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Hiberno-Saxon Art in a Nutshell

Updated on June 9, 2008

A Synopsis

As the tribes of the Migration period settled into stable populations in their new territories and converted to Christianity, they did not adopt the artistic style of the local are but instead applied their own style to represent Christian subjects. The prominent style that emerged was the interlace style. It began to be applied to decorations of medieval religious manuscripts and in Ireland and the surrounding areas became an intricate and complex motif of their illuminated manuscripts of the Gospels. They were made for the use of monks for their own purposes and for public reading. The illustrations combined elements of both abstraction and representation, addressing both aspects with intricate abstract scrollwork capped with elongated, abstracted animal forms. A matter of debate and contention within the works was the philosophical paradigm of abstraction versus realism - how to show the spiritual through abstraction and still be realistic enough to be understood.

The Book of Durrow comes from the monastery at Durrow sometime between 660 and 680 AD. Its carpet page, a page consisting of a complete all-over illuminated illustration, is full of interlaced images involving abstracted, elongated animal forms executed in exact precision. Its design echoes motifs found in Migration art, such as the interlacing found in the Tara Brooch. The process of illustrating such exact pictures was considered part of a monk's work, and in itself became a spiritual activity.

Another page from the Book of Durrow is titled the Symbol of Saint Matthew. It is another example of the interlace style, which is present in a border around the central figure of a man. In contrast to classical forms and coinciding with other northern art at the time, the figure is abstracted, drawn in with simple lines depicting the face, hair, torso, and feet. It is not drawn to be an exact representation of a man, but rather simply to be recognizable as the symbol of a man. It is defined clearly enough to be understood, but that is as far as it goes into realism. The long body is decorated with an abstract pattern, camouflaging the figure and again resembling the metalwork of the period and area.

The illustration the Symbol of Saint Mark from the Gospels of Saint Willlibrord at around 690 AD shows the figure of a lion against a simpler geometric background. Again, the abstract element is found in the background pattern. The lion itself, elongated and simplified, appears very similar to the Scythian stag of Migration origin. However, in this case, while the figure itself may be simplified, the decoration of its surface area has become complex. Rather than a detailed mane or fur, these elements are drawn in a way very similar to the Celtic and Hiberno-Saxon scrollwork that is so commonplace to illuminated manuscripts of this period. The level of detail gives texture and interest to an otherwise flattened figure, much like the torso of the man in the Symbol of Saint Matthew, and renders it recognizable as part of the Hiberno-Saxon style.

The Chi-Rho Monogram Page from the Book of Kells in the 8 th to 9th century in Kells, Ireland, is the ultimate achievement of illuminated manuscripts. Every inch of the page is covered with interlaces, spirals and patterns building off one another, fitting into even the tiniest of spaces, one inside the other, along with human and animal figures hidden inside. The letters form the name of Christ, but become nearly unrecognizable amidst all the decoration, discernable only to someone practiced in reading and understanding the twists of the decoration and the symbology therein. Obviously, the Hiberno-Saxon interlaced style of manuscript decoration has been taken to its highest level, pages like this being the culminating point of the style.

Hiberno-Saxon art is characterized by flat picture planes and abstracted images that border on the unrecognizable. It is a style that holds a tenuous position between abstraction and representation, and relies heavily on symbolism in order for its meaning to be understood. It is a style in complete contrast to the classical styles of the Greco-Romans, having completely different aims and avenues of expression. It is preceded by the Early Christian style, a less exacting and skillful style of art that came about in opposition to the pagan Greco-Roman style. There are similarities between the two in their ways of representing human figures as more abstracted (compared to the aesthetically pleasing classical figures), but the Hiberno-Saxon style takes it to the next level with the incredible detail and technical precision found in its works.

The Hiberno-Saxon style takes its cues from Migration art, which are its roots. It is from the art of the migration that this style gets its elongated, abstracted animal figures, the beginnings of the interlace style, and the technical precision that it is known for. These elements were applied to a new art form, the illustration of manuscripts, and given new Christian subjects.

Book of Durrow Carpet Page

Book of Durrow - Symbol of St. Matthew

Chi-Rho Monogram Page from the Book of Kells


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