How The Ancient Irish Excelled In Art

The old Irish people became wonderfully skilful in some branches of Art;

and many specimens of their handiwork still remain--preserved through the

wreck of ages--which exceed in beauty of design and in perfection of

execution all works of the kind done by the artists of other nations.

While Art was cultivated in several branches, the Irish attained more

skill in Ornamental Penwork than in any other. They took special

and used their utmost efforts, in ornamenting religious and devotional

books, especially the Gospels and other parts of the Holy Scripture; for

they justly considered that to beautify the sacred writings was one way of

honouring and glorifying God.

The special Irish style of pen ornamentation was developed by successive

generations of artists, who brought it to marvellous perfection. Its most

marked feature is interlaced work formed by bands and ribbons, which are

curved and twisted and interwoven in the most intricate way, something

like basket-work infinitely varied in pattern. Here and there among the

complicated designs may be seen strange half-formed faces of animals, and

sometimes human faces, or full figures of men or of angels. But vegetable

forms are very rare.

What most astonishes a person examining this work is the amazing variety

and minuteness of the patterns, and the perfect smoothness and evenness of

the curves, as if they had been traced by compasses or some other fine

instruments; though they were all drawn by the unaided hand. The scribes

usually made the capital letters very large, so as sometimes to fill

almost an entire page; and on these they exerted their utmost skill. They

painted the open spaces of the letters and ornaments in brilliant colours:

and in this art--an art usually designated 'Illumination'--the old Irish

scribes also excelled.

Several manuscript-books, ornamented in this manner, have been preserved,

of which it will be sufficient to mention one here--The Book of Kells, now

in Trinity College, Dublin, though there are several others almost equally

beautiful. It is a copy of the Four Gospels in Latin, written on vellum in

the seventh or eighth century. Miss Margaret Stokes, of Dublin, a skilled

artist and a great judge of such matters, who has carefully examined this

book, thus speaks of it:--"No effort hitherto made to transcribe any one

page of this book has the perfection of execution and rich harmony of

colour which belongs to this wonderful book. It is no exaggeration to say

that, as with the microscopic works of nature, the stronger the magnifying

power brought to bear upon it, the more is this perfection seen. No single

false interlacement or uneven curve in the spirals, no faint trace of a

trembling hand or wandering thought can be detected. This is the very

passion of labour and devotion, and thus did the Irish scribe work to

glorify his book."

Professor Westwood, of Oxford--an English gentleman--who examined the best

specimens of penwork all over Europe, speaks even more strongly. "The Book

of Kells," he says, "is the most astonishing book of the Four Gospels

which exists in the world. How men could have had eyes and tools to work

out the designs, I am sure I, with all the skill and knowledge in such

kind of work which I have been exercising for the last fifty years, cannot

conceive. I know pretty well all the libraries in Europe where such books

as this occur, but there is no such book in any of them. There is nothing

like it in all the books which were written for Charlemagne and his


There was a book like this, long since lost, in St. Brigit's convent of

Kildare, which was shown to the Welshman Giraldus Cambrensis more than

seven hundred years ago, and which so astonished him that he has recorded

a legend--to which he devotes a separate chapter of his book--that it was

written under the direction of an angel. He described it; and his

description would now exactly apply to the Book of Kells. But in those

times there were many such books. We can hardly be surprised at Giraldus's

legend; for whoever looks closely into some of the lovely pages of the

Book of Kells--even in the photographic reproductions--will be inclined to

wonder how any human head could have designed, or how any human hand could

have drawn them.

These beautiful books were all written by Christian artists. We do not

know if there was any attempt to ornament books in pagan times. But the

pagan Irish, long before the introduction of Christianity, practised art

of another kind--Metal-work--and attained great perfection in it. Those

old artists exercised their skill in making and ornamenting shields;

trumpets; swords with their hilts and scabbards; chariots; bridles;

brooches; gold gorgets or circlets for the neck; and so forth.

We can now judge of their handiwork for ourselves; for numerous beautiful

specimens are preserved in our museums. The most remarkable are what are

now commonly called 'Crescents,' of which we have many in the National

Museum, in Dublin. These are broad circlets of pure gold to be worn round

the neck, all covered over with ornamental designs. Both the general shape

and the designs were produced by hammering with a mallet and punches on

shaped solid moulds. The patterns and workmanship are astonishingly fine,

showing extraordinary skill in manipulation: they are indeed so

complicated and perfect that it is difficult to understand how they could

have been produced by mere handwork, with hammers, punches, and moulds.

Yet they could have been made in no other way.

We may see then that when St. Patrick arrived, in the fifth century, he

found the art of working in metals already highly developed. We know that

he kept, as part of his household, smiths, brasiers, goldsmiths, and other

artists, who were constantly employed in making crosses; crosiers;

chalices; bells; and such like.

On the score of obtaining skilled workmen there was no difficulty, for he

had plenty of pagan artists to choose from, who, on their conversion,

turned their skill to Christian work, and found little difficulty in

adapting their cunning fingers to new objects and to new forms of

ornamentation. So the primitive pagan artistic metal work was continued on

and improved in Christian times, and was brought to the highest perfection

in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The ornamentation was generally like

that used in manuscripts (p. 92).

Many of the beautiful objects made by those accomplished artists are now

preserved in museums; some of them will bear comparison with the best

works of the kind executed by artists of other countries; and a few might

be found to bear the palm from all.

The three objects that are usually brought forward as examples of the best

workmanship of the Irish Christian artists are the Cross of Cong, the

Ardagh Chalice, and the Tara Brooch, all of which may be seen in the

National Museum in Dublin: but there are many others in the same museum

almost equally beautiful. These three will be found pretty fully

described, with illustrations, in the two Social Histories of Ancient

Ireland. The Tara Brooch was shown some years ago in one of the great

London exhibitions, and drew the eyes of all visitors. One English writer,

who examined it and wrote an account of it, says that he found a

difficulty in conceiving how any fingers could have made it, and that it

looked more like the work of fairies than of a human artist.