Insular art was a cultural connection


Colette Cooper

SCOTLAND and Ireland have many things in common, one of which is the famous art style that was produced in the post-Roman history of Ireland and Britain, known as ‘Insular Art.’

According to the Ancient History Et Cetera website, in an interview titled Ireland’s Exquisite Insular Art by James Wiener, Irish missionaries spread Christianity during the Age of Saints and Scholars—400 to 1000AD—which meant that monastery schools were brought to places such as England, Scotland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, and Insular art spread throughout Western Europe.

The term ‘Insular,’ reportedly comes from ‘insula,’ the Latin term for ‘island’, and is an art style that was noted as a mix of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon styles and came from the Irish monastic movement of Celtic Christianity.

It has been highlighted that artistic styles in Northumbria cooperated with those in Ireland and Scotland, which then became a part of Insular, or Hiberno-Saxon style.

It seems that Ireland and Britain were linked during the post-Roman period, as they reportedly shared a similar style unlike the rest of Europe.

In the Ireland’s Exquisite Insular Art interview between James Wiener and Dr Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk, it was highlighted that while Europe was in the midst of social troubles in the run up to the collapse of the Roman Empire 476AD, a golden age of artistic achievement and scholasticism was born in Ireland.

Dr Verkerk also stated in the interview: “In discussions of the early medieval cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, rather than identifying terms such as ‘Britain,’ ‘Ireland,’ ‘Celtic’ or ‘Hiberno-Saxon,’ with their associations of modern national boundaries or elusive ethnic categories, ‘Insular’ recognises a shared style and avoids unnecessary or illogical national attributions.”

She added that ‘the term had been promoted in 1901 by the German paleographer, Ludwig Traube (1861-1907),’ and was then adopted by various art historians. This perhaps highlights the great impact that Insular art had in Ireland, Britain and throughout the world.

A closer look
Reportedly, one of the main characteristics of Insular art is interlace decoration. Interlace— in the visual arts—is said to be a decorative element that is found in medieval art. This includes braided patterns, said to be used frequently to fill a space.

Additionally, Insular art style had reportedly influenced various decorative items. For instance, one of the distinctive features of interlace decoration was said to be discovered at Sutton Hoo, the location of two cemeteries; one from the sixth and the other from the early seventh century.

This was significant as—according to author George Henderson in his book The Art of the Picts. Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Mediaeval Scotland (2004)—the ship treasures were ‘the first proven hothouse for the incubation of the Insular style.’

Research also suggests that one cemetery comprised an undisturbed ship-burial, with many Anglo-Saxon artefacts.

According to The British Museum website, there were artefacts found such as ‘fine feasting vessels, deluxe hanging bowls, silverware from distant Byzantium, luxurious textiles, gold dress accessories set with Sri Lankan garnets and the iconic helmet with human mask.’

Significantly, it was also stated on the website that ‘the Sutton Hoo helmet is one of only four complete Anglo-Saxon helmets to survive.’

Examples of Insular art have also come from Dál Riata, which was a Gaelic kingdom between Ireland and Scotland. In the kingdom, there was the monastery of Iona, which was said to have played a pivotal part in the development of Insular art, as well as in the development of Celtic Christianity in northern Britain.

The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells (above) is the first experience many have with Insular art,’ as noted by James Wiener, and as further research suggests, Insular art played a great role in the book.

The Book of Kells contains Western calligraphy and is noted to represent the peak of Insular illumination. It is also said to be greatly thought of as a national treasure of Ireland.

As highlighted in The Book of Kells: a bibliography website, there are various decorative features in The Book of Kells that ‘exemplify Insular Art.’ For instance, it was highlighted that the book included dots patterns, drop caps and historical letters, and interlaced and spiral patterns; also known as a Celtic and an Insular art technique.

It is evident that The Book of Kells was a great representative of Insular art, particularly due to its use of decoration. For instance, research suggests that this decoration contains both traditional Christian iconography and certain motifs which are common in Insular Art.

The Picts
It could be said that the Picts of Scotland were also involved with the Insular art style, via their stone monuments, which were said to contain designs relating to that of Insular art.

The Picts were people from northern Scotland, and, according to an article called Picts on the Ancient History Encyclopaedia website, the name ‘Picts’ was given by Roman writer, Eumenius in 297AD, as he referred to the tribes of Northern Britain as ‘Picti,’ meaning ‘the painted ones.’

In the Ireland’s Exquisite Insular Art article, Dr Verkerk stated in the interview: “The Pictish stones remain some of the most enigmatic sculptures in western Europe, particularly the most ancient ones that predate the conversion of the Scots to Christianity. There was a great deal of exchange between the Irish and the people of Scotland; indeed, the term ‘Scotti‘ referred to the Irish before the year 1200AD.”

She added: “The animal symbols found in manuscripts like the Book of Durrow or the Echternach Gospels are remarkably similar to those found on Pictish stones. I believe the major innovation in early Insular sculpture was the move from wood carving to stone carving.”

Evidently, Insular art was a significant and famous art style which seemed to play a key role in the history of Ireland and Scotland.

La Tène Culture
Dr Verkerk also highlighted in her interview that ‘Insular art in Ireland has its roots in La Tène Culture,’ also known as a culture of the European Iron Age.

“By the Iron Age, Scotland had been penetrated by the wider La Tène culture,” she said. “The Torrs Pony-cap and Horns are perhaps the most impressive of the relatively few finds of La Tène decoration from Scotland, and indicate links with Ireland and southern Britain.”

It was also highlighted that this type of art can be recognised by features such as abstraction, curvilinear forms, and a certain knowledge of metalworking.

However, it was also noted that there was a change in Insular art after the introduction of Christianity, and ‘the conversion to a religion based on a sacred text, the Bible. The idea of a book with illuminations’ is, as stated in the interview, ‘foreign to pre-Christian art in Ireland, Scotland and England.’

Ultimately, it is evident that during this time, Ireland and Britain seemed to culturally connect through Insular art; a famous and significant art style which is still remembered today.