Early liturgical books reflect the ecclesiastical art of their time—This feature a continuous characteristic of illumination down to the latest times—Elements of Celtic ornament—Gospels of St. Chad—Durham Gospels—Contrast of Celtic and Byzantine—St. Columba—Book of Kells—Details of its decoration.

In the earlier centuries of Christianity, when liturgical books were the chief occupation of the illuminator, it will need little pointing out to demonstrate that the page of the illuminated manuscript, where it contained more than the mere ornamental initial, was simply a mirror of the architectural decoration of the church in which it was intended to be used. Where the church enrichments consist, as on the Byzantine basilicas, of panellings, arcades, and tympana of gilded sculpture in wood or stone, with figures of saints, the pages of the Gospel-book bear similar designs. Where, as in the Romanesque, they are rich in mosaics, and fretted arcades interlacing each other, so are the illuminated Lives of the Saints, the Menologia, Psalters, and Gospel-books. Where, as in the Gothic cathedrals of the West—of France, Germany, or Italy—the stained glass is the striking feature of the interior, so it is with the illumination; it is a “vitrail”—a glass-painting on vellum. On this latter point we shall have more to say when we reach the period of Gothic illumination.

Incidentally, also, the book reflects the minor arts in vogue at the period of its execution. Often in the illumination we may detect these popular local industries. We see mosaic enamelling, wood- and stone-carving, and lacquer-work, and as we approach the Renaissance, even gem-cutting and the delicate craft of the medallist. In Venice and the Netherlands we have the local taste for flower-culture; in Germany we find sculpture in wood and stone; in France the productions of the enameller and the goldsmith; until at length, in the full blaze of the Renaissance itself, we have in almost every land the same varieties of enrichment practised according to its own special style of work.

It has been said that the oldest Celtic illuminated MSS. show no signs of classic, or even Byzantine, influence, yet the plan or framework of the designs makes use both of the cross and the arch, as used in the earliest Byzantine examples. The details, indeed, are quite different, and manifestly derived from indigenous sources. It may be, therefore, that the framework is merely a geometrical coincidence which could not well be avoided. The fact that the basis of pure Irish ornament is geometrical, and developed out of the prehistoric and barbarous art of the savages who preceded the Celts in Ireland; such art as is used on the carved shafts of spears, and oars, and staves of honour, and afterwards on stone crosses and metal-work, may account for the similarity of ideas in ornament developed by old Roman decorators in their mosaic pavements, and may reconcile, in some measure, the varied opinions of different writers who have approached the subject from different points of view. Westwood adhered to the theory of its being purely indigenous. Fleury, on the other hand, in his Catalogue of the MSS. in the Library at Laon, asserts that we owe the knots and interlacements to the influence of the painters, sculptors, and mosaicists of Rome. “These interlacings, cables, etc., there is no Gallo-Roman monument which does not exhibit them, and, only to cite local instances, the cord of four or five strands is seen in the beautiful mosaics discovered in profusion within the last five years (1857-62) at Blanzy, at Bazoches, at Vailly, and at Reims. It was from them that the Franks borrowed their knots and twists and ribbons for their belts and buckles, their rings and bracelets” (pt. i., p. 8).

The elements, therefore, of book ornament, as used by the Celtic penmen, are such as were employed by the prehistoric and sporadic nations in the textile art in plaiting and handweaving, and afterwards transferred to that of metal-work. Terminals of animal, bird, or serpent form afterwards combine with the linear designs. The dog and dragon are common, as may be seen in the archaic vases produced by the Greeks before they came under the influence of ideas from Western Asia.

Among Celtic artists, as among those of later times, the practice of working in various materials was common to the same individual, and Dagæus (d. 586) may compare with Dunstan, Eloy, Tuotilo, and others.

To apply these observations to the style of illumination which now comes under our notice it may be said that if we allow the cross and arch to be copied from the Byzantine MSS. introduced from abroad, the details are undoubtedly supplied by the wickerwork and textile netting familiar to the everyday life of the artist. Assisted by the fertile imagination of bardic lore in snakes, dragons, and other mythic monsters of heroic verse, the illuminator produces a pencilled tapestry of textile fabric or flexile metal-work as marvellous as it is unique. No amount of description can give a true idea of what Celtic work is like; it must be seen to be comprehended. One glance at a facsimile of such a MS. as the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels, or those of St. Chad at Lichfield, or wherever, as at St. Gall, such work is to be met with, will supersede the most laboured attempt at description. We must therefore at once refer the reader to the facsimile. When that has been inspected, we may proceed. In the first place it may be noted that with these Occidental MSS. begins the importance and development of the initial, which, indeed, as regards the illumination of Western Europe, is the very root of the matter. It is the development of the initial letter first into the bracket, then into the border, which forms the great distinction of the “Art of Paris,” as Dante calls it, from that of Byzantium. The latter is almost always of a squared or tabular design, traced and painted on a ground of burnished gold. The former exhausts itself first in fantastic lacertine forms, twisted into the shapes of the commencing letters or words of the writing, to which the suggestion of some Byzantine MS, perhaps occasionally adds a frame. Next come birds, dogs, dragons, vine-stems, and spirals embedded in couches of colour; but, whatever its character, always it is the letter that governs and originates the ornament. Only at the very end of its life, when the border has completely eclipsed the initial, is the idea of origin forgotten. Then, indeed, we find the border treillages of flower-stem or leaf-work starting from meaningless points of the design, or scattered shapelessly at random.

When we meet with work of this sort, we need no further proof that the real art is dead. We have before us in such a performance—a trade production—a mere object of commerce, valuable so far as it is the result of labour, but not as a work of art.

According to the Abbé Geoghegan,[11] Christianity was known to the people of Ireland in the fourth century. The Greek Menology asserts that it was carried thither by Simon Zelotes, but this is contradicted by the Roman Breviary and the Martyrologists. Simeon Metaphrastes attributes it to St. Peter, Vincent of Beauvais to St. James. Unreliable as these traditions may be taken singly, they nevertheless agree in placing the conversion of Ireland at a very early date, probably, as Geoghegan says, in the fourth century. It is certain that about the middle of the sixth century an Irish prince of distinguished ancestry, and himself a saint, led a band of missionaries from Donegal to Iona. It is curious to observe that the event is almost contemporary with the renovations of Justinian at Byzantium, and only a short time before the founding of the famous Abbey of Monte Cassino by St. Benedict. Before the existence of the Benedictine Order there was a monastery at Durrow, in Ireland, and in this monastery the aforesaid prince was educated. His name was Columba. At least, so he is called, but whether it be merely in allusion to his mission—“the Dove”—or really a patronymic, it is hard to say. He was the messenger of peace to the natives of Iona, and even the name of the island seems to suggest an allusion to the Old Testament missionary to the Ninevites, Jonah. The Irish missionaries called the spot to which they went I. columcille, “the cell of the Dove's isle,” or Columba's cell. It is usually spoken of as the Monastery of Iona. Columba went on many other missions, but ultimately returned to his beloved Iona, where he died in 597, the year after the arrival of Augustine at Canterbury.

[11] Hist. de l'Irlande.

His companions busied themselves with the transcription of the Gospels for the use of new converts, after the model of those they had seen and used at Durrow. It is even traditionally asserted that Columba himself took part in the work, and transcribed both a Psalter and a Gospel-book, moreover, that one of the Iona Gospel-books written by him is still in existence. This MS., whether the work of St. Columba or not, and probably it is not, is the earliest known monument of Irish calligraphic art. It is known as the Book of Kells, and there is no doubt that it is the most amazing specimen of penmanship ever seen. It is at once the most ancient, the most perfect, and the most precious example of Celtic art in existence. It exhibits the striking peculiarities and features of the style—the band work knots and interlacings, such as may be seen on the stone crosses which mark the burial-places of British and Irish chieftains. Witness, for instance, the Carew, or the Nevern Cross, described in the Journal of the Archœlogical Institute, iii. 71, which might be taken to represent an initial “I” wrought in stone. There is no foliage, no plant form at all. It is not, therefore, derivable from Romanesque, Byzantine, or Oriental ornament. It is indigenous, if not to Ireland, at least to those prehistoric Aryan tribes of which the Irish were a branch. Its basis is the art of weaving, and in some respects resembles the matting of Polynesia much more closely that the vine-stems of Sicily or the arabesques of Byzantium. Spirals occur that bewilder the eye, yet are so faultlessly perfect that only the magnifying-glass brings out the incredible accuracy of the drawing. Among them are mythological and allegorical beasts, snakes, and lizards—thought to represent demons, like the gargoyles of Gothic architecture—in every conceivable attitude of contortion and agony. There are also doves and fishes, but the latter, being sacred emblems together with the lamb, are seldom made grotesque. It was a monkish legend that the devil could take the shape of any bird or beast, except those of the dove and the lamb.