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Zoomorphics-art - 3/2/99


"Zoomorphics In Celtic Irish Illumination" by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper.


NOTE: See also the files: bestiaries-msg, gargoyles-msg, alphabets-msg, calligraphy-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



First Published July 1998 in the Shire of Tempio’s "Dream Spinner".


Zoomorphics In Celtic Irish Illumination

by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper (Pamela S. Keightley)


  The church of St. Mary and St. David at Kilpeck, Herfordshire England is one of the few Churches with Celtic decoration to escape the destruction of the Norman Conquers after 1066. Sheridan and Ross in Gargoyles & Grotesques, Paganism In the Medieval Church comment : "On balance there is far more pagan decoration in the church than Christian and one can only wonder therefore to what degree the beliefs of its first congregations are reflected in the images with which they surrounded themselves." (Sheridan and Ross, p. 118) It seems possible that the early Celts may have accepted Christ into the pantheon of their other gods with out discarding the old.  The acceptance of the Pagan style of decoration on the churches suggests that the workman were working in an artistic vernacular with which they were familiar. Christian interpretations were grafted slowly  upon Pagan traditions transforming pagan holidays into Christian Holidays. Christian interpretations for pagan art forms must have surely followed. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence in regard to the interpretation of Celtic Irish Illumination, especially in regard to the zoomorphic that skulk in the borders and capitals.


  Some of these zoomorphics are readily identifiable as symbols of saints. St. Matthew is symbolized by a man. St. John has the eagle. St. Mark has the lion. St. Luke has the calf. Christ is identified with  the peacock or phoenix. But this leaves several other creatures that  need explanation. Carl Nordenfalk in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting   states that a new development in the zoomorphics occurs in the Book Of Lindisfarne.


"The artist provides his quadrupeds, still band-like, with dog's heads and realistically drawn hindquaters; at the same time he introduces a new species, a bird which, to judge by its hooked bill, trasus , and sharp claws, can only be a bird of prey, mostly likely a falcon. In other words, the two animals essential to the favorite pastimes of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, hunting and hawking, seem to be hinted at here. Whether this change in the vocabulary of Hiberno-Saxon ornament first occurred in secular art it is difficult to say, given the rarity of comparable non-religions objects. It may well have been an innovation of the great Lindisfarne bishop-artist.


(Nordenfalk, p.17)

  The island of Lindisfarne is off  the north eastern coast of England. Why would monks who have dedicated their lives to Christ and retreated from the world decorate their manuscripts with hawks and hounds symbols of the nobilities pleasures? My suggestion is that this is because the creatures symbolize the monks themselves. Are hawks and hounds hunting for the souls of men. As hawks, do they go forth as missionaries, but return to their monasteries to the lure of "Eternal Salvation."  These creatures are not only entangled in Celtic Knot work, but also seem to be consuming it. If the knot work is interpreted as representing Christ's love and the Gospels themselves, it is easy to understand why the hawks and hounds are consuming it. Other figures that support this interpretation are the pairs of beard tuggers that appear. Again if these are interpreted as representing the monks themselves, then it represents the futility of the monks contending with each other. This perhaps represents a Celtic Image of "turning the other cheek." Pairs of figures with interlaced tongues might represent the futility of slandering your brother monk since you are only deriding yourself. Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts show an astonishing amount of imitation and sharing of ideas to the point that it is possible to refer to them simply as Celtic. To trace the origins of Celtic art it is necessary to encompass the globe. Indian, Egyptian, Germanic and Viking influences are all possible contributors to the development of Celtic Illumination.   Francis Henry of University College, Dublin, Ireland  in his article "The Effects of the Viking Invasions On Irish Art" gives us some insight into the origins of Celtic Knot work.  He directs our attention to the famous Irish carving on a sarcophagus found at the rock of Cashel and which is now in Cormac's Chapel.


"It has, or at least it had when it was complete, a zoomorphic decoration consisting essentially in two monsters superimposed on each other, one turned towards the right, the other towards the left. They are caught in a network of sinuous lines made by the bodies of several snakes and we must remember that the "great beast" with snakes is one of the outstanding motifs of Scandinavian art from the late tenth century on."

                                           (Henry, p. 64)

It should be noted that the great beast appears to consume the snakes. Similar decoration appears an many Celtic manuscripts. Brown describes these:


"These consist of abstract symbols (sometimes resembling dumb-bells) or little beasts or figures. In the Book of Cern (a Mercian book of c. 820-40) these form a menagerie of brontosaurus-like creatures (unkindly described as ‘pretentious worms') which batten happily on the surrounding script. These devises also feature prominently in the Book of Kells and from the 9th century, became very popular in Ireland." (Brown, P. 58)


In Irish manuscripts a creature that frequently replaces the great beast and the pretentious worms is the dog.  The appearance of the dogs is one of the major feature that distinguishes Irish art. Attempting to determine the origin of an Irish missal probably dating from the 12th century, Henry comments: "..one would know it at first sight as Irish, because of the heads of the animals which are the stubborn little dog profiles of innumerable Irish initials." (Brown, p.71) If once again, we apply the principal that the dogs represent the monks themselves, we can now look into Irish Legend to further elucidate the appropriateness of using the hound as a symbol for the Christian Monk.


In the Red Branch Cycle the boy Setanta arrives late at his host house. He is attacked by a monstrous dog, which he kills. He is mortified to find out that it is his host's guard dog and offers to take the dog's place until a replacement can be found. Setanta takes the name Chuchlain which means the Hound of Chulain. In adulthood, he is known as the dreaded Hound of Ulster.


Once again the monks are not only Hounds for Christ, but for Ireland as well. This possible transformation shows yet again how pagan traditions can be remade for Christian purposes.




    Michelle P. Brown. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1991.


    Francoise Henry. "The Effects of The Viking Invasions On Irish Art" from introductory papers read at International Congress of Celtic Studies, Dublin, 6-10 July, 1959, Edited by Brian O Cuiv. The Impact of the Scandinavian Invasions on the Celtic-speaking Peoples c. 800-1100 A.June 8, 1998. Baile Atha Cliath: Instituid Ard-Leinn Bhaile Atha Claiath, 1983


   Carl Nordenfalk. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting. New York: George Braziller, 1995.


   Roland Sheridan and Anne Ross. Gargolyles And Grotesques: Paganism In The Medieval Church. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1975.



Copyright 1998 by Pamela Hewitt, the Harper, Pamela Keightley Hughes, 3305 Pecan Drive, Temple, TX  76502-2341. e-mail: shughes at vvm.com (2 "v"s not a "w") Permission granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited and receives a copy.


NOTE: If this article is republished, I would appreciate an email note letting me know this. Also, a note in the reprint indicating that this article was found in the Florilegium would be appreciated. -ed.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org