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A Celtic Primer

Friday, June 02nd, 2000 | 1 comment

Though most often associated with Ireland, the word "Celtic" (from the Greek, keltoi ) actually refers to the larger, dominant pre-christian culture of Europe north of the Mediterranean. Celtic society and culture first appeared ca. 500 B.C. in the area of the Danube headwaters, and by the first century B.C. it encompassed the regions of modern-day Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Central Europe, the Balkans, as well as the British Isles. By the tenth century A.D., with the exception of Brittany in northern France, Celtic civilization had contracted, surviving primarily in Ireland, Wales, and the highlands of Scotland - the so-called Celtic Fringe.

The term Celtic, in modern usage, also refers to the family of languages spoken by these earliest Indo-European inhabitants of northern Europe. Irish Gaelic is considered the most archaic surviving form of spoken Celtic. Irish emerged as a written language with the advent of Christianity sometime in the early fifth century A.D., and as such it stands as the oldest and longest literary vernacular tradition outside of the classical world. A beautiful and sonorous language once spoken by millions, Irish is now spoken as a living, daily language by no more than 25,000 Irish men and women.

Celtic also refers to a distinctive style of European art. The earliest clear expression of Celtic art is found in the pottery and metalwork artifacts of the Hallstatt culture ( flourished ca. 8th and 9th centuries B.C. ) . A later form emerges with the beautifully intricate and accomplished metalwork of the La Tene period ( flourished ca. 450 B.C.). Despite a long and powerful tradition of insularity, Celtic art did display elements of syncretism. It is this marriage of Celtic vision with earlier elements of indigenous Irish iconography and the later assimilation of Romano-Christian culture that produced what many consider to be the crowning glory of Irish Celtic art.

The "Book of Kells" is a Gospel manuscript created in approximately the 9th century A.D. in the British Isles. This Book, along with The Lindisfarne Gospels are truly amazing examples of early western art and are arguably the finest surviving illuminated manuscripts in the whole of Europe. The attention to detail in lettering and illumination, largely the handiwork of Irish monks, is nothing less than astonishing. It is, perhaps, the characteristically Irish elements of playfulness ( both grotesque and beautiful ), combined with a sense of freewheeling invention, color and fantasy that provide such vivid evocations of the early Middle Ages. Certainly, few examples of medieval art present such a gleeful and unselfconscious blurring of the dividing line between the Christian world and the slowly fading pagan world.

The script used throughout the pages of the "Book of Kells" is known as "half-uncial". This type of lettering is a transitional step between Roman Capitals and the "lower case" lettering later found in medieval manuscripts. Additionally contained within many of the illuminated pages are square capitals or "Rustic" Anglo-Saxon majuscules which playfully interact with their surrounding imagery.

by Daniel J. S. Lewis


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