So what is it about Celtic Art, anyway?
Celtic illumination invites you to step into a world where nothing is quite as it seems. Even the simplest knots remind us they are two dimensional representations of three dimensional objects.
Spirals from 5 millennia ago feature on the front kerbstone of the Newgrange site in Co Meath, Ireland
Spirals and a key pattern in this beautifully preserved mosaic floor in Pompeii
Every spiral traces a path of growth, change, and renewal. Galaxies, pine cones, and fern fronds surround us and permeate the art of every culture back through the millennia. Whether stylised into the straight segments of Grecian Meanders, morphed into complex key patterns, or winding and unwinding through every available space, spirals of every kind dominate the backgrounds of the Celtic Manuscripts.
Spirals and key patterns from the Book of Kells' folio 27v
Every time two lines cross, they illustrate the duality of life, the constant flow and counterflow between the concrete and the abstract; the necessity of balance between the life of the body and the life of the mind. The ever-present otherworld just outside the perceptions of our physical bodies.
This awareness of the entanglement of the spiritual and physical worlds permeated Celtic thought long before raiders enslaved a young Patrick and set him to work in an Irish community. For millennia, interlacing had been carved into rocks and incorporated into metalwork right across Ancient Gaul where Celtic culture dominated, a culture that valued both poetry and war in equal measure.
I wish I could credit this image. If you recognise it, please tell me!
The archeology is fascinating, and the internet puts it all at our fingertips – the fabulous creations of the La Tène treasures, the barrows newly revealed by summer droughts. All these contributed to the rich tapestry of Celtic culture that existed at the start of Ireland's monastic era that culminated in the Insular style we today call Celtic Art.
Metal, wood, and stone were all somewhat three dimensional forms, the work carved, textured, or built up as the artist drew the most out of their favoured media. But parchment was different. Yes, many pigments were translucent and sophisticated layering techniques were available and made use of, but essentially, the use of parchment forced another development, another turn of the spiral. Only two dimensions in which to portray all the complexity of the worlds, the tangles of real and other, spiritual and physical, time and eternity compressed still further onto flat pages.
And like carbon becoming coal, and then contracting to diamond, centuries of artistic development coalesced into illuminated manuscripts that reduce our jaded, materialistic minds to awe-filled wonder.
That's how it is for me, anyway!