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Fraser's Scottish Annual
Celtic Manuscript Illumination


IN the fifth century, when the Italian Monks carried the Gospel to the Western people, nowhere was it received with greater enthusiasm than by the Celts, who soon developed in their religious writings a style quite different from that then found on the continent. The Irish Monks were very skilful with their pens, adorning not only the initial letters, but decorating the page itself; their favorite designs at first being geometrical patterns, into which they finally introduced such simple figures as snakes, dragons, and the lower forms of animal life. The next step represents the human body, but this step shows how utterly lacking the Barbarians, as the Romans called them, were in the knowledge of anatomy. They conventionalized the human face, limbs and hands, which they never colored, and they treated the body itself merely as scroll-work. They rarely used gold, but employed bright harmonious colors to fill in these pen drawings. Although nature was utterly disregarded in the coloring their rich borders with their graceful patterns and the delicate beauty of their initial letters are most charming, as a manuscript in the Bodleian library at Oxford bears witness.

As the Celts became Christians they in turn sent missionaries to the Pictish Highlands, the forests of Germany and the wilds of the Alps and the Appennines, where they established many monasteries. When the Teutons embraced the new faith they, too, began the art of illuminating, which differs somewhat from that of the Celts, although it, too, was really decorative writing. A unique feature of their work was the introduction of the foliage design, the bodies of snakes, animals and semi-human monsters lending themselves to this treatment, as is shown by a fine manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. During the time of Charlemagne, in the ninth century, Ave find this branch of art receiving great encouragement. The foliage work and curious animal creations of the early period combine with the Irish scroll work and geometrical figures, but much gold and silver are often introduced on a purple background. In their figure pieces the illuminators try to follow early Christian pictures, but the lack of technique, long flaring nose, glaring eyes and awkward hands and feet make one think of the work of highly-gifted children. The figures are surrounded by rich architecture, fine tapestries and furniture; and even copies of ancient gems and coins appear. A brush dipped in light red is generally used for the outline, which is next covered with a thick coating of half-tint, the high lights and shadows being added in solid color, while all details, such as eyelids and so forth, are simply indicated by red and black lines.


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