November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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A Gift of Art History

 Riding with Rodeiro:

Ireland to Italy

and back again


By  Dr. José Rodeiro
Art Editor

RAGAZINE Art Editor provides a viable itinerary for a 2013 grand tour of Europe that examines key examples of Early Medieval visual art and architecture, listing “must-see” pieces and monuments that chronicle the intricate transition from the “Dark Ages” to the Pre-Romanesque, spanning a geographical swath that extends from Ireland to Italy and back again.   Rodeiro sees this unique art historical overview as a type of informative “Christmas Card” or a “Holiday Greeting” for those RAGAZINE readers who desire art historical insights into visual art, architecture, civilization, and culture.  The article below is a laudable attempt to satisfy those audacious cravings.  At this 21st Century moment when the earth is beset by countless woes and pundits describe economic and geo-political harbingers of a “possible” pending “Dark Age,”  the article also furnishes discerning and optimistic reflections about how “The West” crawled out of an earlier “Dark Age,” which might be in accord with Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Law of Eternal Return” or  George Santayana’s famous quote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. ….,” although, in this case, it is: “art history.”

Lasting from the 7th to the 8th Centuries CE, the so-called “Dark Ages” were precipitated by four main geo-political conditions: 1). Perpetual un-Christian Viking raids against Christian coastal and inland monasteries throughout Europe, 2). The Byzantine Empire’s Iconoclastic Controversy, 3). The dire consequences of the military encroachment of Islam into France, Spain and Southern Italy, and 4). The fact that many European barbarian tribes had not yet converted to Christianity. Thus, the remnants of Roman and Byzantine power, lingering under the guise of the Christian faith, were in jeopardy. In fact, the authority of the former Roman world (Western Civilization) was on the brink of total extinction. Indubitably, it would have completely vanished had it not been for two driving forces: 1). The brave resolve of the outnumbered Christian Frankish arms at the Battle of Tours (732 CE) which began the Christian wars of reconquest against Islam in Europe, and 2). The tenacity of Irish monks who managed to keep the light of Western art and culture burning throughout the British Isles, and eventually Europe. By the 9th Century, Charlemagne and his heirs would take full advantage of both of these unforeseen cultural and political miracles, during the Carolingian Renaissance, fostering the revival of the West.


To understand the artistic contributions of Christian monastic culture on the British Isles in the Dark Ages, it is essential to study the Norsemen. During excavations in 1938 and 1939, a group of Viking ship burials (c. 655 CE) were unearthed in Sutton Hoo, England, providing many treasures, including an ornate purse cover.

The Sutton Hoo purse cover’s interlaced abstract decorations and organic figural elements correspond artistically to designs in Celtic illuminated manuscripts from the same period, as do the undulating serpentine decorations of the dragonhead ship’s prow from the Oseberg ship burial, Norway, c.820 CE. Even though Viking raiders violently


attacked Celtic monks throughout the British Isles, there seems to have been a cross-cultural influence between the two cultures.

These 7th and 8th Century Norse artistic influences on Hiberno-Saxon (Irish) art presumably derive from earlier zoomorphic filigree designs on ancient Russian Scythian gold works and Luristan (Iranian) bronzes that Vikings had noticed and acquired during their incursions into Russia and the Black Sea. The Norsemen’s stylistic influence on Celtic art is most evident in the famous Book of Kells (the Great Gospel Book of St. Columba). Until disruption by Viking attacks in 807 CE, which prevented its completion, St. Columba (St. Collin Kille) and his coterie of monks had painted it on parchment (13” x 9 ½”) on the Island of Iona. Then later, the unfinished manuscript would be taken to Kells, Meath, Ireland, to protect it from Viking raiders. There are many liturgical influences on the decorations of the Kells’ Gospels that relate directly to Roman Catholic iconology. This is especially noticed on the Chi-Rho Carpet Page of the Gospel of Matthew with its sensational monogramming of history3the first three Greek letters of Christ’s name forming an animated X-shaped configuration, cross-like emblem, floating on a hive of symbols. Exemplifying God’s nature, infinity and “eternal life,” the background is a maze of swirling figure-eights and volutes, which are comprised of snakes biting their own tails, and tiny whirlwinds. Amidst the chaotic surge, a miniature angel peeks out, indicative of the Gospel of Matthew, while the Apostle’s blond-haired portrait is attached to an extremely long undulating neck, forming part of another abstract and mystical emblem. This carpet page is one of the most energetic images in Western Art.

Abstract interlacing of organic serpents and abstract patterns bedeck the earlier (700 CE) St. Matthew Cover Page from the Lindisfarne Gospel (The Gospel of the Martyr St. Cuthbert) from the Monastery of Lindisfarne on the Island of St. Aidan, Northumbria. It was probably at Lindisfarne Monastery that a handful of Celtic monks did the most to preserve Western Culture during the darkest days of the Dark Ages by their devotion to classical learning. This work had been created by Edfrith, an English Monk, who had been trained by Irish monks.  Eventually Edfrith became Bishop of Lindisfarne. In 875 CE, the Lindisfarne Gospels (along with the relics of St. Cutbert) were moved to Durham for protection from Viking raiders. An even earlier work, thehistory4 Echternach Gospels of St. Willibrand, is famous for its fat swastika behind the abstract imaginative yellow leaping-lion on the St. Mark Cover Page, 690 CE. Also, similar intricate abstract patterns were carved on High Cross commemorative sculptures at Monasterboice, Carndonagh, Moone, Ahenny, and at other sites throughout the British Isles.

The greatness of Celtic-Christian influence on the Frankish Carolingian Renovatio (which was an attempt to revive the Roman Empire) can be best defined as a fusion of the Celtic-Germanic Spirit with that of the Mediterranean World. In the 8th Century, during the final stages of the Merovingian Dark Ages, Pepin the Short (Charlemagne’s father) attempted to recruit Hiberno-Saxon (Celtic) monks, (along with Italian scholars), to promote Classical learning among the Franks. This fact is expressed by the French medievalist Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, (1988 edition, 205).

These events are the direct result of the 6th Century Celtic-Christian Reconversion of England by the Irish, continuing through the 8th Century Hiberno-Saxon (Celtic) Renaissance and culminating in the 9th Century Celtic scholarly involvement within the Frankish court. During the Celtic Renaissance in Ireland, Scotland, and history5Northumbria, Celtic-Christian religious communities formed scholarly spiritual-centers replete with scriptoriums and libraries. Within these communities, the monks devoted themselves to writing, copying, illuminating, preserving and maintaining Greco-Roman and Christian codices. These monastic congregations were located throughout the Celtic region in locations such as Durrow, Lindisfarne, Ruthwell, Leicestershire, Muiredach, Malmesbury, Kells, Durham, and other centers.


In the text The Era of Charlemagne, (1979 edition), Stewart Easton and Helene Wieruszowski expound upon the Carolingian Renovatio, stressing the Celtic-Christian role in the creation of the 9th Century Frankish Renaissance. They also note the inclusion of several Spanish and Italian scholars and poets within the Frankish court (88).

The Frankish Carolingian Renaissance is a great civilizing agent, reviving and re-standardizing lexicography, grammar, codifying spelling, promoting the visual arts (against Byzantine and Islamic iconoclasm), revitalizing many of the theological aspects of Christianity, re-advocating the rule-of-law, reintroducing liberal arts history6education, resuscitating Greco-Roman literature and offering many other Carolingian gifts to European Civilization. Charlemagne and his heirs furnish many important erudite instruments that have advanced Western Culture. All of these civilizing cultural achievements were carefully attained through direct contact with Celtic Christian scholars. The Carolingian Age greatly advanced the progress of Western Civilization. Therefore, it is incredibly wrong to negate the significance of Celtic-Christian influence on modern European and American Civilization(s). Therefore, we must acknowledge our debt to the Hiberno-Saxon Celts, who made many worthy contributions to European Civilization between the 7th and 9th Centuries, especially among the Franks, the Danes and the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons.

Celtic Christian beliefs were at the core of Charlemagne’s faith. Crowned by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day, 800 AD, Charlesmagne was declared “Holy Roman Emperor.” He became the first Roman Emperor in 300 years. He established the imperium Christianum (Christendom): the Holy Roman Empire. Despite his close association with the Pope, whenever he was confused history7on religious questions concerning 9th Century Roman Catholic doctrine, he relied on Hiberno-Saxon Christian theology that he had learned from his teacher and principal advisor Alcuin of York, who had been trained by Irish monks. Even the Pope had to conform to Alcuin’s view of church doctrine, because Charlemagne wholeheartedly concurred with his own advisor.

Like Pepin the Short, Charlemagne wanted to invigorate his court with Classical learning. The Celtic Christians encouraged the study of ancient Greco-Roman literature. Charlemagne felt that liberal arts education would greatly enhance his court’s prestige, while reinforcing Roman Catholic theology.

In 1840, Jean Jacques Ampere named the reign on Charlemagne the “Carolingian Renaissance” in his History of French Literature (32-5). Many masterpieces of ancient Roman literature had been illuminated and preserved in Irish, Scottish and Northumbrian monasteries. These texts were carefully studied by Hiberno-Saxon (Celtic) scholastics during the Irish, Scottish & Northumbrian Renaissance of the 8th Century. The Northumbrian Deacon, Alcuin of York was history8the product of the Celtic-Anglo-Saxon monastic educational tradition that had flourished since the 8th Century on the British Isles. This legacy aimed at the preservation of Greco-Roman & Christian literature and culture throughout the British Isles. In France, Pepin the Short saw the potential of this effort, and tried to introduce Celtic learning among the Franks.

Alcuin was the heir to the Celtic Christian tradition. Along with a host of Irish scholastics, Alcuin helped instill these values throughout the Holy Roman Empire from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. Scholars, poets and artists also came from Spain, Italy and other parts of the empire. But, according to the French medievalist Robert Folz in his The Coronation of Charlemagne, 1974, the Irish and Northumbrian contingent at Aachen’s Palace School played a highly significant role in the revitalization of classical learning (64).

The utter lack of erudite scholars in France and Germany during the Dark Ages caused both Pepin and his son to hunt for highly trained intellectuals among the Celts in the British Isles. Invitations were extended to scholars from Ireland, Scotland and Northumbria as well as Spain and Italy. The Franks knew that the Celtic Christians were known as great preservers of Classical learning (Folz 63). The Franks history9wanted to reestablish liberal arts education (Folz 66). Alcuin became the central figure in this effort. Alcuin’s devotion to liberal education is reflected by the sincere dedication to learning of his greatest student: Charlemagne!

Robert Folz describes the collegial interplay among the scholars of the Palace Academy (Palatine School), Aachen. The success and excitement of this educational venture within the Frankish court led to the eventual spreading of knowledge throughout the empire. Schools opened at Metz, Tours, St. Denis (Paris), Rheims, and later Laon. These schools would be responsible for the creation of several generations of scholars. This educational legacy would outlive the Carolingian Dynasty. In fact, the “modern university” is probably partly heir to this Carolingian educational innovation, although other traditions from Spain, Italy, Greece and Islam contributed as well in the evolution of modern learning. But, the Celtic-Christian scholastic idea of stressing Latin linguistic uniformity (the standardization of language), while focusing on codices/books (texts) as reservoirs of intellectual learning are important educational concepts that are of great interest even today during our technological “Dark Age,” when classical traditions are perpetually trampled. The lesson of Charlemagne is still there, “To go forward, one must first go back.” This new emphasis on “history” is another valuable ingredient of “civilization” that the Celtic-Christians helped to revive, during the 8th & 9th Centuries. Stewart Easton & history10Helene Wieruzowski’s The Era of Charlemagne (1979 edition) describes the activities of the Palace School (189).

The Ada Group was the chief Palace Workshop (scriptorium), creating illuminated texts at Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) and Ingelheim. The Ada Group’s painters and scribes (which included Charlemagne’s sister Gisela) produced a bevy of famous manuscripts: The Sacrementary of Igitur, The Godescalc Gospel-Lectionary, The Gospel of Charlemagne, The Aachen Gospel, The Gospel of Medard d’ Soisson, etc., including the Gaelic Sacrementary of Gelasian that belonged to Alcuin. The Ada artists strove for classicism and directness in their images e.g. the St. Matthew Page from Charlemagne’s Coronation Gospels (795 – 810 CE). Other scriptoriums abounded at Metz, Tours, St. Denis (Paris), Rheims, and other locations, financed and supported by the Emperor. The most bizarre was the expressionistic style of the Rheims School, e.g. The Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo and the famous Utrecht Psalter. The Rheims style was extremely gestural and emotional.

history11During the Carolingian age, Western architecture was also revived. The greatest Pre-Carolingian (Merovingian) building was the Baptistry of St. John at Poitiers which greatly influenced Carolingian architecture. Although, Richard Krautheimer believed that Carolingian architecture derived exclusively from the styles of Constantinian Roman churches like Old St. Peters and Sta. Costanza. But, the Church of St. Vitale in Ravenna is also significant to the development of Carolingian architecture. Charlemagne had selected Aachen as his capital because of the near-by hot springs that he loved. He built several structures there, including the Royal Hall (aula regia), the Palatine Chapel, the Palace School and the Scriptorium which were destroyed by allied-bombing in WWII, except for the chapel. He also encouraged architectural works throughout his empire at St. Gall, Germigny des Pres, Cluny, Rheims, Lorsh, Corbie, Corvey, Mustair and other places. Odo of Metz was the architect of the gorgeous Palatine Chapel, Aachen (792 -805 CE). While Einhard of Fulda (Charlemagne’s talented son-in-law) beyond designing jewelry and authoring a biography Vita Caroli about Charlemagne was perhaps the designer of the St. Gall Monastery.

Charlemagne studied dialectics and astronomy with Alcuin and Dungal the Irishman.

Alcuin was Charlemagne’s principle advisor on both clerical and secular matters. Alcuin knew several forms of Gaelic, translating Gaelic texts into Latin. Charlemagne desired that Latin would be the imperial tongue, although he tolerated and encouraged the maintenance of vernacular (national) languages. But law and statecraft were conducted in Latin.  To maintain his authority at court, Alcuin relied on his Irish colleagues, according to Pierre Roche.

Despite the constant English and Italian attempts to diminish the contributions of Celtic culture, a brief historical examination of the facts will instantly reveal that during the 6th through the 9th centuries, Europe profited greatly from Celtic Christian intellectual and artistic endeavors. In fact the greatest work of Western philosophy during that period was created by an Irishman who was employed by Charles the Bald (Charlemagne’s son) in Laon, France, during the 9th Century. St. John Scotus Erigena’s Divisions of Nature is perhaps the most profound text of that time, in terms of its understanding of Christian metaphysics. This Irish-born theological-philosopher was the ancestor of Scots who had migrated to Ireland. Pierre Riche’s account indicates Scotus’s profound significance.  By the end of the 9th Century the intellectual wealth of the Celtic-Christian world had been generously poured into the Carolingian Renaissance, creating a renewed interest in learning throughout Europe.

Scotus evolved out of the long Celtic literary legacy that fostered authors and scholars like Clement, Dungal, Alcuin, etc., etc. Pierre Riche notes that even during the Carolingian Age, Non-Celtic scholars felt enmity, jealousy and vexation towards their Hiberno-Saxon colleagues within the Frankish court and Palace School. Sadly, even today there are those who ungratefully diminish and disregard Celtic cultural contributions to Western civilization.

After the Treaty of Verdun (843 CE) Charlemagne’s empire was divided in three among his heirs. This event eroded the Empire’s vital unity, causing an eventual Carolingian demise, ending with the rise of Hugh Carpet as King of France (938 -996 CE) in western Europe, and a new Saxon Holy Roman Empire in eastern Europe. The new Emperor was Otto the Great of Saxony (912 – 973 CE), who wisely tried to continue many Carolingian traditions, while fostering new Ottonian artistic innovations that would have far reaching consequences on the emergence of Romanesque Art in the 11th Century CE.


About the author:

Jose Rodeiro, Ragazine‘s Art Editor, is a professor of art and art history at New Jersey City University. You can read more about him in About Us.