The year was AD 410, and the Roman lighthouses, or pharos, along Britain’s Channel coast went dark. The legionnaires who had for 300 years trudged up the stone stairways to keep great bonfires lit were abandoning Britain.
They were no longer strong enough to hold back the invading Germanic people. Historians call these next centuries the Age of Migration, and like the incoming tide on a beach, each migrating wave lapped farther into the empire as the tribes fought Rome and each other to carve out kingdoms for themselves. In England the native British, many of them Christians, struggled to stem the Saxon tide, but just as the lighthouses went out, so did the light of the gospel in many parts of England and the continent.
(A little more than usual to help explain this art, which is over 1000 years old!)
In the previous centuries the empire’s safe roads, common language, and mostly literate population had helped Christians evangelize much of the Roman Empire, and by 313 persecution ended with the legalization of the faith. But after the collapse of Rome, Christians faced an immense task of evangelizing the incoming tribes. A page from an early gospel book shows a tiny central cross surrounded and threatened by an immense black area filled with interlaced beasts, illustrating how overwhelming the task must have seemed.
With God’s help they accomplished this miracle, and by the end of the Middle Ages, most of Europe was Christianized. To see how the work began, we need to look to Ireland. In the 400s it was above the high tide mark of the Germanic invasions, but it was almost completely pagan, so what happened?
A few years before the legions left Britain, a boy, later named Patrick, was born into a native British family. Raiders captured him as a teen and sold him into slavery in Ireland. In those years of cold, hunger, and loneliness Patrick remembered his family’s Christian faith and learned to pray and trust God. God helped him escape, and after some amazing incidents involving ships and wolfhounds, and wanderings in France, Patrick finally made it home. But there he had a dream that the Irish were calling him back to tell them about Christ, and he returned to Ireland in 432. By the time he died in 463, he had evangelized much of Ireland, planting many churches and baptizing thousands.
The Irish soon embraced monasticism, and in that mostly rural land, monasteries became centers for education and further evangelism. In these communities some conducted worship, some went out as preachers, and others worked with their hands. They instructed converts in the faith and taught handicrafts, languages, and methods of explaining the Bible to others. While England slipped back into paganism, in Ireland a literate Christian society emerged from pagan darkness.
In the next century the Irish monks began to take the gospel to other lands. One named Columba led a group of 12 monks to an island called Iona off the west coast of Scotland.
They evangelized much of Scotland, and their history even contains the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness monster! From Iona, monks established a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, to evangelize northern England.
For the next couple centuries Irish and Irish-trained English missionaries founded monasteries to spread the gospel throughout France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Eventually Benedictine monasticism took over most of these, but this early Celtic evangelizing and preservation of learning helped Europe emerge from the chaos following the fall of Rome.
Books, especially the Gospels, were considered crucial to their work, so a scriptorium for copying and decorating these was a part of every Irish monastery. They believed that making God’s word beautiful was a form of worship.
Gospel books contain Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in Latin, and many highly decorated pages such as the cross page shown above. Unlike illustration, which pictures what is going on in the book, illumination decorates the words themselves, and the monks drew on a rich heritage of Celtic metal working for their designs.
I’m sure you all have seen the decorated letters that sometimes begin chapters in books. Well…the Celtic monks were over the top in this area! Whole pages decorate the beginning of each gospel, and decorated letters are everywhere! They made fantastic designs of tangled knots, wheel patterns, interlaced ribbons, and unfolding spirals, as well as animals knotted or woven together.
Monks often kept cats as mousers and pets, and these and other animals also appear realistically throughout gospel books. Here is an excerpt from a poem written by an 8th century Irish monk. It shows a playful sense of humor that shows up in Irish illumination, as well as their dedication to learning. The cat’s name is Pangur.
I and my white Pangur have each our special art: His mind is set on hunting mice, Mine is upon my special craft.
He rejoices with quick leaps, When in his sharp claws sticks a mouse; I, too, rejoice when I have grasped a problem difficult and dearly loved….
Observations and Devotion
(They seemed to go together for this artwork)
The Book of Kells, considered one of the finest gospel books, is believed to have been begun on Iona around AD 800. It was taken to the monastery of Kells in Ireland when a new wave of barbarians, the Vikings, repeatedly raided the island. The Book of Kells is now at the library of Trinity College in Dublin, and although its original covers and some pages are lost, 680 pages remain. Even on the mostly text pages, it is more highly decorated than other gospel books and is brighter, with more reds and yellows.
One very special page is found in every gospel book. It is the illumination of Matt. 1:18, where the gospel switches from Jesus’ ancestry to His birth with the Latin words Christi autem generatio, which means, “this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about….” For this reason it is called the Incarnation page, and on it the monks used a traditional symbol for the word Christ–the first two letters of Christ in Greek–Chi-Rho or XP.
1. Look first at the three circles in the lower left corner. In these you see echoes of the Trinity over and over again. One example: three smaller circles are joined within each of the larger circles.
2. Look more closely, and see that each large circle is actually a spiral, and these three are joined. (more echoes!)
3. Look more closely still and see the new and different shape beginning to spiral out and away from the joined circles. This is the beginning of the Chi or X, and although it starts small, just as Jesus did at his conception, it soon bursts up and outward in the glorious beauty of His birth. The X seems to dance across the page. Can’t you almost hear the angels singing as Christ is born, or the morning stars singing when He created the world?
4. It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the X, but now look at the partial frame in the lower right corner. It’s as if the artist began there in an orderly way but soon found the clouds of spirals and interlacing knots were beyond his control. The whole fantastic design is mysterious and overwhelmingly alive in its beauty and intricacy, but also impossible to follow in all its patterns and symbolism.
What a wonderful illumination of the Incarnation of Christ, which bursts joyfully beyond the framework of our feeble understanding.
5. But the monk/artists didn’t forget that Jesus was truly human, too, and they have put many recognizable forms in the midst of the mystery.
Find three angels and two moths along the left side of the X.
Find 2 human heads.
Find the two cats with either mice or kittens near the bottom of the X. Which do you think they are?
To the right of the cats find an otter with a fish in its mouth. Could the fish be a disguised symbol for Christ?
Illuminate comes from the Latin word illuminare, which means to “light up,” an apt word to describe the bright and beautiful ornamentation of these Celtic gospel books that were truly a bright light in the midst of a dark age. The cross page from The Lindesfarne Gospel, (ca. AD 700) shows many of the same fantastic beasts as the earlier cross, but now it has broken out of its little circle and looms large and conquering over the beasts.
The Book of Kells is one of Ireland’s greatest treasures, and over 500,000 people from all over the world go each year to view its beauty. The monks wanted its beauty to lead people to Christ, the true treasure of the world.This Christmas may this thousand-year-old illumination of the incarnation of Christ renew your wonder and awe that the creator of the universe came to earth as a helpless baby, to one day die to save His people from their sin.
The Irish monks would have loved singing this line from the Christmas carol, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus:
“Go to Him, your praises bringing; Christ the Lord has come to earth.”
The above pictures and details are used solely for educational purposes.