Insular Art: Ireland's Golden Age

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  • 0:06 Ireland's Unique Place…
  • 1:58 Christianity's Impact…
  • 3:28 Roots of Insular Art
  • 4:00 Stone Crosses
  • 5:27 Illuminated Manuscripts
  • 9:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the Insular Art of Ireland's Golden Age. It examines the unique cultural and religious factors that made Ireland the religious and cultural leader of Northern Europe. It then examines the roots of Insular art in the interlacing bands of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. Finally, we explore how those bands found their way onto stone crosses and manuscript illuminations.

Ireland's Unique Place in Western History

The island of Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire
Ireland Map

The name 'Mediterranean' means the center of the world, and for centuries, the Mediterranean earned this name. Western art, architecture, literature and culture all developed along the shores of the Mediterranean. This cultural complex, which we know today as classical civilization, reached its greatest extent within the Roman Empire, which spanned from Britain to Egypt and beyond. With the collapse of the Roman Empire, classical civilization retreated to the East, where it endured for another thousand years. As Germanic tribes poured into the West, the light of classical Mediterranean civilization was snuffed out, ushering in a new dark age.

Yet, much of Europe still found itself living in the shadow of its Roman past. When people thought of civilization, they thought of Rome. So when the barbarians of the West made their first steps toward civilization, they tried, with questionable success, to emulate their Roman predecessors. Kind of like a little girl trying on mommy's clothes and makeup. Yet, one little island, at the furthest northwest corner of Europe, had a different approach to civilization. That island was Ireland. Ireland was never a part of the Roman Empire. It is perhaps for this reason that the Irish did not slavishly copy Roman culture, but instead, invented a culture all their own. While the rest of Western Europe plunged into a dark age, Ireland experienced a golden age, creating a unique art and culture whose impacts can still be felt today. Art historians refer to the art of this Irish Golden Age as Insular art.

Christianity's Impact on Insular Art

Ireland's Golden Age is closely tied with the spread of Christianity. As Angles and Saxons began colonizing the old Roman province of Brittania, Christians living in Britain fled to the relative safety of Ireland. These Christians found themselves isolated from their neighbors on the mainland and essentially cut off from the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. This isolation, combined with the mostly agrarian society of Ireland, resulted in a very different form of Christianity. Instead of establishing a centralized hierarchy, like the Roman Catholic Church, Irish Christians established monasteries. Monasticism got an early start in Ireland, and monasteries began springing up across the countryside. The Irish did not just build monasteries in Ireland. They sent missionaries to England to begin reconverting their heathen neighbors. From there they crossed the channels, accelerating the conversion of France, Germany and the Netherlands and establishing monasteries from Poitiers to Vienna. These monasteries became centers of art and learning, producing art of unprecedented complexity, like the Book of Kells, and great scholars, like the Venerable Bede. Over time, Ireland became the cultural and religious leader of Northwestern Europe. So let us look at some of the art of this Irish Golden Age.

Example of the famous stone crosses found in Ireland
Ruthwell Cross

Roots of Insular Art

Insular art has its roots in Anglo-Saxon metalwork. This art is easily identified by its characteristic interlacing bands. We can see examples of this style in the grave goods of Dark Age graveyards, like this helmet, this buckle and this lovely purse lid. During the Irish Golden Age, these interlacing bands found their way into new art forms, using mediums other than metal.

Stone Crosses

Perhaps the most famous of these new arts are the stone crosses that dot the British Isles. Standing stones were nothing new for these lands. People had been standing stones on end for thousands of years and carving them for at least a few centuries. The Picts of Scotland were big fans of carving stone, and it seems likely that Irish Christians drew inspiration from these Pictish stones.

With the spread of Irish Christianity, people began carving crosses into stone. The loose whorls and swirls of the Pictish stones were replaced with the tight interlacing bands of Anglo-Saxon metalwork. As techniques and tools improved, people started getting more ambitious. Instead of just carving a relief of a cross into stone, they would sculpt a cross out of stone. They called these stone crosses 'high crosses.' The most famous examples of these high crosses are the Bewcastle High Cross, sculpted sometime in the seventh century (which unfortunately has lost its crosspiece), and the Ruthwell High Cross, sculpted as much as a century later. This distinctive style of stone carving would spread across the channel, and its echoes can be seen in the rich architecture of the Gothic Age and the busy exuberance of Rococo.

Illuminated Manuscripts

As Irish sculptors were busy setting up stone crosses across the islands, Irish scribes were pioneering new advances in the art of illumination. Illumination, or the illustration of manuscripts, had been around for a while. Early Christian scribes used illumination to illustrate Bibles, like this scene from the Vienna Genesis. Manuscript illumination reached new levels of refinement in Ireland. The interlacing bands of Anglo-Saxon metalwork found breathtaking expression in the illuminations of the Irish Golden Age. We can see the development of this art form in three famous illuminated Bibles: the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.

The Lindisfarne Gospels depicted the apostles as people
Lindisfarne Gospels

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