Illustrated Architecture Dictionary

Celtic Art

Holy Family Church

Who Were Celts
(pronounced with a hard “c” or “k” sound)

The Celts were a collection of tribes with origins in central Europe that shared a similar language, religious beliefs, traditions and culture. It’s believed that the Celtic culture started to evolve as early as 1200 B.C. The Celts spread throughout western Europe—including Britain, Ireland, France and Spain—via migration. Their legacy remains most prominent in Ireland and Great Britain, where traces of their language and culture are still prominent today.

The existence of the Celts was first documented in the seventh or eighth century B.C. The Roman Empire, which ruled much of southern Europe at that time, referred to the Celts as “Galli,” meaning barbarians.

When Christianity arrived in Ireland with St. Patrick in 432 A.D., many Celtic traditions were incorporated into the “new” religion. In fact, it’s said by some historians that Catholicism was able to take over as the dominant religion on the island following the mass killing of Druids, the religious leaders of the Gaels.

However, even with Christianity’s new-found prominence, traces of Celtic culture remain. Ireland’s national symbol, the shamrock (a green, three-pronged leaf) represents the “Holy Trinity” of Catholic tradition—the Father (God), son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.
- (online April 20212)

Designwork of The Ancient Celts

Celtic Designs Were Absorbed by Christian Artists

The Celts were a pagan people who converted to Christianity from about the 5th century CE onwards. Even so, their characteristic designwork did not disappear following their conversion. On the contrary, the heritage and traditions of Celtic art were fully absorbed by the new generations of scribes, metalworkers and sculptors patronized by the growing Christian Church, particularly in the monasteries and scriptoriums of Ireland, Iona, and Northern England.

In this art, scrollwork remained a vital decorative element, but during the 7th century, filigree casting, die-stamping of decorative foils, gilding and granulation methods were borrowed by Celtic craftsmen from the Germanic world and, with these, they produced dazzling and highly colourful work. This fusion of Christian, Celtic and Germanic motifs can be seen throughout the illuminated gospel texts, ecclesistical objects and freestanding high cross sculpture of the early Christian Insular period (c.600-1100 CE).

Celtic Spirals
The oldest symbols associated with the Celts are spirals. Engraved on ancient pagan stonework, spiral patterns (including the triskele, or the triskelion) are another quintessential feature of ancient Celtic art.

Zoomorphic Imagery
Common Celtic zoomorphs feature birds and snakes, although images of hounds, horses, deer, lions and boars are also used, along with numerous imaginary animals often in grotesque forms, including part-human, part beast. Zoomorphs appear regularly in the illuminated Gospel text, the Book of Kells, in which each of the four evangelists are allocated an animal symbol: the man for Matthew, the lion for Mark, the calf for Luke and the eagle for John. [See image at top of this page]

Celtic Knotwork
There are eight basic types of knot from which nearly all the interlaced patterns in Celtic decorative art derive. Two of these are derived from a three-cord plait, the remaining six from a four-cord plait.

Knotwork appears in many different types of Celtic art, including metalwork as well as the illuminated biblical texts, in which certain figures are drawn with complex knotted hair. (This type of Celtic design was later absorbed by Art Nouveau artists in the 1890s.)

Knots were also seen as having spiritual significance: for instance, when creating these knot-patterns on personal artifacts, designers believed that each crossed line provided added protection to the wearer.

Possibly derived from the early Coptic church, the pagan Celtic cross is made up of a regular cross with a ring centred on the intersection. When Christianity spread to Ireland and Britain, the pagan Celtic cross was combined with the Christian cross (scholars believe that St. Patrick sought to exploit symbols that the Irish were already familiar with).

Key Patterns
These became popular during the Insular Art period (c.650-1100 CE) and typically consisted of straight lines making up intricate, blockish designs, sometimes described as "square spirals".

- Celtic Designs (online April 2021)

Celtic Cross

Description:  Traditional cross accentuated with a circle around the intersection of the arms and stem.

DescriptionA cross with a long vertical shaft and short horizontal arms (Latin cross), and with a circle superimposed on its center.

Celtic crosses may have had their origins in the early Coptic (Egyptian) church. There is a similarity between the ankh and the Celtic cross.

In pagan times, this cross, with axis enclosed by a circle, was a symbol of fertility and life, the cross representing male potency and the circle, female power.

The Celtic cross did not become a common symbol of Christianity until the 4th century. Prevalent in Ireland, it is now primarily a Christian symbol signifying the unity of heaven and earth. Also, the circle is emblematic of God who, like the circle has no beginning and no end.  

Such crosses formed a major part of Celtic art. After the 15th century, ringed crosses ceased to be created in the Celtic lands until the Celtic Revival of the 19th century. New versions of the High Cross quickly became fashionable cemetery monuments.

Often called the Presbyterian Cross, it is the official cross of the Church of Scotland. The design is also referred to as the Irish Cross.

The term strapwork is sometimes used to describe the geometric pattterns.

Book of Kells

What is the Book of Kells?

The Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin MS 58) contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation.

The book is written on vellum (prepared calfskin) in a bold and expert version of the script known as "insular majuscule". It contains 340 folios, now measuring approximately 330 x 255 mm (13" x 10"); they were severely trimmed, and their edges gilded, in the course of rebinding in the 19th century.    

Where and when was the Book of Kells written?

The date and place of origin of the Book of Kells have attracted a great deal of scholarly controversy. The majority academic opinion now tends to attribute it to the scriptorium of Iona (Argyllshire), but conflicting claims have located it in Northumbria or in Pictland in eastern Scotland.

A monastery founded around 561 by St Colum Cille on Iona, an island off Mull in western Scotland, became the principal house of a large monastic confederation. In 806, following a Viking raid on the island which left 68 of the community dead, the Columban monks took refuge in a new monastery at Kells, County Meath, and for many years the two monasteries were governed as a single community. It must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written, although there is no way of knowing if the book was produced wholly at Iona or at Kells, or partially at each location.    

Why is the Book of Kells famous?

The manuscript’s celebrity derives largely from the impact of its lavish decoration, the extent and artistry of which is incomparable. Abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament punctuate the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message, and keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader.

There are full pages of decoration for the canon [rules] tables; symbols of the evangelists Matthew (the Man), Mark (the Lion), Luke (the Calf) and John (the Eagle); the opening words of the Gospels; the Virgin and Child; a portrait of Christ; complex narrative scenes, the earliest to survive in gospel manuscripts, representing the arrest of Christ and his temptation by the Devil. The Chi Rho page (folio 34r), introducing Matthew’s account of the nativity, is the single most famous page in medieval art. There are portraits of Matthew and John, but no portrait of Mark or Luke survives. These were probably executed, like other major pages of the manuscript, on single leaves and they are presumed to have become detached over time and lost. In all, around 30 folios went missing in the medieval and early modern periods.

How many artists produced the Book of Kells?

Three artists seem to have produced the major decorated pages. Four major scribes copied the text. Each displayed characteristics and stylistic traits while working within a scriptorium style. One, for example, was responsible only for text, and was in the habit of leaving the decoration of letters at the beginning of verses to an artist; while another scribe, who may have been the last in date, tended to use bright colours - red, purple, yellow - for the text, and to fill blank spaces with the unnecessary repetition of certain passages. The extent to which there was an identity between scribe and artist is among the key unanswered questions about the manuscript.

Where isthe Book of Kells located today?

 It has been on display in the Old Library at Trinity College from the
mid 19th century, and now attracts in excess of 500,000 visitors a year.

- The Library of Trinity College Dublin (online April 2021)

Book of Lindisfarne

The Lindisfarne Gospels, better known as The Book of Lindisfarne is an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels  from the New Testament of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The manuscript was produced in Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island (formerly called Lindisfarne Island), off the coast of Northumberland in about 715 C.E.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are almost entirely the work of a single artist, Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (698–721).  The general practice for manuscript creation, even in a monastery, was to have several people working on specific aspects of a manuscript; some the body text, some the principal illuminations, others as colorists or specializing in page ornaments. Eadfrith appears to have been the sole creator responsible for the text, and all the art. Unfortunately, Eadfrith died without completely finishing the manuscript. Despite its unfinished state, The Lindisfarne Gospels is a masterpiece.

The Latin text is derived from Jerome’s Vulgate translation of the Bible.

The Book of Lindisfarne opens with one of five elaborate full-page decorative “carpet pages,” cruciform [shaped like a cross] geometric designs reminiscent of eastern hand-made rugs. Carpet pages have been described as virtual prayer rugs, intended to help create a contemplative state.

I encourage everyone to go the British Museum’s Lindisfarne website.
- Lisa L. Spangenberg , Gospels of Lindisfarne or The Book of Lindisfarne (online April 2021)

Carpet Pages

A carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels   ...   Click on the image for larger size

Carpet pages are a characteristic feature of Insular illuminated manuscripts. They are pages of mainly geometrical ornamentation, which may include repeated animal forms, typically placed at the beginning of each of the four Gospels in Gospel Books. The designation "carpet page" is used to describe those pages in Christian, Islamic, or Jewish illuminated manuscripts that contain little or no text and which are filled entirely with decorative motifs.

Some art historians find their origin in similar Coptic decorative book pages, and they also clearly borrow from contemporary metalwork decoration. Oriental carpets, or other textiles, may themselves have been influences.  Roman floor mosaics seen in post-Roman Britain, are also cited as a possible source.

Many of the patterns used for the Lindisfarne Gospels date back before the Christian period. There is a strong presence of Celtic, Germanic, and Irish art styles. The spiral style and "knot work" evident in the formation of the designed pages are influenced by Celtic art.
-Wikipedia  (online April 2021)

See also:  John McClive, Celtic Spirituality in the Windows of Westminster Presbyterian Church: Earth and Heaven Combined

Examples from Buffalo architecture:

Photos and their arrangement 2021 Chuck LaChiusa
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