They say talk is cheap, but the written word is another matter entirely. Today, we have predictive text on our mobile devices and universal education and we think nothing of typing out quick comments as we skim social media throughout the day. But our ancestors had a very different relationship with the written word. They prized reading and writing. Those were rare skills, not a universal minimum requirement to survive. Long before the printing press, books were handwritten. Scribes created one copy at a time laboriously and gloriously. A book was indeed a work of art.
The most famous example of this is the Book of Kells. Columban monks created this redition of the four Gospels around 800 AD, and its incredible detail and ornate style drawn tourists from all countries and belief systems to Trinity College Dublin. The Book of Kells is not the only illuminated manuscript. Monks and scholars across Europe were creating illuminated manuscripts, noted for the use of silver and gold gilt. The Celts, however, took it to another level with intricate knotwork designs, including animals and birds.
The Book of Kells is not the only example of Celtic illuminated manuscript. The Book of Durrow and the Book of Armagh also well known. All three are in Trinity College Dublin’s collection. TCD’s library is home of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project, which seeks to preserve and better understand early medieval manuscripts.
Beauty that Survives
These ancient texts teach us much about Irish culture through the ages. The works that survived are mostly religious. Monks carefully, painstakingly inscribed the Gospels in intricate detail. Even a quick look at Ireland’s illuminated manuscripts shows that these works were an expression of love. Only intense love could sustain the devotion involved in creating this artwork. The monks must have loved their God and their faith as well as beauty itself. And they must have had profound passion for sharing their love.
The style they forged in those illuminated manuscripts lives on. We’ve embraced digital communication. Ebooks are ever more popular, as are electronic versions of newspapers and magazines. But while the way we write has changed, our love of beauty has not. The style and specific designs created by those monks so very many generations ago are now popular for tattoos, t-shirts and jewelry.
When we wear the designs inspired by those ancient manuscripts, we are doing more than enjoying something beautiful. We’re getting in touch with the earliest roots of Irish culture. The designs are absolutely timeless. People have admired Celtic design for centuries. It’s hardly going to go out of style next season! This is beauty that nourishes more than the eye. It speaks to our souls too.
The artists and craftspeople creating these pieces today must feel some of the passion and devotion that those ancient monks felt. They might have more diverse motives for their work now, but you cannot create something so beautiful without putting your heart into it. Maybe that is part of why wearing Celtic designs feels a bit magical.