Insular art: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This page (folio 292r) of the Book of Kells contains the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John.

Insular art, also known as the Hiberno-Saxon style, is the style of art produced in the post-Roman history of the British Isles, and the term is also used in relation to the script used at the time. The period in which they were produced is also called the Insular period in art. The term derives from insula, the Latin term for "island"; in this period Britain and Ireland shared a largely common style different from that of the rest of Europe. Arts historians usually group insular art as part of the Migration Period art movement as well as Early Medieval Western art, and it is the combination of these two traditions that give the style its special character.

Most insular art originates from the Irish monasticism of Celtic Christianity, or metalwork for the secular elite, and the period begins around 600 AD with the combining of 'Celtic' styles and Anglo-Saxon (English) styles ('zoomorphic interlace' decoration as found at Sutton Hoo). In England this merged into Anglo-Saxon art around 900, whilst in Ireland the style continued until about 1200, when it merged into Romanesque art. Ireland, Scotland and the kingdom of Northumbria in Northern England are the most important centres, but examples were produced in Southern England, Wales[1] and in Continental Europe, especially Gaul (modern France), in centres founded by the Hiberno-Scottish mission and Anglo-Saxon missions. The influence of Insular art affected all subsequent European medieval art, especially in the decorative elements of Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts.

Surviving examples of Insular art are mainly illuminated manuscripts, metalwork and carvings in stone, especially stone crosses. Surfaces are highly decorated with intricate patterning, with no attempt to give an impression of depth, volume or recession. The best examples include the Book of Kells, Lindisfarne Gospels, Book of Durrow, brooches such as the Tara Brooch and the Ruthwell Cross. Carpet pages are a characteristic feature of Insular manuscripts, although historiated initials (an Insular invention), canon tables and figurative miniatures, especially Evangelist portraits, are also common.



Early Anglo-Saxon shoulder-clasps from Sutton Hoo, early 7th century. Gold, garnet, and millefiori glass.

Unlike contemporary Byzantine art, and that of most major periods, Insular art does not come from a society where common stylistic influences were spread across a great number of types of object in art, applied art and decorative art. Across all the islands society was effectively entirely rural, buildings were rudimentary, and architecture has no Insular style. Although related objects in many more perishable media certainly existed and have not survived, it is clear that both religious and secular Insular patrons expected individual objects of dazzling virtuousity, that were all the more dazzling because of the lack of visual sophistication in the world in which they were seen.

Especially in Ireland, the clerical and secular elites were often very closely linked, some Irish abbacies being held for generations among a small kin-group. Ireland was divided into very small "kingdoms", almost too many for historians to keep track of, whilst in Britain there was a smaller number of much larger kingdoms. Both the Celtic (Irish and Pictish) and Anglo-Saxon elites had long traditions of metalwork of the finest quality, much of it used for the personal adornment of rulers. The Insular style arises from the meeting of their two styles, Celtic and Germanic Animal style, in a Christian context, and with some awareness of Late Antique style, especially in their application to the book, which was a new type of object for both traditions, as well as to metalwork.

Insular metalwork

The Derrynaflan paten, 8th or 9th century.

The majority of examples that survive have been found in archaeological contexts that suggest they were rapidly hidden, lost or abandoned. There are a few exceptions, notably portable shrines ("cumdachs") for books or relics, several of which have been continuously owned, mostly by churches on the Continent—though the Monymusk Reliquary has always been in Scotland.[2] In general it is clear that most survivals are only by chance, and that we have only fragments of some types of object—in particular the most portable. The highest quality survivals are either secular jewellery, much probably for male wearers, or tableware or altarware in what were apparently very similar styles—some pieces cannot be confidently assigned between altar and royal dining-table. It seems possible, even likely, that the finest church pieces were made by secular workshops, often attached to a royal household, though other pieces were made by monastic workshops.[3] The evidence suggests that Irish metalworkers produced most of the best pieces, however the finds from the royal burial at Sutton Hoo, from the far East of England and at the beginning of the period, are as fine in design and workmanship as any Irish pieces.

The Ardagh Chalice, c.? 750

There are a number of brooches, including several of comparable quality to the Tara brooch. Almost all of these are in the National Museum of Ireland, the British Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, or local museums in the islands. Each of their designs is wholly individual in detail, and the workmanship is varied in technique and superb in quality. Many elements of the designs can be directly related to elements used in manuscripts. Almost all of the many techniques known in metalwork can be found in Insular work. Surviving stones used in decoration are semi-precious ones, with amber and rock crystal among the commonest, and some garnets. Coloured glass, enamel and millefiore glass, probably imported, are also used.

The Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Hoard of chalice, paten with stand, strainer, and basin (only discovered in 1980) are the most outstanding pieces of church metalware to survive (only three other chalices, and no other paten, survive). These pieces are thought to come from the 8th or 9th century, but most dating of metalwork is uncertain, and comes largely from comparison with manuscripts. Only fragments remain from what were probably large pieces of church furniture, probably with metalwork on wooden frameworks, such as shrines, crosses and other items. The Cross of Cong is a 12th century Irish processional cross and reliquary that shows insular decoration, possibly added in a deliberately revivalist spirit.[4] The fittings of a major abbey church in the insular period remain hard to imagine; one thing that does seem clear is that the most fully decorated manuscripts were treated as decorative objects for display rather than as books for study. The most fully decorated of all, the Book of Kells, has several mistakes left uncorrected, the text headings necessary to make the Canon tables usable have not been added, and when it was stolen, in 1006 for its cover in precious metals, it was taken from the sacristy, not the library. The book was recovered, but not the cover, as also happened with the Book of Lindisfarne. None of the major insular manuscripts have preserved their elaborate jewelled metal covers, but we know from documentary evidence that these were as spectacular as the few remaining continental examples.[5] The metal cover of the Lindau Gospels (now Morgan Library, New York was made in southern Germany in the early 9th? century, under heavy insular influence, and is perhaps the best indication as to the appearance of the original covers of the great insular manuscripts. The design is dominated by a cross, but the whole surface of the cover is decorated, with interlace panels between the arms of the cross. The cloisonné enamel shows Italian influence, but the overall effect is very like a carpet page.[6]

Insular manuscripts

Cathach of St. Columba, 7th century

Although many more examples survive than of large pieces of metalwork, the development of the style is usually described in terms of the same outstanding examples:

Cathach of St. Columba. An Irish Latin psalter of the 7th century, this is perhaps the oldest known Irish manuscript of any sort. It contains only decorated letters, at the beginning of each Psalm, but these already show distinctive traits. Not just the initial, but the first few letters are decorated, at diminishing sizes. The decoration influences the shape of the letters, and various decorative forms are mixed in a very unclassical way. Lines are already inclined to spiral and metamorphose, as in the example shown. Apart from black, some orange ink is used for dotted decoration. The classical tradition was late to use capital letters for initials at all (in Roman texts it is often very hard to even separate the words), and though by this time they were in common use in Italy, they were often set in the left margin, as though to cut them off from the rest of the text. The insular tendency for the decoration to lunge into the text, and take over more and more of it, was a radical innovation. The Bobbio Jerome which according to an inscription dates to before 622, from Bobbio Abbey, an Irish mission centre in northern Italy, has a more elaborate initial with colouring, showing Insular characteristics still more developed, even in such an outpost. From the same scriptorium and of similar date, the Bobbio Orosius has the earliest carpet page, although a relatively simple one.

The beginning of the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Durrow.

Book of Durrow. The earliest surviving Gospel Book with a full programme of decoration (though not all has survived): six extant carpet pages, a full page miniature of the four evangelist's symbols, four full page miniatures of the evangelists' symbols, four pages with very large initials, and decorated text on other pages. Many minor initial groups are decorated. Its date and place of origin remain subjects of debate, with 650-690 and Durrow in Ireland, Iona or Lindisfarne being the normal contenders. The influences on the decoration are also highly controversial, especially regarding Coptic or other Near Eastern influence.

After large initials the following letters on the same line, or for some lines beyond, continue to be decorated at a smaller size. Dots round the outside of large initials are much used. The figures are highly stylised, and some pages use Germanic interlaced animal ornament, whilst others use the full repertoire of Celtic geometric spirals. Each page uses a different and coherent set of decorative motifs. Only four colours are used, but the viewer is hardly conscious of any limitation from this. All the elements of Insular manuscript style are already in place. The execution, though of high quality, is not as refined as in the best later books, nor is the scale of detail as small.

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Lindisfarne Gospels Produced in Lindisfarne by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, between about 690 and his death in 721 (perhaps towards the end of this period), this is a Gospel Book in the style of the Book of Durrow, but more elaborate and complex. All the letters on the pages beginning the Gospels are highly decorated in a single composition, and many two-page openings are designed as a unit, with carpet pages facing an incipit ("Here begins..") initial page at the start of each Gospel. Eadfrith was almost certainly the scribe as well as the artist. There are four Evangelist portraits, clearly derived from the classical tradition but treated without any sense of depth; the borders around them are far plainer than the decoration of the text pages, and there is clearly a sense of two styles which Eadfrith does not attempt to integrate wholly. The carpet-pages are enormously complex, and superbly executed.

St Petersburg Bede. Attributed to Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey in Northumbria between about 730-746, this contains larger opening letters in which metalwork styles of decoration can clearly be seen. There are thin bands of interlace within the members of letters. It also contains the earliest historiated initial, a bust probably of Pope Gregory I, which like some other elements of the decoration, clearly derives from a Mediterranean model. Colour is used, although in a relatively restrained way.

One of hundreds of small initials from the Book of Kells

Book of Kells Usually dated to around 800, although sometimes up to a century earlier, the place of origin is disputed between Iona and Kells, or other locations.[7] It is also often thought to have been begun in Iona and then continued in Ireland, after disruption from Viking raids; the book survives nearly intact but the decoration is not finished, with some parts in outline only. It is far more comprehensively decorated than any previous manuscript in any tradition, with every page (except two) having many small decorated letters. Although there is only one carpet page, the incipit initials are so densely decorated, with only a few letters on the page, that they rather take over this function. Human figures are more numerous than before, though treated in a thoroughly stylised fashion, and closely surrounded, even hemmed in, by decoration as crowded as on the initial pages. A few scenes such as the Temptation and Arrest of Christ are included, as well as a Madonna and Child, surrounded by angels (the earliest Madonna in a Western book). More miniatures may have been planned or executed and lost. Colours are very bright and the decoration has tremendous energy, with spiral forms predominating. Gold and silver are not used.


Other books

St John from the Book of Mulling

A distinctive Insular type of book is the pocket gospel, inevitably much less decorated, but in several cases with Evangelist portraits and other decoration. Examples include the Book of Mulling, Book of Deer, Book of Dimma, and the smallest of all, the Stonyhurst Gospel (now British Library), a 7th century Anglo-Saxon text of the Gospel of John, which belonged to St Cuthbert and was buried with him. Its beautifully tooled goatskin cover is the oldest Western book-binding to survive, and a virtually unique example of insular leatherwork, in an excellent state of preservation.[8]

Both Anglo-Saxon and Irish manuscripts have a distinctive rougher finish to their vellum, compared to the smooth-polished surface of contemporary continental and all late-medieval vellum.

Movement to Anglo-Saxon art

In England the pull of a Continental style operated from very early on; the Gregorian mission from Rome had brought the St Augustine Gospels and other manuscripts now lost with them, and other books were imported from the continent early on. The 8th century Cotton Bede shows mixed elements in the decoration, as does the Stockholm Codex Aureus of similar period, probably written in Canterbury. In the Vespasian Psalter it is clear which element is coming to dominate. All these and other members of the "Tiberius" group of manuscripts were written south of the river Humber, but the Codex Amiatinus, of before 716 from Jarrow, is written in a fine uncial script, and its only illustration is conceived in an Italianate style, with no insular decoration. The dating is partly known from the grant of additional land secured to raise the generations of cattle, amounting to 2,000 head in all, which were necessary to make the vellum for three complete but unillustrated Bibles, which shows the resources necessary to make the large books of the period.

Many Anglo-Saxon manuscripts written in the South, and later the North, of England show strong Insular influences until the 10th century or beyond, but the pre-dominant stylistic impulse comes from the continent of Europe; carpet-pages are not found, but many large figurative miniatures are. Panels of interlace and other Insular motifs continue to be used as one element in borders and frames ultimately classical in derivation. Many continental manuscripts, especially in areas influenced by the Celtic missions, also show such features well into the early Romanesque period. "Franco-Saxon" is a term for a school of late Carolingian illumination in north-eastern France that used insular-style decoration, including super-large initials, sometimes in combination with figurative images typical of contemporary French styles. The "most tenacious of all the Carolingian styles", it continued until as late as the 11th century.[9]

Legacy of Insular art

9th century Carolingian Franco-Saxon Incipit initial combines Insular decoration with classicising Evangelist portraits.

The true legacy of insular art lies not so much in the specific stylistic features mentioned in the last section, but in a fundamental departure from the classical approach to decoration, whether of books or other works of art. The barely controllable energy of Insular decoration, spiralling across formal partitions, becomes a feature of later medieval art, especially Gothic art, in areas where specific Insular motifs are hardly used, such as architecture. The mixing of the figurative with the ornamental also remained characteristic of all later medieval illumination; indeed for the complexity and density of the mixture, insular manuscripts are only rivalled by some 15th century works from the final flowering of Flemish illumination. It is also noticeable that these characteristics are always rather more pronounced in the North of Europe than the South; Italian art, even in the Gothic period, always retains a certain classical clarity in forms.

Unmistakable Insular influence can be seen in Carolingian manuscripts, even though these were also trying to copy the Imperial styles of Rome and Byzantium. Greatly enlarged initials, sometimes inhabited, were retained, as well as far more abstract decoration than found in classical models. These features continue in Ottonian and contemporary French illumination and metalwork, before the Romanesque period further removed classical restraints, especially in manuscripts, and the capitals of columns.

Muiredach's High Cross, Monasterboice


Large stone Celtic crosses, usually erected outside monasteries or churches, first appear in the 7th century in Ireland. Later insular carvings found throughout Britain and Ireland were almost entirely geometrical, as was the decoration on the earliest crosses. By the 9th century figures are carved, and the largest crosses have very many figures in scenes on all surfaces, often from the Old Testament on the East side, and the New on the West, with a Crucifixion at the centre of the cross. The 10th century Muiredach's High Cross at Monasterboice is usually regarded as the peak of the Irish crosses. On cross beam of Muiredach's High Cross, note the 'damned' souls to left of Christ and the 'saved' souls to his right. (The monks injected a bit of humor by depicting a devil pushing up on the scales of justice just below the figure of Christ.) In later examples the figures become fewer and larger, and their style begins to merge with the Romanesque, as at the Dysert Cross in Ireland. The 8th century Northumbrian Ruthwell Cross (now in in Scotland), unfortunately damaged by Presbyterian iconoclasm, is the most impressive remaining Anglo-Saxon cross, though as with most Anglo-Saxon crosses the original cross head is missing. Many Anglo-Saxon crosses were much smaller and more slender than the Irish ones, and therefore only had room for carved foliage. There is literary evidence for considerable numbers of carved stone crosses across the whole of England, and also straight shafts, often as grave-markers, but most survivals are in the northernmost counties.

There are remains of other works of monumental sculpture in Anglo-Saxon art, even from the earlier periods, but nothing comparable from Ireland.[10]

Pictish Standing Stones

A replica of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, carved in the Pictish Easter Ross style 800-900AD.

The stone monuments erected by the Picts of Scotland north of the Clyde-Forth line between the 6th – 8th centuries are particularly striking in design and construction, carved in the typical Easter Ross style related to that of Insular art, though with much less classical influence. The Picts in particular had a pagan tradition of monumental stone figure carvings and the purpose and meaning of the stones are only partially understood, although some think that they served as personal memorials, the symbols indicating membership of clans, lineages, or kindreds and depict ancient ceremonies and rituals [11] Examples include the Eassie Stone and the Hilton of Cadboll Stone. It is possible that they had subsidiary uses, such as marking tribal or lineage territories. It has also been suggested that the symbols could have been some kind of pictographic system of writing. One theory suggests the origin of the early symbols to be a system of constellations unique to the Picts.[12]

See also


  1. ^ see Ricemarch Psalter
  2. ^ Youngs, 134-140 catalogues two examples from Italy and one from Norway
  3. ^ Youngs, 15-16, 125
  4. ^ Rigby, 562
  5. ^ The 8th century pocket gospel book Book of Dimma has a fine 12th century cover.
  6. ^ Lasko, 8-9, and plate 2
  7. ^ Dodwell, 84
  8. ^ Stonyhurst.
  9. ^ Dodwell (1998), 74(quote)-75, and see index.
  10. ^ Wilson deals extensively with the sculptural remains
  11. ^ C. Michael Hogan, Eassie Stone, The Megalithic Portal, editor: Andy Burnham, 2007
  12. ^ Martin,H.C. (2007). The Lost Language of the Stars. Saint André de Valborgne: Virevolte. ISBN 978-2-9530732-0-1.


  • Susan Youngs (ed), "The Work of Angels", Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th–9th centuries AD, 1989, British Museum Press, London, ISBN 0714105546
  • Calkins, Robert G. Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983.
  • Nordenfalk, Carl. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting: Book illumination in the British Isles 600–800. New York: George Braziller, 1977.
  • Otto Pächt, Book Illumination in the Middle Ages (trans fr German), 1986, Harvey Miller Publishers, London, ISBN 0199210608
  • CR Dodwell, Anglo-Saxon Art, a new perspective, 1982, Manchester UP, ISBN 071900926X
  • Dodwell, C.R.; The Pictorial arts of the West, 800-1200, 1993, Yale UP, ISBN 0300064934
  • Henderson, George. Early Medieval Art, 1972, rev. 1977, Penguin.
  • Lasko, Peter, Ars Sacra, 800-1200, Penguin History of Art (now Yale), 1972 (nb, 1st edn.) ISBN14056036X
  • Rigby, Stephen Henry. A companion to Britain in the later Middle Ages, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003, ISBN 0631217851, 9780631217855. Google books
  • Wilson, David M.; Anglo-Saxon Art: From The Seventh Century To The Norman Conquest, Thames and Hudson (US edn. Overlook Press), 1984.

External links


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address