Celtic, Pictish, & Anglo-Saxon Visual Culture (c.550-850)
with Professor Emerita Michelle Brown
(School of Advanced Study, University of London)
at Sutton Hoo, Saturday, 10th October, 2015scabbard

The period c.550-850, falling between the demise of the Roman Empire and the Viking raids and settlements, witnessed the formation of one of the most vibrant, innovative and intriguing phases of artistic development in Britain and Ireland. These arts of the islands are often termed ‘Insular’, recognising that the many different peoples and kingdoms in question had distinctive traditions and identities which came together to form something new in which they all participated in different ways.

Iron Age Celtic, Romano-British and pagan Germanic elements merge and fuse with renewed influences from the Continent, and even the Middle East, to produce artworks of the magnitude of the Sutton Hoo ship-burial, the Ruthwell Cross, the Tara Brooch, the St Ninian’s Isle treasure, the Staffordshire Hoard and the Lichfield Angel. With the conversion to Christianity and the acquisition of full literacy, the emerging art of illumination assumed new heights of achievement and artistry in works such as the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Codex Amiatinus and the Book of Kells. Complex modes of communication were developed, producing the enigmatic Pictish carvings of Scotland and images that were capable of simultaneously conveying many different meanings, in which words were to be seen and images to be read.

This course introduces students to the historical context within such works were made and used, to their stylistic sequence and development and to some of the ways in which their rich imagery can be interpreted. It will also consider the impact of Insular art upon the history of art in general, helping to inform both the Carolingian renaissance, the Romanesque and, during the late 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement. The approach adopted will fuse history, art history, archaeology and literary studies to do justice to this fascinating and complex period in which northern Europe moved from late Antiquity into the early Middle Ages.

Provisional Programme

09.50 – 10.15:                Coffee on arrival

10.15 – 11.15:                Art and the islands: the historical background and an introduction to Celtic, Germanic and Romano-British art.

11.15 – 11.40:                Coffee break

11.40 – 12.40:                Pagans and priests: the arts, migration and conversion.

12.40 – 14.00:                Lunch break

14.00 – 14.50:       The arts in early Christian Ireland, Northumbria and the continental mission fields.

14.50 – 15.10:               Tea break

15.10 – 16.00:                Picts, Scots and enigmatic symbols; the Viking impact and the enduring appeal of Insular art.

c.16.00:                            Thanks and Close

About Professor Michelle Brown

Michelle P Brown FSA was until 2012 Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies, School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London. She was Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, British Library (1986-2004), and specialises in cultural and book history. Media appearances include Time Team, In Our Time, Christianity: a history and Secrets of the Saxon Gold. Extensive publications include studies of the Lindisfarne Gospels, Luttrell Psalter and Holkham Bible. Exhibitions include ‘The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ (BL) and ‘In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000’ (Smithsonian). She is Professor Emerita at SAS and Visiting Professor at University College London and Baylor University, Texas.

Some Suggestions for Optional Background Reading

Primary reading:

  • Brown, M. P., How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2006).

For art in the historical context:

  • Brown, M. P., The British Library, Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age (London: British Library, 2008).
  • Brown, M. P., The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World (London: British Library, 2011).
  • Harbison, P., Golden age of Irish art: the medieval achievement, 600-1200 (Dublin, 1999).
  • Henderson, G. & I., The Art of the Picts (London,  2004).
  • Henry, F., Early Christian Irish Art (Dublin: Four Courts, 1954).
  • Webster, L., Anglo-Saxon Art: a New History (Ithaca, 2012).

Supplementary reading:

  • Brown, M. P. & C. Farr (eds), Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (Leicester, 2001; 2nd edition, 2005).
  • Brown, M. P., The Book and the Transformation of Britain, c.550-1050: a Study in Written and Visual Literacy and Orality (London and Chicago, 2011).
  • Henderson, G., From Durrow to Kells, the Insular Gospel-books 650-800 (London, 1987).
  • Karkov, C., The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge, 2011).
  • Laing, L. & J., Art of the Celts (London, 1992).
  • Megaw, R. & V., Celtic Art (London, 2001).
  • Orme, N., Cornwall and the Cross: Christianity 500-1560 (London, 2007).
  • Redknap, M., Christian Celts: Treasures of Late Celtic Wales (Cardiff, 1991).
  • Webster, L., & Backhouse, J. M., eds, The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900 (London, 1991).
  • Youngs, S., ‘The Work of Angels’, Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th Centuries AD (London & Austin, 1989).