ribbon pattern formed of white lines edged with black ones." The Book of Durrow and the Book of Armagh, both in Trinity College, Dublin, are splendidly ornamented and illuminated.

Giraldus Cambrensis when in Ireland in 1185, saw a copy of the Four Gospels in St. Brigit's nunnery in Kildare, which so astonished him that he has recorded a legend that it was written under the direction of an angel.

70. The early Irish missionaries brought their arts of writing and illuminating wherever they went, and taught them to others; and to this day numerous exquisite specimens of their skill and taste are preserved in the libraries of England, France, Germany, and Italy.

71. Metal work. The pagan Irish, like the ancient Britons, practised the art of working in bronze, silver, gold, and enamel. This primitive art was continued into Christian times, and was brought to its highest perfection in the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The ornamental designs of metal work were generally similar to those used in manuscripts, and the execution was distinguished by the same exquisite skill and masterly precision. The principal articles made by the artists were crosses; croziers; chalices; bells; brooches; shrines or boxes to hold books or bells or relics; and book satchels, in which the two materials, metal and leather, were used. Specimens of all these may be seen in the National Museum in Dublin. The three most remarkable as well as the most beautiful objects in the Museum are the Cross of Cong, the Ardagh chalice, and the Tara brooch.

72. The chalice was found a few years ago buried in the ground under a stone in old lis at Ardagh, in the county Limerick. It is elaborately ornamented with designs in metal and enamel; and was probably made some short time before the tenth century.

The Tara brooch is ornamented all over with amber, glass, and enamel, and with the characteristic Irish interlaced work in metal. Many old brooches are preserved, but this is by far the most beautiful and perfect of all.

The cross of Cong, which is 2 feet 6 inches high, is covered with elaborate ornamentation of pure Celtic design; and a series of inscriptions in the Irish language along the sides give its full history. It was made by order of Turlogh O'Connor king of Cannaught. The artist, who finished his work in 1123, was Mailisa Mac Braddan O'Hechan.

73. A great variety of gold ornaments may be seen in the National Museum, many of beautiful workmanship. There are several torques, all pure gold, one of which—found at Tara—is 5 feet 7 inches in length and weighs 27 ½ ounces. The torques were worn round the neck, but of many of the other articles the uses are unknown.

74. Sculpture. Artistic sculpture is chiefly exhibited in the great stone crosses, of which about forty-five still remain in various parts of Ireland. One peculiarity of the Celtic cross is a circular ring round the intersection, binding the arms together. Thirty-two of the forty-five existing crosses are richly ornamented; and eight have inscriptions. The elites of the stone crosses extend from the tenth to the thirteenth century. Besides the ornamentation, most of the high crosses contain groups of figures representing various subjects of sacred history. The ornamentation is still of the same general Celtic character that we find in metal work and in illuminated manuscripts, and it exhibits the same masterly skill and ease both in design and execution. One of the crosses at Monasterboice is 27 feet high.