Early Christian Ireland’s Top 5 Monastic Works of Art

The monks main duties were of course…prayer. Most monasteries would have between 6-8 services a day. When monks were not in prayer, they were usually found on the farm, milking, ploughing and planting crops. However, Irish monks were particularly known for their artistic skills. We thought it would be a good idea to see just how good these monks were. Therefore, here is The Áed’s top 5 Monastic Works of Art

1. The Cathach of St. Columba


One of the earliest Irish illuminated manuscripts, and a treasure of early Christian art, the Cathach of St. Columba (or the Cathach of Colmcille) was supposedly written by St Columba (who died in 597) during the sixth century CE and was associated with the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (561). However, modern historical scholarship now dates it to the seventh century (c.610-620), thus ruling out any connection with St. Columba. The manuscript, a vellum Psalter, is both damaged and incomplete, and numbers 58 folios/pages (up to 200 X 130 mm in size) featuring the text of Psalms 30:10 to 105:13 in Vulgate Latin. Interpretative headings written in Old Irish appear above the text of the Psalms, making the Cathach the oldest surviving Irish manuscript written (in part) in gaelic, and the world’s second oldest collection of Psalms. The psalter’s name derives from the Irish Gaelic word “cath” meaning battle. “An Cathach” means the battler.

2. The Book of Durrow

book of durrow

One of the most famous Irish illuminated manuscripts, the Book of Durrow is the first of the fully decorated Gospel Books. A masterpiece of medieval Christian art, it probably dates to the period 650-680, despite a later inscription which recorded the legend that it was copied out by St Columba (c.521-597) in the space of 12 days. This, at least, confirms its place of origin as one of the Columban group of monasteries, but it is still unclear whether it was produced at Iona (its chief foundation), in one of the Irish houses, or in Northumbria. Certain textual peculiarities link it with the Book of Kells, which would favour the Iona argument, but this has to be balanced by stylistic considerations, where there are greater affinities with north-eastern Britain. In any event, the manuscript was in Ireland by the 10th century, when a special shrine was created for it. A century later, it had arrived at Durrow Abbey itself, in County Offaly, one of the monasteries founded by St Columba. Not only is it a superb example of early Christian art, it is the earliest surviving fully decorated Gospel manuscript of the Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art tradition. It exemplifies the start of medieval book illustration based on the monastic concept of illustrating the sacred text as if with precious jewels and textiles.

Predated only by the Cathach of St Columba, The Book of Durrow is a gospel manuscript named after the monastery of Durrow, a foundation of Saint Columba near Tullamore in central Ireland. Here it was kept from the eleventh century (if not before) until the seventeenth century, when, after the dissolution of the monastery – as we know from an entry in theMartyrology of Donegal and from a mention in Conall MacGeoghegan’s translations (1627) of the Annals of Clonmacnoise – it passed to one of the MacGeoghegans, who would soak it in water which was then used as a cure for sick cattle. In 1661 it came into the possession of Henry Jones, a Cromwellian army scout master who had become the Protestant Bishop of Meath and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin. Eventually Jones gave it to Trinity College, in whose library it is still kept.

3. The Book of Kells


One of the great masterpieces in the History of Irish art, and a world-famous example of early Christian art, the Book of Kells (Leabhar Cheanannais) is the most famous of the illuminated manuscripts, produced by Irish monks about 800 CE. Also known as the Book of Columba, or the Gospel of Colum Cille, the Book of Kells includes the four Gospels of the New Testament written in Latin, decorated with innumerable illuminations, illustrations and miniature images in a blaze of colour. Although unfinished, it is a wonderful example of medieval Christian art and one of the best surviving examples of the Hiberno-Saxon style or Insular art. It is on permanent display at Trinity College Dublin Library in Ireland.

The greatest achievement of Irish religious art, the Book of Kells, was formerly held to be earlier than the Lindisfarne Gospels (which are dated approximately from 700 CE) but is now generally assigned to the late eighth or early ninth century. It can only have been made in one of two places: Iona or Kells. It seems probable, though, that due to its resemblances to the Lindisfarne Gospels it was at least begun at Iona (a traditional centre of holy learning and illumination, from where Saint Columba launched his mission to Christianize Scotland and where he was later buried), the base from which Lindisfarne had been colonized about the year 635. Unfortunately, Vikings frequently raided the island, burning the monastery and killing the monks.

4. The Ardagh Chalice

ardagh chalice

Reerasta Rath, Co. Limerick. 8th Century A.D. This two-handled chalice is an elaborate construction of over two hundred and fifty main components. The bowl and foot are made of beaten, lathe-polished silver, the stem is cast gilt-copper alloy. It is decorated with gold filigree, granulation, multi-coloured enamels, a large rock-crystal, amber, malachite, knitted cast, stamped and openwork metal objects.

A girdle of ten filigree (intricate gold wiring) panels of animal ornament and interlace encircles the bowl between the elaborate handles. Below it, incised on a dotted background are the names of the apostles in an elegant script familiar from contemporary manuscripts. Animals and a design of human heads, lightly engraved, spring from the lower border of the inscription below the handles and medallions. The medallions, one on each side, in the centre of the bowl, are cast bronze frames in the form of a cross of arcs within a circle, embellished with gold filigree scrolls, simple coiled serpents in beaded wire on gold foil and enamels. The stem is elaborately decorated with La Tène designs, animal ornament, fret patterns and a honeycomb-like interlace in cast gilt-copper alloy. The foot of the chalice is large and is decorated on both the under and the upper surfaces. A great roundel of cast ornament, filigree beasts and a rock crystal with a surround of amber glued with a malachite paste, decorate the interior of the foot and conceal the end of the large pin which holds bown, stem and foot together.

The chalice is a calyx ministerialis, that is one made to dispense Eucharistic wine to the congregation. Its design, even at the time of its manufacture, was somewhat old fashioned and harked back to the common forerunners of both Byzantine and western chalices.

It was found in a hoard consisting additionally of a bronze chalice and four gilt-silver brooches ranging in date from the 8th to the 10th century A.D. The hoard, which was discovered in Reerasta Rath near Ardagh, Co. Limerick, in 1868, is likely to have been concealed during the 10th century A.D. The chalice stands 17.8 cm high and is 19.5 cm in diameter excluding the handles.

5. Muireadach’s Cross Monasterboice, Co.Louth


Muiredach’s Cross dates to the ninth century and is regarded as the finest example of crosses depicting scriptural scenes. The cross derives its name from the Irish inscription on the west face of the base:


Prayer for Muiredach who had the cross erected

For more info on this cross, check this out: http://www.megalithicireland.com/High%20Cross%20Monasterboice.htm


Some monks had developed a high level of skill for copying texts from the bible. This sort of work would have been done in the scriptorium and these monks would have been called scribes. The original manuscript would have been copied by scribes onto vellum (calfskin)  or parchment (sheepskin). It is estimated that it took the skins of 150 calves to produce the Book of Kells. The monks used reeds or quills – the tail feathers of Geese or Swans – to write. The ink was produced from minerals, plants and leaves.

Stone Crosses

These were very simple crosses at the start. However, as monks became more skilled and talented at carving, these crosses became elaborate pieces of work. The crosses would have had many scenes from the Bible carved onto them. This was an effective way for people to learn about the bible. It is also thought that for those who were illiterate, the scenes were a way of teaching them the stories.

For more on Early Christian Ireland, be a sport and head on over to some other blogs here!


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