Insular Art: Insular Style of Manuscript Illumination

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

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

In terms of the level of intricacies and pure magnificence, manuscript illumination was the standout insular art form in early Irish society. What are the key elements of this art form that help you identify an early Irish manuscript? What are some of the prominent examples of this art form that have survived the ravages of time?

A carpet page with intricate checkered geometric patterns all across the page, with a cross occupying the entire middle   part of the page filled with kaleidoscopic geometric patterns.
The abstract decoration was an important element of the insular style, and entire pages, called carpet pages, were given over to these interwoven motifs, like an intricate Persian rug. (Image: Meister des Book of Lindisfarne / Public domain)

It’s important to remember that manuscripts, like reliquaries or brooches or liturgical vessels, came in all different levels of ornamentation. Some were clearly very basic, intended for practical use. They may have contained few if any illustrations.

What we tend to focus on, though, are the most elaborately decorated manuscripts that come from the scriptoria (or writing rooms) of the richest religious houses. They have survived disproportionately because they are so beautiful and they were treated with special care over the centuries. So, don’t think every Irish manuscript looked like the Book of Kells. The Irish were very well aware of how exceptional the Book of Kells was.

The interesting thing about manuscript illumination is that you see motifs that are very similar to what you see with metalworking, but it’s a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional process. It’s as if the manuscripts are really trying to represent objects and motifs that people would have been familiar with from their daily experiences.

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Basic Elements of Manuscript Illumination

The highpoint of the insular style with regard to manuscripts occupied a pretty narrow range in time, roughly from the late seventh to the early ninth century, so not more than about 150 years. We’re not sure exactly why the style tended to fade away. There are theories, but we can’t be certain.

In all of these manuscripts, though, you will see the same basic elements: highly intricate and abstract interlace (that is, the figures are woven in and out of each other); the use of various animals, both real and imagined, as repeated decorative motifs; and highly stylized figures, with an emphasis on the two-dimensionality of the flat plane. The figures typically have no appearance of depth.

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Contrasting Styles in Canterbury Codex and Book of Durrow

I want to illustrate this last point by talking about two manuscripts side by side, each depicting the same subject, one of which was produced under the straight-up continental influence, the other in the insular style. We can do this because there were only a few kinds of manuscripts that routinely got this kind of deluxe illustration, and they tended to depict the same themes.

For example, a book of the four Gospels would often have portraits of each of the four evangelists. An example of the continental style would be the so-called Canterbury Codex Aureus or Golden Book, and it’s a depiction of the evangelist, Saint Matthew.

A page from the Book of Durrow showing an intricate initial decoration of the letter N, with the rest of the text dwarfing   in comparison.
Insular style manuscripts like the Book of Durrow contained more abstract, two-dimensional decorations than the manuscripts like the Canterbury Codex that were produced under continental influence. (Image: Dsmdgold/Public domain)

It dates from the mid-eighth century, probably at Canterbury, and it was modeled on some of the books that went to Canterbury as part of the original mission of Saint Augustine to preach to the Anglo-Saxons in the late-sixth and early-seventh centuries. Incidentally, this manuscript was captured by the Vikings in the late ninth century and held for ransom, which was paid; this is an indication of how important and how valuable these books were.

The depiction of Saint Matthew in the Canterbury Codex is somewhat naturalistic and three-dimensional; the evangelist’s feet peek out from under his robes, and they have realistic-looking toes. You also get a sense from looking at his face that a real human being is being represented.

If you look at an insular manuscript like the Book of Durrow, though, here Saint Matthew looks two-dimensional; his feet are represented as merely outlined shapes, and they are both pointing in the same direction. He doesn’t look like a real person at all. Instead, he looks almost more like an excuse for all of the elaborate interlace decoration on his robe.

The Codex Aureus Saint Matthew is anchored in the real world because he is framed by architectural elements, while the Book of Durrow Saint Matthew is framed only by the highly abstract borders of the page.

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Carpet Pages in Manuscripts

This abstract decoration was so important to the insular style that we see entire pages given over to these interwoven motifs. We call these pages ‘carpet pages’, and they were based on eastern Mediterranean models, and they do seem to carpet the page like an intricate Persian rug, only the motifs are insular.

Some carpet pages were entirely abstract, but many carpet pages worked the cross into the pattern, in various forms. For example, the Book of Kells includes a carpet page that has a cross with two arms; the emphasis here is clearly on bilateral symmetry.

The amazing thing about these carpet pages is not just how intricate they are, but how accurate they are. If you follow the threads through on a carpet page, you will find that the artist never drops a stitch, so to speak. The interlace works all across the page.

This is true for the drawings of animals also. Each animal was carefully drawn to a standard pattern that could be repeated over and over across the carpet page. And we know they did these one at a time, not with a stencil or anything like that, because scholars have examined them very carefully, and there are tiny, tiny variations between them, almost invisible to the casual viewer.

There is a truly astonishing uniformity to the animals, all drawn one by one, but to a model well worked out in advance. Just imagine the calculations required to make sure that they ended up with just the right number of strange beasts of a certain height.

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Decoration of Textual Passages

So far I have mostly discussed pages that don’t contain much text, but another prominent place for decoration was at the beginning of textual passages. A tradition started very early in decorating the first letter of a new section of the text, or sometimes the first few letters.

A decorated initial depicting geometric patterns in the center of the letter, with a serpent extending its head on the   left.
The use of decorated initials was an important element of Irish manuscript illumination, which grew in prominence over the years, and in some cases, entire pages were dedicated to them. (Image: Book of Kells / Public domain)

You might have a very highly decorated initial, such as the Chi-Rho at the beginning of the name ‘Christ’ at the start of the Gospel of Matthew, and then the rest of the text on the page would follow using scripts of decreasing size and complexity. You might have capital letters followed by a less formal script called uncial, then a still less formal script, and so on, with the letters getting smaller and smaller.

This is called the hierarchy of scripts, and these different scripts could also be used for headings of varying levels of importance. It was very hard to get the spacing right, and this demonstrates the very careful planning that had to go into the design of every page of a manuscript of this kind. It took a while to reach the complexity of a manuscript like, say, the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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The Book of Kells

The use of decorated initials developed over time. In the earliest manuscripts, the initials were quite small, but they got bigger and bigger, crowding out more and more of the subsequent text, until they conquered the page and became almost like carpet pages themselves, as in the famous incarnation initial from the Book of Kells. On this page, there is nothing other than the Chi-Rho, and it’s one of the most spectacular pages in all of the insular art.

Of course, the relationship between text and illustration was not always as arbitrary as in the decorated initials. There were also some depictions of subjects from the text itself.  For example, there is a wonderful depiction in the Book of Kells of the temptation of Christ.

In the picture, Christ is pictured on top of a structure that could be a temple, and below him and to his right is the devil, who looks rather skinny and pathetic standing next to the majestic Christ.

The intriguing thing about this illustration, though, is how closely related it is to contemporary metalwork. If we compare the Book of Kells illustration to the Emly shrine, we see that the structure on which Christ is depicted is shaped just like the shrine, even if the decoration is different. So clearly, the manuscript tradition and the metalwork tradition are using very much the same store of images and motifs.

Common Questions about Manuscript Illumination and Book of Kells

Q: What was the purpose of illuminated manuscripts?

Illuminated manuscripts from early Irish society were mainly religious texts that contained a combination of texts and decorative elements or designs. The manuscripts came in all different levels of ornamentation. Some were clearly very basic, intended for practical use, with few if any illustrations. Then there are the more elaborately decorated manuscripts that come from the scriptoria (or writing rooms) of the richest religious houses.

Q: What does an illuminated manuscript look like?

Illuminated manuscripts from early Irish society contained handwritten text along with, highly intricate and abstract interlace, decorative motifs of animal figures – both real and imagined, and highly stylized figures, with an emphasis on the two-dimensionality of the flat plane. The figures typically have no appearance of depth.

Q: What is a cross carpet page?

One of the key markers of the insular style of art was carpet pages, which are entire pages dedicated to interwoven motifs. These were based on eastern Mediterranean models, and they do seem to carpet the page like an intricate Persian rug, only the motifs are insular. While some carpet pages were entirely abstract, most carpet pages worked the cross into the pattern, in various forms. The Book of Kells is the best example of this.

Q: Why is the Book of Kells famous?

The Book of Kells is perhaps the finest example of insular art from early Irish society. It contains some of the best examples of insular elements like the use of decorated initials and spectacular illustrations of text, such as the incarnation initial and the wonderful depiction of the temptation of Christ, respectively.

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