Why I love Insular Art

Interlace, It’s a Complicated Story…

Lindisfarne Gospel Iniital page
Gospel of St Matthew, Initial Page, Lindisfarne Gospels

In my previous post I explained how Insular manuscripts were used as a vessel for the Word, as the Word became embodied in image. I am hoping that in this post, and  in the posts to follow, I will be able to shine a light on this often overlooked period of art and its incredibly intricate techniques. I have found that there is often a stigma around artwork  from before the medieval period, and that when mentioned to my peers it’s labelled ‘boring’ or ‘irrelevant’. However, what really makes a piece of artwork ‘relevant’? Is it the space where it is kept? It’s selling price? Or simply the medium of art in which it is crafted. Often we perceive certain mediums as being superior to others. For example, painting and sculpture are often the flagbearers of the pieces which we deem to be eligible of the label of ‘art’. While, objects of functional value are left to debate, rarely labelled as ‘art’ but rather deemed as relics of a time passed. In this post I am hoping to create a cohesive understanding of how even objects of functional value, such as manuscripts, still have the same level of intellectual depth through symbolism which can be found weaved into the work of the ‘genius’ of the Renaissance painting.

I will start with exploring the technique of Interlace, as it will probably be the most familiar. Interlace is the decorative intertwining strands that we see being sold as pieces of ‘Celtic’ jewellery, or (a popular contemporary sighting) as a tattoo to remember one’s Celtic heritage. However, I’m so sorry to break it to you, especially if you have this tattoo, but it’s not Celtic, it’s Insular. Interlace is an incredibly complex technique, not only when addressing its origins, but also in its visual effect. The decorative technique of interlace is often used to simultaneously conceal and reveal ornamentation, which act as a guide for understanding the function of the manuscripts and hint to the period’s cosmological understanding. Insular artwork defies our contemporary, standardised idea of an image, where the image is static. Through the use of interlace Insular art becomes polymorphic, seemingly changing and moving the more you look at it. This ever-changing environment reflects the 5th/9thc. belief of how one could glimpse the divine through the study of the Word made Image. It was believed that if one was to gain a great enough understanding of the gospels that they could glimpse the divine, just as the viewer glimpses an increasing amount of detail by staring at the page.

Chi-Rho page
Chi-Rho page, Book of Kells

An example of where the technique of interlace is used to simultaneously conceal and reveal is the Chi-Rho page, found in the Book of Kells. When discussing this exact image the technique of interlace is used to place emphasis on the concept of ‘the Incarnation of Christ’, discussed in the Gospel of Matthew. It is important to note that interlace isn’t used formulaically and used more as a tool to aid the imagination and heighten the effect of symbolism, translating as biblical narrative. Now, the element of decoration that I am about to mention is probably my favourite little bit of decoration found in the Book of Kells, making me laugh every time I see it. At the end of the Rho, you can see Christ emerging from the end, thus indicating how God took on man’s flesh to save us. Furthermore, zoomorphic imagery of Angels (creatures of heaven), Cats and mice (creatures of the land), and Otter and fish (creatures of the sea) are also hidden within the tapestry of interlace that is the Chi-Rho page. Through the study of the gospels one will learn how God became man in the form of Christ to die to save us all. This teaching takes pages and pages of the bible to explore and explain. However, the scribes of the Book of Kells condense the teaching of the Incarnation of Christ into one page. Christ came to save us, and through this act of emergence from the Rho all the creatures around him are connected to him through interlace and thus are saved.

I am hoping that from this incredibly brief and hopefully not too confusing analysis of the technique of interlace, that you are able to see how Insular art is in fact highly intellectual, as it crafts Word into image. However, the real thing I hope you take away from this is, don’t get a ‘Celtic interlace’ tattoo without double checking it’s Celtic first…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: