God has filled him with his spirit and given him skill, ability, and understanding of every kind of artistic work. Exodus 35: 31
The missionary company that accompanied Patrick included artists, according to the Book of Armagh. Patrick himself used to teach young people who were training for the ministry to write the alphabet in a graceful style. Before Patrick’s arrival, the people of Ireland were all but destitute of a literature. In the centuries following Patrick there was a great flowering of art and calligraphy. The flower of that flowering was The Book of Kells.
It is thought that this book was designed at Iona in the eighth century, and taken to the monastery at Kells for safe keeping during a Viking invasion. Many brightly coloured natural pigments were used. It abounds in spirals, knotwork and key-patterns. The ornament is profuse and varied, sometimes drawing on both Pictish and Byzantine art. Geraldus Cambrensis concluded that the Book of Kells was ‘the work of an angel, not of a man’. Even today, Nicolete Gray in A History of Lettering can say that the three Greek letters that form the monogram of Christ on the Chi Rho page are ‘more presences than letters’. For shining through the brilliance of the artistic skills is the splendour of spiritual understanding.
There is something of the artist in all of us and we can learn much from these Irish artists. For example, that an artist does not have to be conventional; an artist may follow angles that seem ‘way out’ to others but this could be a form of humility or folly for Christ. An artist must, however, attain to an inner purity, honesty, and integrity of spirit. The artist needs to understand the inner, God-given nature of each element of creation that (s)he wishes to portray, and how it reflects an aspect of the ultimate nature of the Creator.
The Irish sense of balance in imbalance, of riotous complexity moving swiftly within a basic unity, would now find its most extravagant expression in Irish Christian art – in the monumental high crosses, in miraculous liturgical vessels such as the Ardagh Chalice, and, most delicately of all, in the art of the Irish codex.
Thomas Cahill How the Irish Saved Civilisation
God, fill your people with your Spirit
and give us skill, ability, and understanding
of every kind of artistic work