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Early Irish Art

EARLY Irish art illustrates in a very remarkable manner those distinctive qualities of Irish nature, which we know from the legendary traditions have characterized our people from the earh est times. The earnest religious faith, the love of gorgeous colouring, the tendency to express ideas by symbol, and the vivid imagination that delights in the strange and unusual, often fantastic and grotesque, in place of the absolute and real, combined with the patient. and minute elaboration of details, so truly Oriental in its spirit, specially mark Irish ornamentation. All these reverential, artistic, fanciful, and subtle evidences of the peculiar Celtic spirit find a full and significant expression in the wonderful splendours of early Irish art, as seen chiefly in the ancient illuminated manuscripts.
The reputation of Irish artists for excellence in these costly productions became so extended throughout Christian Europe in the early ages, that at the request of many nations Ireland sent forth numbers of her most cultured artists as teachers and scribes to the great foreign schools arid colleges; and numerous examples of skilled Irish work are still existing in Conthental Libraries, where they are held as amongst the most sacred of the national treasures. For a full and comprehensive illustration of tins subject it would be impossible to over-estimate the artistic and historic value of Mr. Westwood's magnificent book on Anglo-Saxon and Irish Manuscripts. The volume contains facsimiles from all the principal illuminated Celtic manuscripts of Europe, executed with the most scrupulous care, chiefly by Mr. Westwood himself, the majority of them with the aid of a magnifying glass, so minute and delicate are the lines of ornamentation to be represented. In fact, for accuracy of information and richness of illustration, the volume surpasses anything yet published on Celtic art in the United Kingdom, and may claim equality with the grand, but enormously expensive work of Count Bastard, on early French Manuscripts. Mr. Westwood, in a learned preliminary dissertation, gives his views on the origin and development of Hiberno-Saxon art during the first thousand years of the Christian era, and finds in the ornamentation, as observed by Kemble and others, a distinct Opus Hibernicum and an Opus Anglicum, but the Irish the more perfect of the two, and wholly different from Conthental art of the same era.
The earliest manuscripts of Greece and Rome show nothing like this distinctive Celtic art; nor the Italian mosaics, nor the wall paintings of Herculaneum or Pompeii--beautiful as are the representations of the human figure found there; nor does Byzanthe art afford any similar types. From whence, then, did the Irish, the acknowledged founders of Celtic art in Europe, derive their ideas of ornamentation? This is one of the historical mysteries which, like the origin of the Round Towers, still awaits solution. One must travel a long way, even to the far East, before finding in the decorations of the ancient Hindoo temples anything approaching to the typical idea that runs through all Irish ornamentation. It is, however, an incontrovertible fact, and one proved to demonstration by Mr. Westwood's learning, labour, and researches, that a time when the pictorial art was almost extinct in Italy and Greece, and indeed scarcely existed in other parts of Europe--namely, from the fifth to the end of the eighth century
--a style of art had been originated, cultivated, and brought into a most marvellous state of perfection in Ireland absolutely distinct from that of any other part of the civilized world; and which being carried abroad by Irish and Saxon missionaries was adopted and imitated in the schools of Charlemagne, and in all the other great schools and monasteries founded by them upon the Conthent.
In the middle of the ninth century the influence of the artists of Germany reacted on the productions of England, and in consequence of the more frequent communications of learned men with Rome, classical models began to he adopted, floral decorations were introduced, and figures in the Byzanthe style. With these the Irish ornamentation was combined, principally in the framework of the design. Then it gradually disappeared from England, where it was replaced by Franco-Saxon and Teutonic art; so that after the tenth century Mr. Westwood has not found any Anglo-Saxon manuscript executed in the Lindisfarne or Irish style. But it remained for several centuries longer in use in Ireland, though the ornamental details exhibit little of the extreme delicacy of the earlier productions. With reference to these, Mr. Digby Wyatt observes that, in delicacy of handling and minute hut faultless execution, the whole range of palaeography offers nothing comparable to the early Irish manuscripts, especially "The Book of Kells," the most marvellous of them all. One cannot wonder, therefore, that Giraldus Cambrensis, when over in Ireland in the reign of Henry II., on being shown an illuminated Irish manuscript, exclaimed, "This is more like the work of angels than of men!"
The peculiarities which chraracterize true Celtic art, whether in stone, metal work, or manuscript illumination, consist in the excessive and minute elaborations of intricate ornamental details, such as the spirals, the interlaced ribands, and the entwined serpents and other animal forms, so familiar to the students of our national art treasures in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy. These forms are invariably found in all Irish decoration. The initial letters and ornamentations of the ancient manuscripts are reproduced in the gigantic stone crosses and the more delicate metal work of the shrines and reliquaries; and from this identity of ornamentation the age can be determined of all art monuments or remains, and objects readily classified as cotemporaneous. The Irish adhered with wonderful fidelity to their peculiar art ideas for at least eight hundred years; and while the Saxons coquetted with Frankish art, and finally gave themselves up wholly to Norman influence, the Irish continued their exclusive devotion to the ancient and national Celtic type. Intensely national, indeed, were those early artists; they gave ideas to the world, but received none in exchange. In their pictures Goliath appears as an Irish warrior, and David bears an Irish harp in his hands; while our Lord Himself, in one of the Irish sculptures, is represented wearing the Irish dress. When the nation fell under Norman sway in the twelfth century, Norman ideas naturally became triumphant; but everything that is most beautiful and interesting in antique Irish art belongs to the pre-Norman period--the gold ornaments, the gorgeous manuscripts, such as the Gospels of Durrow and of Kells; the grandest of the sculptured crosses, Cormac's Chapel, that architectural gem of Western Europe; the richly decorated shrines, such as that of St. Monchan, "the most important ancient shrine now in existence in these islands," Mr. Westwood states; and specially interesting to us Irish, from the recorded fact that it was covered with pure gold by Roderick O'Connor, the last king of Ireland, and was, as the Annals state, the most beautiful piece of art ever made in Erin. All these evidences of high cultivation and artistic skill were in existence long before the Norman adventurers set foot on our shores. Irish art, however, died out with Irish Nationality; and in two centuries or. so, after the Norman Conquest, it ceased to exist, and was replaced by the pseudo-Roman or Irish Romanesque style. Irish art can be easily traced throughout the Conthent by the peculiar ornamentation which characterized it; and wherever, amongst the early manuscripts in foreign libraries, one is found surpassing all the rest in the singular beauty and firmness of the writing, and the exquisite delicacy of the minute and elaborate illuminations, there at once an Irish hand is recognized as worker, or an Irish intellect as teacher. The same symbols and ideas run through all of them--there are the same strange, elongated, contorted, intertwined figures; the same rich mosaics of interlaced lines--so minute, so delicate, so rich in brilliant colours, that the border of the page seems powdered with crushed jewels. There is something almost melancholy in this devotion to a species of art in which there was nothing to stimulate the feelings or to warm the heart. No representation of nature's glories in tree or flower, or the, splendour of human beauty; the artist's aim being rather, it would seem, to kill the human in him, by forcing his genius to work only on the cold abstractions of spirals and curves, and endless geometrical involutions, and the infinite monotony of those interlaced lines, still coiling on, for ever and ever, through the centuries, like the windings of the serpent of evil, which they were meant to symbolize, through the successive generations of our fated humanity. Truly, these artists offered up the sacrifice of love. Their lives and the labour of their lives were given humbly, silently, reverently to God, and the glory of God's Word. They had no other aim in life, and when the work was done, a work so beautiful that even now the world cannot equal it, there was no vainglorious boast of himself came from the lips of the artist worker, but the manuscript ends with some simple devotional words, his name, and the desire to be remembered as the writer, like the orate pro me on the ancient tombstones; this was all he asked or hoped for in return for the years of youth and life he had incarnated in the illuminated pages of the Gospels. For in those early ages art had no existence save in union with religion. Humanity brought together all its most precious ointments to pour upon the feet of Jesus. In Ireland especially--the Island of Saints--whatever genius could devise or the hand of the artist could execute was lavished upon some work that would recall the presence of God to the people, stimulate His worship, or make known His word; upon the Psalters, the Gospels, the crosses, the costly shrines, the jewelled cases for a saint's relics, the golden covers for the holy books. But nothing of that period has come down to us that shows a luxury in domestic life. The Word of God was shrined in gold, made rich with gems and enamels, but the people lived their old simple life in their old rude huts; and even the kings gave their wealth, not to erect palaces, but to build churches, to endow abbeys, to help the cause of God, and speed the holy men who were His ministers, in their crusade against evil, ignorance and darkness.
It is no idle boast to say that the Irish were the teachers of Europe from the seventh to the tenth century in art and religion. Mr. Westwood has visited all the great libraries of England and the Conthent and found abundant evidence that Irish art, or Hiberno-Saxon art, was diffused over Europe during that period. The Greek and Latin manuscripts are not illuminated, but are adorned with intercalated pictures; Irish art differs from them in many respects amongst others, in having the figures and rich ornamentations printed on the leaves and borders of the book itself. He has given facsimiles from Irish manuscripts now existing in the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Lichfield, Salisbury, Lambeth, the British Museum, and other places; and, passing to the Conthent, has laid under contribution the great libraries of Paris, Rouen, Boulogne, St. Gall, Milan, Rome, Munich, Darmstadt, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and even St. Petersburg, and thus proved the excellence to which Irish artists, or Saxon artiste educated in Irish schools, attained more than a thousand years ago. Nor is it strange that Ireland should have been the teacher, considering its early Christianity, which had made some progress amongst the people even in St. Jerome's time; a little later amongst the Britons; but at the end of the sixth century Augusthe and his monks found the stolid Anglo-Saxons still in the bonds of their ancient paganism and Wodenism. The Celtic race received the Christian faith gladly as early as the fourth century, but it was a difficult matter to bring light to the Saxon soul. It has at all times proved itself rather opaque in nature. The Saxon tribes of Germany did not renounce their idols till forced to it by the strong coercive power and keen sword of Charlemagne, in the latter half of the eighth century.
With Christianity came to Ireland the knowledge of letters; at least no older inscription has been found than that on the pillar stone of Lugnadon, St. Patrick's nephew, which may still be seen beside the ruin of St. Patrick's oratory in one of the beautiful islands of Lough Corrib; [a] and the oldest manuscript existing in Ireland is the Book of Armagh, a copy of St. Jerome's Latin version of the Gospels written in the old Roman letters, and very valuable for the beauty of the writing and the various drawings it contains. Learning was at once consecrated to the service of God in those early days, and to multiply copies of the Gospels was the praiseworthy and devout task of the first great teachers and missionaries. The Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells, both of the early part of the sixth century, are believed to be the work of St. Columba himself. The latter, the Book of Kells, has filled all critics with wonder and admiration. It is more decorated tiran any existing copy of the Gospels, and is pronounced by learned authorities to be "the most beautiful manuscript in existence of so early a date, and the most magnificent specimen of penmanship and illumination in the Western World." They are both written in the Latin uncial character, common to Europe at the time; and here it may be noticed, in passing, that the so-called Irish alphabet is simply the Latin alphabet modified by the first missionaries to suit the Irish sounds, as Ulphila, the apostle of the Goths, invented an alphabet of mingled Greek and Latin characters, in order to enable him to make his translation of the Gospels into Gothic; and as the Greek missionaries invented the Russian alphabet, which is a modified form of the Greek, for a like purpose. That the Irish should retain the old form of the Latin letters, while most of the other nations of Europe have discarded it, is to be regretted, as nothing would facilitate the study of Irish so much at the present day, when one has so little leisure to spell out with much painful endeavour the barbarous symbols of a bygone age, as the adoption of the modern English alphabet. The first Irish book that was ever printed appeared in 1571, and is now in the Bodleian Library. It is a catechism of Irish grammar, and the Irish alphabet has suffered no modification or improvement since. It was about the end of the sixth century that the fame of Irish learning and the skill of Irish artists began to extend to England, and from thence to the Continent; and Irish scribes were employed to make copies of the Gospels and teach the splendid art of illumination in the English monasteries. From that period till the end of the ninth century the Irish were a power in Europe from their learning and piety--eminent in Greek as well as Latin, and the great teachers of scholastic theology to the Christian world. The Gospels of Lindisfarne, executed by monks of lona in the seventin century, and now "the glory of the British Museum," form a most important element in the early history of Celtic art, as this book seems to have been the principal model for succeeding artists.
In the splendid folio copy of the Gospels at Copenhnagen of the tenth century, supposed to have been brought to Denmark by King Canute, the figure of St. Matthew seated, whiile another saint draws back a curtain, is copied from the Gospels of Lindisfarne, while the border is in the tenth century style. The Gospels of St. Chad, now in Lichfield Library, are in the Irish style of the eighth century, and are very noticeable as having marginal notes in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and ancient British, the latter being the oldest specimen of the ancient British language now in existence. The illuminations also are copied from the Lindisfarne book. St. Chad, it is known, was educated in Ireland, in the school of St. Finian. There are Irish Gospels at Duriram of the eighth century. The Gospels of Mac-Regal are at Oxford, and the Gospels of Mac-Duran, the smallest and most beautiful known, are in the Archbishop's palace at Lambeth. As Saxon art progressed and became influenced by Roman models, the Irish scribes were chiefly employed wherever elegance, harmony of colour, and extreme delicacy of touch were particularly requisite, as in the borders and initial letters. Thus, the Psalter of St. Augustine, said to be from Rome, and winch resembles in style the manuscript Virgil of the fifth century, in the Vatican, is framed in pure Celtic alt. On the Continent, also, the borders of the great manuscripts were generally confined to Irish hands. A Latin copy of the Gospels at Treves, evidently produced by one of the establishments founded by the Irish upon the Rhine, is remarkable for a combination of Celtic, Teutonic, and FrancoByzantine art. The borders are Irish while the figures are Byzantine. These illuminated borders have the glitter and radiance of a setting of jewels, and are thus admirably suited to fulfil the true object of all ornamentation, which Mr. Ruskin defines as being "beautiful in its place, and perfect in its adaptation to the purpose for winch it was employed."
In the sixth century St. Gall, born in Ireland, accompanied St. Columbanus to the Continent, and founded the monastery in Switzerland that bears iris name. Here many interesting manuscripts and fragments are still preserved, remarkable for the old Irish marginal notes to the Latin text. These are considered by philologists of such importance that thirteen quarto plates and facsimile from them are given by Dr. Ferdinand Keller in the Zurich Society's Transactions. An interesting relic of an Irish saint is also preserved in the Cathedral of Wurtzburg--a copy of the Gospels of St. Kilian, martyred in 689, and which was found stained with his blood on opening his tomb about fifty years after.
Thus, the Irish can be tracked, as it were, across Europe by their illuminated footsteps. They were emphatically the witnesses of God, the light-bearers through the dark ages, and above all, the faithful guardians and preservers of God's sacred Word. A hundred years before Alfred came to Ireland to be educated, and went back to civilize his native country by the knowledge he had. acquired there, the Christian schools of Germany, under the direction of Irishmen,had been founded by Charlemagne. Through France, along the Rhine, through Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, the Irish missionaries taught and worked, founding schools and monasteries, and illuminating by their learning the darkest pages of European history. One of the great treasures of the Imperial Library of Paris is a beautiful Irish copy of the Latin Gospels. The College of St. Isidore, at Rome, possesses many Irish manuscripts--one of them is a Psalter, folio size, written throughout in letters a quarter of an inch long, and which is considered to be the finest of the later works of the Irish school. The celebrated Golden Gospels of Stockholm are of Hiberno-Saxon art of the ninth century. This book has a singular history. It was stolen from England, and disappeared for ages, but finally was discovered at Mantua in the seventeenth century, and purchased for the Royal Library at Stockholm. St. Petersburg also possesses a highly illuminated copy of the Gospels, which was taken from France at the time of the great Revolution, and found its way to the far North. It is a perfect and beautiful specimen of the Irish style of the eight century, and the initial letters can only be compared to those of the Book of Kells. All these Irish manuscript Gospels are, without exception, copies of St. Jerome's Latin version. No Irish translation of the Gospels has ever been found. Learning was evidently considered a sacred thing, indispensable for the priesthood, but not necessary for the masses; yet it seems strange that while the learned and pious Irish saints and missionaries were devoting their lives to multiplying copies of the Gospels for other nations, and disseminating them over Europe, they never thought of giving the people of their own land the Word of God to read in their own native tongue. The leading Teutonic races, on the contrary, with their free spirit, were not satisfied with accepting the doctrines of the faith, simply as an act of obedience to their teachers. They demanded the right of private judgment, the exercise of individual reason, and the Gospels were translated into Gothic as early as the fourth century by Bishop Ulphila for the use of the Gothic nation.
This remarkable book, called the "Codex Argenteus," is now in the Royal Library of Upsala, having, after many dangers and vicissitudes, at last found its way to the people who hold themselves the true descendants of the Goths, and whose king still bears the proud title of "King of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals;" and an edition of it, with annotations, has been published by the learned Professor Andreas Uppstrom, of Upsala.
Towards the close of the tenth century the Frankish style of ornamentation, a blending of the classical and the Byzantine, had almost entirely superseded the beautiful and delicate Celtic art both in England and on the Continent, and about the fifteenth century it disappeared even from our own Ireland, the country of its origin. The gorgeous missals and illuminated Gospels, instinct with life, genius, holy reverence, and patient love, were destined to be replaced soon after by the dull mechanism of print; while Protestantism used all its new-found strength to destroy that innate tendency of our nature which seeks to manifest religious fervour, faith, and zeal by costly offerings and sacrifices. The golden-bordered holy books, the sculptured crosses, the jewelled shrines were crushed under the heel of Cromwell's troopers; the majestic and beautiful abbeys were desecrated and cast down to ruin, while beside them rose the mean and ugly structures of the Reformed faith, as if the annihilation of all beauty were then considered to be the most acceptable homage which man could offer to the God who created all beauty, and fitted the human soul to enjoy and manifest the spiritual, mystic, and eternal loveliness of form, and colour, and symmetry.
Since that mournful period when the conquering iconoclasts cast down the temples and crushed the spirit of our people, there has been no revival of art in Ireland. It is not wonderful, therefore, that we cling with so much of fond, though sad, admiration to the beautiful memorials of the past, and welcome with warm appreciation the efforts of able, learned and distinguished men to illustrate and preserve them, as in this splendid and costly book which Mr. Westwood has contributed to Celtic art.
[a] See Sir William Wilde's work," Lough Corrib: its Shores and Islands," where a drawing of this inscription is given.

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