Are you fascinated by the intricacy and detail of Celtic design? Have you noticed its influence in Game of Thrones? What about the atmospheric landscapes of games like Skyrim, or The Witcher III? Many of us feel an affinity to Celtic design, and to the skilful craftsmanship of our Irish ancestors. Even today, we can see its influence in art, jewellery, fashion design, movies and games.
What is Celtic Design?
Irish Celtic design is also called Insular Art . Celtic design includes interwoven knotwork, spirals and scrolls. We see stylised images of humans, animals and mythical creatures. The intricate knots and complex curvilinear patterns are typified by Ireland’s Book of Kells, Tara Brooch and other national treasures. The Irish have three great branches of Celtic design: Metalwork, Manuscripts and High-Crosses.
What are the origins of Irish Celtic Design?
St Patrick arrives in the 5th century, and now Christianity is spreading throughout Ireland. In the Gospel of St Matthew, Jesus instructs his disciples to bring the Word of God to all nations. He says He will be with them at the Ends of the Earth. The Irish monks are taking this command very seriously. In their remote monasteries on the very edge of the known world, they practise their devotion and are becoming skilled scribes and illustrators.
From the 6th century onward, the earliest manuscripts and metalwork start to appear in Ireland. Scribes and smiths take the traditional Celtic La Tène motifs and merge them with Roman, Germanic, and Early Christian ornaments. They create a new fusion style that is uniquely Irish. Finally, in the 8th century, their craftsmanship reaches unsurpassed perfection.
Whilst the rest of Europe is in a Dark age of turmoil and barbarism, the Irish experience relative peace. They are copying their sacred texts and gospels, and illustrating them like never before – “illuminated manuscripts” in every sense of the word. The Church is placing orders for Ecclesiastical relics. Wealthy patrons in Irish society are wearing fine jewellery of exceptional quality. This is the Golden Age of Celtic Art and Design.
Why do so few artefacts remain?
The Vikings arrive at the end of the 8th century, and wreak havoc along the Irish and Scottish coastlines. They loot and destroy the Christian monasteries and kill many Irish Monks. Viking raiders burn books and manuscripts. They loot gold and precious metalwork but leave the huge High Crosses behind.
Ireland consequently loses many of its treasures , and the history books will record little of these times. As a result, we cannot be certain of the provenance of remaining pieces. Dates of the objects, and their detailed history, are still in dispute to this day.
You can still see original manuscripts and fine metalwork in our Museums in Dublin. Half a million people visit the Book of Kells every year! Scholars and students can also view digitised manuscript collections online.
Let’s take a closer look at a timeline of seven of Ireland’s National Treasures:
- The Cathach. Before 561 AD. Royal Irish Academy since 1843.
- Ballinderry Brooch, 600 AD. Discovered 1930’s. Now at National Museum of Ireland.
- The Book of Durrow, 650 AD. Trinity College since 1661.
- Tara Brooch 700 AD. Discovered 1850. Now at National Museum of Ireland.
- The Book of Kells, 700-800 AD. Trinity College since 1661.
- Ardagh Chalice 8th century AD. Discovered 1868. Now at National Museum of Ireland.
- The Faddan More Psalter, 800 AD. Discovered 2006, Now at National Museum of Ireland
First, The Metalwork
The three following examples will show creative progression in design and craftsmanship. Irish smiths improve upon the native skills of bronze-casting. They introduce and execute new and innovative techniques. In the 8th century we can say they reach a pinnacle of artistic achievement.
The Ballinderry Brooch from 600 AD.
In the 1930s, whilst excavating a crannóg on Ballinderry Lough, an exceptional brooch is found. Dating from 600 AD, the Ballinderry Brooch is skilfully made from tinned bronze, with coloured enamel and floating platelets of millefiori glass. The craftsmanship shows varied influences from La Tène to Christian imagery. The design represents a key transitional stage between the classic early Irish brooch, and the later, more elaborate and refined types like the Tara Brooch.
“you have a brooch that is pagan in its original form but that carries this complex symbolism of the resurrected Christ.” Conor Newman, National University of Ireland, Galway.
The brooch is now part of the National Museum’s “Ireland in 100 Objects” exhibition.
The 8th Century Tara brooch
In 1850, two brothers find another brooch inside a tin box on a beach in County Meath. Their mother, unaware of its value or significance, sells it to a local watchmaker for just 18 pence. The watchmaker makes himself a nice profit of 12 pounds when he re-sells the brooch to Waterhouse Jewellers in Dublin.
This short video from the National Museum of Ireland gives you a close-up view of the Tara Brooch, and a detailed description of its materials and decoration.
Experts consider the 8th century Tara brooch to be the epitome of Irish craftsmanship. This piece of jewellery is from the Golden Age of Celtic Art and Design. The brooch is made of gilt silver, and has sophisticated decoration on both faces. It features gold, silver, copper, crystal, glass and enamel. Animals, snakes, insects and tiny human heads appear in the design. The reverse of the brooch is flat-cast, to prevent any damage to the wearer’s garment.
Association with the Royal Site of Tara is unproven, and is likely a story from Waterhouse’s to increase its market value. However, there is no doubt it originally belonged to someone of great wealth and social status. The extraordinary craftsmanship would have been rare, even in these times.
During the 1850s it features in Great Exhibitions in London, Paris, and Dublin. In 1872 the Royal Irish Academy acquires the Tara Brooch after 22 years of it sitting in Waterhouse’s shop window.
Modern jewellery designers are still inspired by Celtic designs of the past:
The Ardagh Chalice
In 1868, a young boy named Jimmy Quinn found a great treasure hoard whilst digging for spuds! In a ring-fort at Ardagh, Co. Limerick, he found four brooches and a stemmed cup inside the now famous Ardagh Chalice. Mrs. Quinn sold the find to the Bishop of Limerick for a paltry £50. The Bishop made a better deal, and sold it to the Royal Irish Academy for £500.
Expert examination revealed it was from the 8th century. The Ardagh Chalice is elaborately designed in silver, gold filigree, bronze, enamel, crystal, glass and amber. The engravings are like the lettering forms being used in illuminated manuscripts of the same period.
It was probably made by Monks as a ceremonial wine goblet to celebrate the Eucharistic Mass. The engravings show the Latin names of 11 Apostles and St Paul.
Why not 12 Apostles? Because Judas Iscariot “The traitor” is missing!
We think the Chalice hoard was buried for safekeeping during the Viking raids in the 10th century. Although there are many theories about the history of the chalice, we simply don’t know the facts.
From wine to whiskey ! Celtic design on drinking vessels today:
Next, The Manuscripts
In the 5th century, early Irish Christian monasteries began designing and producing exquisite handwritten religious texts. Over time, they evolved into lavishly illustrated Gospel books known as Illuminated Manuscripts. Some of the finest examples were housed in a protective, decorative metal case known as a “shrine”. Scribes and smiths were known to each other and clearly influenced one another’s work.
The Cathach manuscript dates from the 6th century AD. The word Cathach comes from the Irish word for battle. Legends say that this prayer-book was carried onto the battlefield as a talisman for inspiration and protection. It is associated with St Columba, although some scholars dispute this.
This very early Irish manuscript is a book of Psalms written in Latin Vulgate. A single scribe writes the book using “Early Majuscule” script. Unlike later manuscripts, the Cathach does not feature extensive illustration. It’s key characteristic is the ornamental Capital or Initial letter at the start of each Psalm verse. It also employs “Diminuendo” calligraphy, and the use of red ink.
An iconic image of the text is in the decoration of the capital letter “G”. The depiction includes a fish or dolphin, bearing a cross. In conclusion, we know that the Irish had established communication with Coptic Christians in Egypt, where this motif was widely used.
The Book of Durrow
The Book of Durrow is a Gospel Book from the 7th Century AD. It is Ireland’s oldest illustrated manuscript, also written in Latin Vulgate. Again, it showcases the work of a single scribe, using “round uncial” lettering.
The calligraphy in the book of Durrow shows great development of technique from the Cathach, written a hundred years earlier. The colour range now extends to yellow, red, green, black and brown. The scribes now introduce extensive illustrations at the beginning of each of the four gospels. A page for each Saint (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and a “carpet page” of intricate Celtic Design are richly decorated and filled with sacred symbols. Once again, we can see the uniquely Irish fusion of Early Christian Art with the earlier La Tène style.
The Book of Kells, circa 800 AD.
The Book of Kells also contains the four Gospels in Latin. Can you imagine a whole monastery working in unison to produce manuscripts of outstanding quality and beauty? Do you know that over 185 calf skins were prepared for the vellum? This was their life’s work, their devotion to the word of God! Probably three artists and four major text scribes traced out this magnificent book.
Can we discover encoded texts in the “Chi-Rho Page” ? Absolutely, we can now recognise them like learned initiates ! The artist of this page is often likened to a goldsmith, such are his extraordinary skills.
The book remains incomplete, its history and origins are still unclear. Likely saved during a Viking raid, it was held at Kells until the monastery was destroyed in 1641. In 1661 both the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow were brought to Trinity College in Dublin.
Would you like to see lavishly ornamented and illustrated pages for yourself? The Book of Kells represents the peak of achievement in illuminated manuscripts. A summary review can do no justice to its beauty and astonishing craftsmanship. An app is now available for the iPad here:
Modern silks lavishly decorated in manuscript styles:
The Faddan More Psalter, 8th century
Have we found any new manuscripts recently? Yes! The most noteworthy discovery is from 2006. Eddie Fogarty, digging with an excavator in a County Offaly bog, unearthed an ancient prayer-book. The Faddan More Psalter, another book of Psalms, probably comes from 8th century. See this great short video below for more information on its restoration and display in the National Museum of Ireland.
We hope you enjoyed our introduction to Celtic Design in Ireland.
If you are visiting Dublin, you can see some of these beautiful national treasures for yourself. Many manuscript projects are also online now, and this site is a most noteworthy resource.
Here at Skellig Gift Store, we love Celtic design. Our customers love it too! Take a look at these additional items from our extensive range: