Early Irish Art (Illuminated Manuscripts)

In the splendid folio copy of the Gospels at Copenhagen of the tenth century, supposed to have been brought to Denmark by King Canute, the figure of St. Matthew seated, while another saint draws back a curtain, is copied from the Gospels of Lindisfarne, while the border is in the tenth century style. The Gospels of St. Chad, now in Lichfield Library, are in the Irish style of the eighth century, and are very noticeable as having marginal notes in Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and ancient British, the latter being the oldest specimen of the ancient British language now in existence. The illuminations also are copied from the Lindisfarne book. St. Chad, it is known, was educated in Ireland, in the school of St. Finian. There are Irish Gospels at Durham of the eighth century. The Gospels of Mac-Regal are at Oxford, and the Gospels of Mac-Duran, the smallest and most beautiful known, are in the Archbishop's palace at Lambeth. As Saxon art progressed and became influenced by Roman models, the Irish scribes were chiefly employed wherever elegance, harmony of colour, and extreme delicacy of touch were particularly requisite, as in the borders and initial letters. Thus, the Psalter of St. Augustine, said to be from Rome, and which resembles in style the manuscript Virgil of the fifth century, in the Vatican, is framed in pure Celtic art. On the Continent, also, the borders of the great manuscripts were generally confined to Irish hands. A Latin copy of the Gospels at Treves, evidently produced by one of the establishments founded by the Irish upon the Rhine, is remarkable for a combination of Celtic, Teutonic, and Franco-Byzantine art. The borders are Irish while the figures are Byzantine. These illuminated borders have the glitter and radiance of a setting of jewels, and are thus admirably suited to fulfil the true object of all ornamentation, which Mr. Ruskin defines as being "beautiful in its place, and perfect in its adaptation to the purpose for which it was employed."

In the sixth century St. Gall, born in Ireland, accompanied St. Columbanus to the Continent, and founded the monastery in Switzerland that bears his name. Here many interesting manuscripts and fragments are still preserved, remarkable for the old Irish marginal notes to the Latin text. These are considered by-philologists of such importance that thirteen quarto plates and facsimiles from them are given by Dr. Ferdinand Keller in the Zurich Society's Transactions. An interesting relic of an Irish saint is also preserved in the Cathedral of Wurtzburg—a copy of the Gospels of St. Kilian, martyred in 689, and which was found stained with his blood on opening his tomb about fifty years after.

Thus, the Irish can be tracked, as it were, across Europe by their illuminated footsteps. They were emphatically the witnesses of God, the light-bearers through the dark ages, and above all, the faithful guardians and preservers of God's sacred Word. A hundred years before Alfred came to Ireland to be educated, and went back to civilize his native country by the knowledge he had acquired there, the Christian schools of Germany, under the direction of Irishmen, had been founded by Charlemagne. Through France, along the Rhine, through Switzerland, Italy, and Spain, the Irish missionaries taught and worked, founding schools and monasteries, and illuminating by their learning the darkest pages of European history. One of the great treasures of the Imperial Library of Paris is a beautiful Irish copy of the Latin Gospels. The College of St. Isidore, at Rome, possesses many Irish manuscripts—one of them is a Psalter, folio size, written throughout in letters a quarter of an inch long, and which is considered to be the finest of the later works of the Irish school. The celebrated Golden Gospels of Stockholm are of Hiberno-Saxon art of the ninth century. This book has a singular history. It was stolen from England, and disappeared for ages, but finally was discovered at Mantua in the seventeenth century, and purchased for the Royal Library at Stockholm.

St. Petersburg also possesses a highly illuminated copy of the Gospels, which was taken from France at the time of the great Revolution, and found its way to the far North. It is a perfect and beautiful specimen of the Irish style of the eight century, and the initial letters can only be compared to those of the Book of Kells. All these Irish manuscript Gospels are, without exception, copies of St. Jerome's Latin version. No Irish translation of the Gospels has ever been found. Learning was evidently considered a sacred tiling, indispensable for the priesthood, but not necessary for the masses; yet it seems strange that while the learned and pious Irish saints and missionaries were devoting their lives to multiplying copies of the Gospels for other nations, and disseminating them over Europe, they never thought of giving the people of their own land the Word of God to read in their own native tongue. The leading Teutonic races, on the contrary, with their free spirit, were not satisfied with accepting the doctrines of the faith, simply as an act of obedience to their teachers. They demanded the right of private judgment, the exercise of individual reason, and the Gospels were translated into Gothic as early as the fourth century by Bishop Ulphila for the use of the Gothic nation.

This remarkable book, called the "Codex Argenteus," is now in the Royal Library of Upsala, having, after many dangers and vicissitudes, at last found its way to the people who hold themselves the true descendants of the Goths, and whose king still bears the proud title of "King of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals;" and an edition of it, with annotations, has been published by the learned Professor Andreas Uppstrom, of Upsala.

Towards the close of the tenth century the Frankish style of ornamentation, a blending of the classical and the Byzantine, had almost entirely superseded the beautiful and delicate Celtic art both in England and on the Continent, and about the fifteenth century it disappeared even from our own Ireland, the country of its origin. The gorgeous missals and illuminated Gospels, instinct with life, genius, holy reverence, and patient love, were destined to be replaced soon after by the dull mechanism of print; while Protestantism used all its new-found strength to destroy that innate tendency of our nature which seeks to manifest religious fervour, faith, and zeal by costly offerings and sacrifices. The golden-bordered holy books, the sculptured crosses, the jewelled shrines were crushed under the heel of Cromwell's troopers; the majestic and beautiful abbeys were desecrated and cast down to ruin, while beside them rose the mean and ugly structures of the Reformed faith, as if the annihilation of all beauty were then considered to be the most acceptable homage which man could offer to the God who created all beauty, and fitted the human soul to enjoy and manifest the spiritual, mystic, and eternal loveliness of form, and colour, and symmetry.

Since that mournful period when the conquering iconoclasts cast down the temples and crushed the spirit of our people, there has been no revival of art in Ireland. It is not wonderful, therefore, that we cling with so much of fond, though sad, admiration to the beautiful memorials of the past, and welcome with warm appreciation the efforts of able, learned and distinguished men to illustrate and preserve them, as in this splendid and costly book which Mr. Westwood has contributed to Celtic art.