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Insular Illumination (ca. 600-850)

AN EARLY HIGHPOINT OF BOOK ART

Insular illumination has produced the loveliest evidence of book art. Excessive ornamentation in unbelievable combinations distinguishes codices of the 7th to the 9th centuries from the British Isles. Famous names such as the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels are associated with the term insular illumination. Emanating from Ireland, Anglo-Saxon book art first spread to Northern, then Southern England and was finally brought by Irish monks to the continent, where they developed new tendencies. 

Carpet page and initial page to the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Lindisfarne: Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem...

Carpet page and initial page to the Gospel of Mark from the Book of Lindisfarne: Quoniam quidem multi conati sunt ordinare narrationem...

INITIAL PAGES FOR ETERNITY

The initials of the Book of Kells are not content with a small part of the sheet, they occupy the whole page. Thus emerged the carpet pages typical of insular illumination, which are completely occupied by ornaments. For example, the beginning of the Gospel of John is depicted in unbelievable density. Various tones of blue and red alternate with the yellow that outshines all to form countless variations and convolutions of the ornaments. The eye of the beholder is overwhelmed by the delicate and varied painting. The figurative elements and script are integrated with such ornamentation that they are nearly hidden. The unbelievable variation and density of the colors and shapes lend the initial page something mystical.

Full-page initials (Chi-Rho-Monogram) from the Book of Kells as a prelude to the story of the life of Jesus: "XPI autem generatio...."

Full-page initials (Chi-Rho-Monogram) from the Book of Kells as a prelude to the sstory of the life of Jesus: "XPI autem generatio...."

MYSTICAL ORNAMENTATION IN EXCESSIVE SPLENDOR

This statement is representative of the style of insular illumination, which overtook the Celtic and Germanic traditions for the depiction and accentuation of Christian art and formed a new tradition. Braids, Celtic knots, staff and spiral ornaments of the initials and carpet pages of Irish and Northern English codices were derived from Celtic jewelry art. Symmetry plays a big role thereby, but also the animal ornamentation in connection with the so-called Cloisonné, the cell technique of jewelry. Ancient influences are also palatable. The person, who played a large role in the new Religion, was subordinated and integrated in illumination by the colors and shapes and so became an ornament himself. 

Excerpt from the Canon Tables (so-called Beast Canon Tables) of the Book of Kells: luminous colors and a maze of plants and animals

Excerpt from the Canon Tables (so-called Beast Canon Tables) of the Book of Kells: luminous colors and a maze of plants and animals

IRISH MONKS, HIGHLY ACCLAIMED ARTISTS

The Irish monks used the indigenous ornamental art tradition to spread the new religion, which had come to Ireland around the middle of the 5th century. So Christian content met Celtic and Germanic art. The artworks that arose from this combination are considered as a whole to be the highpoint of illumination. Already in the 12th century, when insular illumination had been long replaced by other styles, their artistry was still – or already – widely known: “Inspect it carefully, and you will reach the true saints of the art. You will recognize convolutions of such fineness and delicacy, such density, such abundance of knots and connecting links, with such fresh and shining colors, that you could believe that everything must not be the work of a man, but of an angel”.

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels: on one side a confusing mesh, on the other, a highly symmetrical arrangement at a glance

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels: on one side a confusing mesh, on the other, a highly symmetrical arrangement at a glance

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL EVANGELIARIES

Insular illuminated manuscripts consist, almost without exception, of evangeliaries meant to spread the Christian religion. Famous along with the Book of Kells, which originated from around 800 and represents a late highpoint and the most famous example of insular illumination, are the Book of Durrow (ca. 700) and the Lindisfarne Gospels, an evangeliary from the early 8th century.

Miniature page from the Book of Kells: the Taking of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane is depicted

Miniature page from the Book of Kells: the Taking of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane is depicted

THE SURVIVAL OF THE INSULAR STYLE

With their missionary journeys on the continent, the Irish monks brought insular illumination and its magnificent and ostentatious artwork to the mainland. Counted among the big names of the itinerant Irish monks are Saint Willibrord (ca. 658 – 739, founder of the Abbey of Echternach), Saint Gall (ca. 550 – approx. 640, founder of the Abbey of St. Gall), or St. Pirmin (ca. 670 – 753, founder of the Mittelzell Abbey on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance). There were further famous illuminated manuscripts in the insular style created there. Gradually the original Celtic-Germanic style increasingly mixed with influences from the Roman tradition and lead to a new style and great new artworks of illumination. 

Deutlich zu erkennen sind die insularen Einflüsse bei den Initialzierseiten aus dem Goldenen Evangelienbuch von Echternach (hier: Q-Initiale).

Insular influences on the initial pages in the Codex Aureus of Echternach are distinctly recognizable (Here: Q-initial).