The Art of the Celtic Scribe

When Saint Patrick and his missionaries first brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, the Irish had no useful written language.  Ogham, an early system of slashes and dots, was used to inscribe names on standing stones and gravesites. But as the chieftains and their clans were largely illiterate, there were few who could write even Ogham.

With Patrick's introduction of books along with Christianity, the Irish received the gift of the Latin language and the Roman alphabet. As the Church needed priests and monks who could read, education as well as religious training became of paramount importance. Natural lovers of poetry and storytelling, the newly literate Irish monks read everything they could find, and eventually even adapted the new alphabet for their native Gaelic tongues, finally writing down their ancient myths and legends which had been passed down by word of mouth for generations. 

From the sixth through the eighth century, monasteries such as Iona, Kildare, Durrow, Clonmacnois, Clonfert, Kells and Monasterboice had become great centers of learning and Ireland was in its Golden Age. The abbot or abbess (yes, women held monastic offices in the Celtic church) had more power than a bishop and ruled almost as mayor of a small city. Which in fact the monasteries were: the only civilization to be found, a chain of communities precariously strung along the coasts, linked to each other in a motherhouse system. Within their protective walls peace, prayer, writing, study, and culture could thrive. In Europe however, life was now radically different.

As the Roman Empire collapsed into barbarism on the mainland, civil and church authority broke down. Cities were sacked, churches burned. Men of learning took flight; scholars seeking to escape the madness landed in peaceful Ireland, bearing their precious books. At the monasteries, the refugees received food and lodging free of charge. Many stayed on, loaning their books to the libraries of the monks, who as lovers of learning gratefully copied even secular Greek and Roman works along with the Christian texts.

And so while the great libraries of Europe fed the bonfires of barbarians, the fate of Western civilization rested on the shoulders of the humble Irish monks who labored over their writing tables and saved for posterity the classic works of Greece and Rome. Had they not, twelve centuries worth of writers such as Plato, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles and Cicero would today be only names to us...lost forever in the fires of ignorance.

Above all else, the new Church needed books to educate their flock of converts. And in the early medieval period, there were no printing presses . . . each book had to be made by hand, and copied out page by page by individual calligraphers. Each book was thus unique, precious and no two copies alike. At the newly established monasteries hugging the coastline young scribes worked from dawn till dusk, preparing pigments and animal skins for the scribe's quill pen.

Detail from EXILE

Detail from EXILE

In order to create a finished book, the monks had to use what was available. Paper being then unknown, and lacking papyrus reeds in the northern climate, animal skins were their only source of writing material. Known as vellum if taken from cattle and parchment if from sheep, the skins were covered in lime to remove the hair, cleaned, scraped, stretched onto wooden frames, dried, sanded smooth on both sides and trimmed into large sheets. Four to eight of these would be stacked and folded in half to make from eight to sixteen pages. After the calligraphers had finished copying the text, the monks would then gather these stacks and bind them together into a finished book. The great decorated pages took so long to complete that they would often be done on separate sheets which were inserted into the book at the time of the final binding.

The primary books copied in the monasteries were the Gospels and other books of the Bible, and as holy scripture, they had to be made beautiful. As the centuries passed, the monks continually outdid themselves, creating highly complex decorated pages to accompany the opening words of the Gospel texts. The great illuminated pages of Kells and Lindisfarne often required hundreds of hours to complete. The page size was small, usually only 11 by 14 inches (28x36 cm), and the details are often so miniscule in scale that it becomes obvious that these works were meant for the eye of God, not man. The finest details were likely worked out on a larger scale using a wax tablet as a sketchpad, then redrawn at miniature size and transferred into their panels on the finished page, usually by the master scribe/illuminator himself. 

 Often several artists and calligraphers would be at work on the same book. While the scribes copied the undecorated basic text, the master scribe could be found directing the younger monks, or bent over his own table, transferring his designs onto the half-finished page. Novice scribes most often performed the mundane tasks of preparing vellum, cutting goose quill pens, making brushes, or grinding pigments and mixing paints. The more accomplished apprentice would be allowed to carefully paint in the colors, or to lay gold leaf under his master's watchful eye. As his skills advanced, he might eventually be given permission to design a minor decorated page of his own.

Other monks would be busy tooling designs into the leather cover of the book, or polishing cut gems which would be placed into the designs. Occasionally silver or gold was used to create a bookplate for the cover, and jewels would be affixed to this as well. The use of gold, silver and jewels was usually reserved for the holiest books, the Four Gospels. The largest and most finely decorated of these, such as the Book of Kells (c.800 AD), the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.698 AD), and the Book of Durrow (c.600-650 AD), were almost certainly meant to be displayed on the altar, or carried opened in solemn high processions so that the people could see the holy words, gloriously decorated with the familiar symbols of their old religion, now in service of the Christian God.

It would seem the monks and artists created their works on such a small scale for the eye of God, not man. This is also why they were so perfectly executed...God would see even the tiniest flaw. For the Celtic monk of the eighth century, the very act of writing or illuminating a manuscript page with brush and quill pen was a prayer itself... not performed with lips and tongue but with hand and eye. This is a common prayer-meditation practice, which is still to this day performed by the faithful in many religious traditions. The tribes of the American southwest create symbolic sand-paintings, as do the monks of Tibetan Buddhism, who produce intricate sand mandalas which are soon after ritually destroyed and the sand sprinkled into the nearest river or stream. The creative act offered as prayer is a common human theme.

Another possible reason (although this is purely my own theory) that the Celtic artists' designs became ever-finer and smaller in scale as the centuries went on, is that the Irish have always been naturally competitive. Great respect and awe was given to the monk who could produce the most intricate, harmonious and inspired designs, and if he could execute them small enough to be inscribed on a shirt-button, then so much the greater was the illuminator's reputation. While humility was practiced and such a scribe would never boast, his talent might even one day lead him to be named head of the scriptorium....a great honor. 

The great illuminated books were usually kept in a safe place within the private areas of the monastery, often by the Abbot himself, who was also the keeper of the precious relics of their founding saint. These books and reliquaries were generally the most richly decorated treasures of the monastery, covered in silver and encrusted with precious stones. When the invaders arrived in their silent longships under cover of darkness, their primary target would be the Abbot, who knew where the gold and silver were hidden.

Some abbots died rather than reveal the secrets, but many times the treasures were found, the covers ripped off the Gospel books, the gems pried out, the gold melted down, and the "worthless" vellum pages flung into the sea. In monastery after monastery along the coast, Viking raiders destroyed the churches and put the monks to the sword. At Lindisfarne in 806 AD, over sixty brothers were killed. An equally bloody raid on the island of Iona forced the monks to relocate inland to the monastery of Kells and the Book of Kells was moved several times for safekeeping…but consequently its decoration was never finished.

Despite these precautions, even this great book was nearly lost. In the year 1007, the Book of Kells was stolen during the night from the sacristy of the church at Kells, its jeweled cover torn off and never recovered. After a month of searching, the monks found the remaining pages discarded in the mud "under a sod." Somehow it survived nearly intact, but with several later chapters missing. What masterpieces they may have held we can only guess.

With the coming of the Vikings, the Golden Age of Ireland was finished, and Celtic art slowly degraded over time to become only a faint influence by the twelfth century. During the Renaissance, a few gifted artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo studied the ancient style and incorporated some knotwork patterns into their work, but did not pursue it further. While Celtic art never completely died out, being practiced as craft in parts of Scotland and Ireland throughout the 1700s, its flame indeed burned low. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Celtic Revival artists began to experiment with the ancient style once again.

The Celtic Revival begun over a hundred years ago has blossomed in the past thirty years into the new Celtic Renaissance. This was primarily made possible by the work of several Scottish researchers of the turn of the century. When J. Romilly Allen and his partner Joseph Anderson published "The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland" in 1903, even their scholarly contemporaries must have been astounded by the sheer amount of artwork they transcribed and seemed that Romilly Allen and Anderson must have visited every ancient site, High Cross and Pictish stone slab, recording thousands of knots, key
patterns, spirals, animals and symbols.

Their pioneering work in turn inspired Scottish artist George Bain to research the working methods of the ancient artists. After twenty years' work, he published his discoveries in the 1951 classic "Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction." Initially only a small success, it was reprinted as a paperback and quickly became the bible of modern Celtic artists.  Bain intended his book to be used to teach schoolchildren,  but even adult artists found his knotwork and key pattern methods difficult to put into practice. Though it contains a wealth of transcriptions and analyses of the Celtic patterns and is still a valued resource especially in zoomorphics and spiral construction, Bain's book failed to answer the Great Question:"How did they DO it???" 

Finally in the 1970s and '80s, the scribes' actual methods of knotwork and page layout were rediscovered, making possible a new rebirth of Celtic art. Artists and researchers such as Aidan Meehan, Carl Nordenfalk , Mark Van Stone and Jack McKinder demonstrated the proven historical techniques while Iain Bain developed his own modern solutions to these vexing ancient problems. The creative path is now open and largely clear of roadblocks. Today, a full century after J. Romilly Allen, we are seeing an explosion of new Celtic artists from the traditional to the ultramodern. Celtic art remains as vital and useful today as it was a thousand years ago, and has retained all of its elegance and communicative power into the modern age.

 The article above is under copyright and may not be used without permission of Michael Carroll....Thank you.

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