EARLY IRISH ART...continued

Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland

By Lady Francesca Wilde

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The earliest manuscripts of Greece and Rome show nothing like this distinctive Celtic art; nor the Italian mosaics, nor the wall paintings of Herculaneum or Pompeii—beautiful as are the representations of the human figure found there; nor does Byzantine art afford any similar types. From whence, then, did the Irish, the acknowledged founders of Celtic art in Europe, derive their ideas of ornamentation? This is one of the historical mysteries which, like the origin of the Round Towers, still awaits solution. One must travel a long way, even to the far East, before finding in the decorations of the ancient Hindoo temples anything approaching to the typical idea that runs through all Irish ornamentation. It is, however, an incontrovertible fact, and one proved to demonstration by Mr. Westwood's learning, labour, and researches, that a time when the pictorial art was almost extinct in Italy and Greece, and indeed scarcely existed in other parts of Europe—namely, from the fifth to the end of the eighth century—a style of art had been originated, cultivated, and brought into a most marvellous state of perfection in Ireland absolutely distinct from that of any other part of the civilized world; and which being carried abroad by Irish and Saxon missionaries was adopted and imitated in the schools of Charlemagne, and in all the other great schools and monasteries founded by them upon the Continent.

In the middle of the ninth century the influence of the artists of Germany reacted on the productions of England, and in consequence of the more frequent communications of learned men with Rome, classical models began to be adopted, floral decorations were introduced, and figures in the Byzantine style. With these the Irish ornamentation was combined, principally in the framework of the design. Then it gradually disappeared from England, where it was replaced by Franco-Saxon and Teutonic art; so that after the tenth century Mr. Westwood has not found any Anglo-Saxon manuscript executed in the Lindisfarne or Irish style. But it remained for several centuries longer in use in Ireland, though the ornamental details exhibit little of the extreme delicacy of the earlier productions. With reference to these, Mr. Digby Wyatt observes that, in delicacy of handling and minute but faultless execution, the whole range of palaeography offers nothing comparable to the early Irish manuscripts, especially "The Book of Kells," the most marvellous of them all. One cannot wonder, therefore, that Giraldus Cambrensis, when over in Ireland in the reign of Henry II., on being shown an illuminated Irish manuscript, exclaimed, "This is more like the work of angels than of men!"

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