An Irish Virgin
by Mark Calderwood
The Book of Kells’ miniature folio 7 verso is the oldest image of the madonna in Western manuscript art. It is also one of the most complex. But while where see a simple picture of the Virgin and Child, its creators would understand the image as cosmopolitan, syncretic and deeply symbolic.
Painted by one of three artists who illuminated the Gospels codex around 800 AD, the full-page miniature depicts the Virgin enthroned with the infant Christ and attended by angels. The Virgin dominates the composition, her importance denoted by her large size and central placement. She is shown in the native Irish saffron veil and mantle rather than the more usual Byzantine maphorion, and the cross commonly found on the shoulder in Eastern depictions of the Virgin is stylised here as an Insular cruciform brooch. This is not mere culture-specific ornament: the Imperial purple mantle and the veil and brooch indicates her universality by referencing the immediately recognisable garments of both a Byzantine empress and an Irish queen.
But perhaps the most universal aspect of the Kells Virgin is her depiction as a mother. She is seated sideways on her high-backed chair with the infant Christ in her lap: a pose which despite its Hiberno-Saxon stylisation is recognisably Coptic in origin, being an unconventional variant of the seated Hodegetria type found throughout Eastern Christian art.
The finely draped texture of her clothing clearly reveals the Virgin’s breasts, seemingly out of place in religious art. But instead of being a ‘primitive’ detail, it further establishes the syncretism of the image. Prior to the ninth century, Celtic Christianity habitually articulated the Virgin almost an avatar of older fertility goddesses, with early religious literature dwelling on Mary’s sexuality and describing her breasts and womb in a frankly sexual context. Despite her sexless Coptic antecedents, this Irish Virgin is a fertile mother.
In the Kells miniature, the artist places the infant Christ seated at an angle across his mother’s lap, creating a pattern of crossed diagonals that draws attention to the figures’ interrelation. Christ looks into her face as he reaches out to his mother, and their hands touch as he leans back into her cradling arm: gestures and postures that create a sense of intimate and tender maternalism, an expression of humanised religious feeling rare in early Christian art.
Curiously, the Christ child is not only clad in saffron-dyed Irish clothing, but depicted as a small adult, complete with the curling golden hair and long moustache of a pre-Christian Celtic hero. In Irish literature, Christ was identified almost exclusively by his matronymic mac Mhuire, the son of Mary. Yet in this image, Christ’s head does not bear a nimbus like his mother’s enamel-like halo, nor is his hair depicted in the same manner as the attending angels or ordinary men. Instead, Christ’s blonde hair is arranged in the distinctive curling tendrils particular to evangelical portraits and those of Christ in several Insular gospel manuscripts, including Kells folios 32v and f114r.
It is significant that the blonde hair and red-coloured beards in these figures match earlier Roman descriptions of Gaulish heroes bleaching their hair and long moustaches with urine and lime, as well as descriptions of native Irish heroes such as Cu Chulainn in the Tain Bo Cuailnge and Fionn mac Cumhaill in the Fenian cycle; but equally it is now believed this hairstyle is associated with the tonsure worn by clerics in the Irish church. Christ is thus at once identified with pre-Christian warrior heroes and tonsured clergy, raising the cachet of the latter to the cultural heroism of the former.
The four angels attending the scene introduce a hieratic aspect to the image, overlaying its affectionate informality with dogmatic structure. As in Eastern antecedents, their wings form a canopy over the Virgin; their symmetrical placement framing mother and child imparts a monumental, iconic quality. Taken wholesale from Coptic images, three of the angels carry flabella, fans originally used to keep flies away from the eucharistic bread and wine that by the fourth century had come to figure in the liturgies of the Coptic, Byzantine and Armenian churches. The fourth carries a foliate staff, a stylised palm symbolic of the Resurrection that symbolically complements the flabella. Significantly, these processional objects refer not to God, per se, but rather to the Christian liturgy. Surprisingly cosmopolitan cultural elements to be found so far from the Mediterranean centres of Christianity, they connect the miniature and its audience at the remote edge of the world to the traditions and dogmas of the wider church.
As central to both image and doctrine, every element of the composition is placed to keep the eye fixed on the Virgin. The lozenge-like barbs at each corner (actually geometricised foliate palmettes, common to Byzantine-influenced continental manuscripts of the period) enhance the diagonal sight lines created by the angels’ wings, converging on the Virgin’s and Christ’s faces. The semicircular lunae between the angels echoes and extends the Virgin’s halo, both leading the eye both to her as well as, significantly, touching each of the angel’s flabella.
An interesting inclusion in the broad border framing the miniature is presumed to be a ‘group portrait’ of the monks of the Columban community. Entirely contained within the image that hangs off the Virgin, this detail subtly suggests the Eastern doctrine equating Mary’s physical body to the enfolding body of the Church.
More subtle still is the structure of the page itself, built around the principles of sacred geometry adopted by the early church. Set within a 4 x 3 rectangle, the page symbolically incorporates the passage between the transcendent and the manifest: the very essence of the incarnation. The artist thus parallels the spiritual made physical, to articulate the mystical and doctrinal aspects of the incarnation. At the same time, the ordinary woman who gave human flesh to her son is united with the majestic Virgin, with the structure and liturgy of the church underpinning, mediating and glorifying the emotional spiritual connection.
It is often assumed that the Virgin and Child folio, as with other miniatures and carpet pages in the codex, were displayed on the altar at Iona (and Kells) and the book read from during services. While the book’s exact usage at Iona can barely be guessed at, the circumstances of its context make this improbable. Kells does not fit these generalisations made about the physical and visual contexts for viewing and hearing: the capitularies and passages meant to be read aloud during the mass are absent from its contents, and its textual difficulties such as its turn-in-the-path line ordering and its emphasis on aesthetics over legibility would make public reading problematic…at best. The practices of the early medieval liturgy and near-windowless architecture of early Irish churches would also seem to bear this out.
The miniature’s original monastic audience would be keenly aware that the image was not solely a point of emotional connection such as we might understand, but meant to be read in terms of the doctrines and mysteries surrounding the incarnation of Christ as part of a larger majestas domini cycle formed by the other full miniatures in Kells.
Moreover, the Book’s sheer material value and astonishing craftsmanship suggests it announced the importance, authority and wealth of the community on Iona, as well as its theological and cultural sophistication…powerful enticements to potential recruits. It is precisely this sophistication that suggests the codex’s original use was within the monastic community, for religious instruction and exegesis, spiritual and aesthetic contemplation, and since Iona was an important centre of scholarship and book production, probably as an artistic model in the scriptorium. While its textual errors and the programme of aesthetics over legibility may seem to argue against its use in instruction, early medieval art acted as visual and exegetic rather than text-based instruction, which fits the culturally and dogmatically complex imagery in Kells.
It is also likely the Book served as a kind of mascot of the monastery, or even potentially, given the almost magical properties ascribed to Insular gospel books, a more literal talisman: a tour-de-force of faith and a magical quasi-relic of St Columba that may have inspired devotion and cemented together the tiny but remarkable monastic community.