Early Irish Art

Early Irish art illustrates in a very remarkable manner those distinctive qualities of Irish nature, which we know from the legendary traditions have characterized our people from the earliest times. The earnest religious faith, the love of gorgeous colouring, the tendency to express ideas by symbol, and the vivid imagination that delights in the strange and unusual, often fantastic and grotesque, in place of the absolute and real, combined with the patient and minute elaboration of details, so truly Oriental in its spirit, specially mark Irish ornamentation. All these reverential, artistic, fanciful, and subtle evidences of the peculiar Celtic spirit find a full and significant expression in the wonderful splendours of early Irish art, as seen chiefly in the ancient illuminated manuscripts.

The reputation of Irish artists for excellence in these costly productions became so extended throughout Christian Europe in the early ages, that at the request of many nations Ireland sent forth numbers of her most cultured artists as teachers and scribes to the great foreign schools and colleges; and numerous examples of skilled Irish work are still existing in Continental Libraries, where they are held as amongst the most sacred of the national treasures. For a full and comprehensive illustration of this subject it would be impossible to over-estimate the artistic and historic value of Mr. Westwood's magnificent book on Anglo-Saxon and Irish Manuscripts. The volume contains facsimiles from all the principal illuminated Celtic manuscripts of Europe, executed with the most scrupulous care, chiefly by Mr. Westwood himself, the majority of them with the aid of a magnifying glass, so minute and delicate are the lines of ornamentation to be represented. In fact, for accuracy of information and richness of illustration, the volume surpasses anything yet published on Celtic art in the United Kingdom, and may claim equality with the grand, but enormously expensive work of Count Bastard, on early French Manuscripts. Mr. Westwood, in a learned preliminary dissertation, gives his views on the origin and development of Hiberno-Saxon art during the first thousand years of the Christian era, and finds in the ornamentation, as observed by Kemble and others, a distinct Opus Hibernicum and an Opus Anglicum, but the Irish the more perfect of the two, and wholly different from Continental art of the same era.