This section is from the book "Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland", by Jane Francesca Wilde. Also available from Amazon: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland.
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 earliest 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 detail, 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.
Thè 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 and colleges; and numerous examples of skilled Irish work arei still existing in Continental Libraries, where they are held as amongst the most sacred of the national treasures. For a full and comprehensive illustration of this 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 Continental 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 Byzantine 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 inconvertible 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 origi-nated, 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 Continent.
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 be adopted, floral decorations were introduced, and figures in the Byzantine 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. ⅝ 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 but 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 characterize 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 ribbands, 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 Kolls ; 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 Continent 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 representations 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 lie 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.