What is Insular Art?

A Rough Outline

What is Insular Art? The very question I asked myself when turning up to my first Art History lecture at Edinburgh University. Before my first year of studying Art History, (which I finished last week – success) I was very much stuck in the Vsari dictated mindset of believing that Art History really started in the 15thc. with the Renaissance and anything before that was simply a precursor to ‘real’ art. I can now safely say that I couldn’t have been more wrong, and consequently, and to my own surprise, art before the 15thc. might just now be my favourite period of Art History. My family, close friends and boyfriend know all too well how I can drown on for hours about the ‘concept of seeing’ and  the mysteries that lie hidden within interlace. However, I’ll do my best to keep this post short and informative, as I discuss the 5th-9thc. artistic style of Insular Art. I would never claim to be an expert in the field of Insular Art, as I’ve only dipped my toe into the study and understanding of this incredibly complex style, both in its use of decoration and its metaphorical, non-linear approach to the depiction of the periods cosmological understanding of the world.

In this post I will address the function of Insular Manuscripts and explore specific pieces of artwork in a series which will shortly follow this post. To begin with, the function of Insular manuscripts are as a vessel for the Word. In this post when using the term ‘the Word’ I am referring to the Word of God, recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Insular Manuscripts were used as a tool for teaching faith through study and contemplation. It is important to understand that during this period the concept of the Word was believed to be the embodiment of the creator himself. I recognise how difficult it is to understand the function of these manuscripts through the study of their imagery, as medieval thought was not as linear as our own, using imagery both symbolically and metaphorically to understand the surrounding world through a biblical narrative.

The decoration and imagery of Insular manuscripts was used symbolically in order to convey the spiritual meaning behind the biblical narrative. Through the combination of religious symbols and decorative techniques, such as interlace, scribes were able to create complicated, interweaving patterns, often merging nomina sacra, the Chi-Rho, into biblical or symbolic scenes. Consequently, these depictions became a visual manifestation of the Word, referencing the presence of the creator throughout the gospels and one’s ability to glimpse the divine through the study of text.

In the following blog posts I will further explore the decorative techniques used in Insular manuscripts, as the Word became embodied in image.

Images I will explore in this series of posts:

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