How are Metalwork, Manuscript Illumination, and Stone Carving Connected?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

A closer study of the major art forms of the insular style in early Irish society provides evidence that they all share certain common elements. What could possibly be common between metalwork and manuscript illumination? And what about the connection between these and stone carvings? Let’s explore.

A high cross of Celtic cross in a green field with the ruins of an old stone building seen in the background.
We know less about early Irish stone carving because it has often suffered from exposure to the elements. (Image: Radoslaw Botev/Public domain)

How do we account for the close correspondence between the motifs and subjects depicted in metalwork and manuscript illumination in early Irish society?

It used to be thought that insular metalwork was copying the manuscript illustrations, but more recent work has argued that the manuscripts must be patterned on the metalwork, and this would make sense.

Metal objects were far more numerous and circulated far more readily than did manuscripts. The creators of the manuscripts were copying things that they had seen and handled themselves. But metal objects were themselves patterned on objects produced in an even more ubiquitous medium: textiles.

This connection may already seem obvious just in the name of one of the most common kinds of motifs in insular art, namely ‘interlace’. Insular art often looks as if it has been woven or stitched together, even though the manuscript paintings only exist in two dimensions.

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Importance of Clothing in Early Irish Society

It is important to keep in mind that in early Irish society, which didn’t place a strong emphasis on monumental building, one of the most important ways to display high social status was by the richness of what you wore on your body. We have already seen that about jewelry, which would seem obvious, but it was also true concerning clothing.

People who could produce high-quality textiles were very highly regarded in this society. The most prestigious garments were those that had been elaborately embroidered, almost always by women; in the Irish system of setting the rate of compensation to be paid for injuring people of different social and occupational status, the honor price of an embroideress was higher than that of a queen.

Unfortunately, textiles don’t survive very well in the Irish climate, so we don’t really know what these elaborately embroidered garments looked like, but given the very strong continuities between the motifs used in various art forms in insular art, we can certainly speculate that luxury textiles in the insular world were embroidered with motifs that are familiar to us from the great insular manuscripts. The elaborate embroidery that we see on, say, modern Irish dancing costumes may well represent a throwback to a genuine elite tradition from early Ireland.

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Stone Carving in Early Irish Society

A high cross with a nimbus at the center, intrictately designed panels featuring human figures from the top to the bottom,   and several tombstones visible in the background.
The most famous early Irish stone sculptures are the spectacular high crosses, with a characteristic nimbus or circle around the cross-point of the two shafts. (Image: Matteo Corti/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

It is much more difficult to work with stone carving. We know less about stone carving than we do about manuscripts or metalwork, because it has often suffered from exposure to the elements, and it can be harder to pin it down to precise dates than it is for manuscripts in particular.

It’s worth looking at stone carving, though, because even if you can’t date every item precisely, it is possible to trace the development of various forms in relative terms.

The earliest stone carvings that survive are simply inscriptions in a distinctive alphabet known as Ogham, in which the letters are formed by groups of horizontal or diagonal strokes on a central baseline, often formed from the side of a standing stone. These inscriptions, which date from the fourth to the sixth centuries, were mostly grave markers.

As Ireland became more and more Christianized, these stones developed into Christian gravestones, and Latin letters replaced Ogham. You can find these gravestones either standing upright or recumbent, lying on the ground.

For example, there is a grave slab from the important monastery of Clonmacnoise dating from the eighth century that is inscribed with a prayer for Tuathal the craftsman. The prayer is written to follow around the arms of the cross.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Evidence of a Common Thread in High Crosses

The most famous stone sculptures, of course, are the spectacular high crosses. The origins of the high crosses are disputed, as they seem to have evolved in Ireland and Britain virtually simultaneously in around the eighth century.

Remember that there were a lot of contacts back and forth between the two islands. These crosses have a characteristic nimbus or circle around the cross-point of the two shafts. This nimbus may have represented the celestial sphere, but it could also have had the practical function of helping to sustain the arms of the cross. This cross with a nimbus became enormously popular in the Gaelic revival movement of the nineteenth century when it was first called the ‘Celtic cross’.

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These crosses were the sites of the same kind of intricate interlace motifs as we see in the metalwork and manuscript illumination we have already looked at. Later, crosses began to depict Biblical figures, as in the Ahenny Cross from County Tipperary, which shows Adam naming the animals.

One of the most spectacular examples is the tenth century Cross of Scriptures from Clonmacnoise. At the center, you see the crucifixion of Jesus. At Clonmacnoise today the version you see outside on display is a copy; the original is too precious to be displayed outdoors, so you can see it only in the museum.

Common Questions about How Metalwork, Manuscript Illumination, and Stone Carving Are Connected

Q: What did the Irish Celts wear?

In early Irish society, one of the most important ways to display high social status was by the richness of what you wore on your body. This was true about jewelry, but it was also true about clothing. People who could produce high-quality textiles were very highly regarded in this society. The most prestigious garments were those that had been elaborately embroidered, almost always by women.

Q: Is the Celtic Cross Irish or Scottish?

The origins of the high crosses or Celtic crosses are disputed, as they seem to have evolved in Ireland and Britain virtually simultaneously in around the eighth century. Remember that there were a lot of contacts back and forth between the two islands.

Q: What does a cross with a circle mean?

The high crosses or Celtic crosses have a characteristic nimbus or circle around the cross-point of the two shafts. This nimbus may have represented the celestial sphere, but it could also have had the practical function of helping to sustain the arms of the cross.

Q: What is Clonmacnoise famous for?

One of the most spectacular examples of high crosses or Celtic crosses can be seen at Clonmacnoise. The tenth-century Cross of Scriptures from Clonmacnoise features the crucifixion of Jesus at the center. At Clonmacnoise today, the version you see outside on display is a copy; the original is too precious to be displayed outdoors, so you can see it only in the museum.

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