Celtic Icons

Where did the carvings and manuscripts of early Christianity in Scotland originate? Most scholarship now posits a cross fertilisation from around the globe - driven partly by sea trade routes and partly by missionaries using Roman land routes. These pioneers were obeying literally Christ’s command to take the Gospel to ‘the ends of the earth’ - finis terrae.


The Burghead Bull (Moray). From a version by Andrew McGavin Designs‘Imagine’ says Elisabeth Sutherland ‘ a little fleet of.... coracles...and laden dug out canoes carrying a family of Mesolithic explorers from the South. Driven onto the island of Jura by a wild wet gale...waking to a glorious dawn, a blue and breathless ocean peopled by friendly seals.' These Mesolithic nomads of the sixth millennium BC were joined by Neolithic farmers around 2,000 years later. The religion seems to have been shamanistic, in which burial cairns, caves and scared springs were gateways to the Otherworld of the spirits, with the Pictish animal symbols possibly tribal totems.

It is not far from this world to the world of the evangelist symbols - eagle, oxen, lion and man - the biblical ‘totems’ which guard the base of the throne of God in Ezekial’s vision, and are seen upholding the throne, after the seer St. John, passes over a crystal sea. The Picts would have recognised with delight the Christian fish acrostic as showing a similar ‘spiritual gateway.’


Celtic cross made at gesso & gilding course, Marydale, CannichThe Keltoi (Greek) or Celtae (Latin) was used in a general way to describe the broad sweep of peoples stretching from the Danube to the Spanish peninsula. Galli (Greek) or Galatae (Latin) were the southern and south-eastern sub-group. Professor Renfrew suggests that the Celtic language was introduced into Scotland by Neolithic farmers around 500BC. St. Paul wrote an epistle to the Galatians, who had spread through hiring themselves out as mercenaries in the Greek wars.

In the third century AD Celtic mercenaries were given land grants in Egypt. By the fourth century Albion was used to designate Britain and Ierne, Ireland - both early forms of Celtic. By the eighth century, Alba, the Gaelic kingdom of the Scots was established, with its centre at Scone.

Celtic decorative arts seem to divide into two classes - figurative and animal sculptures with simplified shapes and forms (often in wood or stone), and highly complex decorative metal work. The simplified shapes can be of stunning beauty or have a highly amusing cartoon like quality.


Detail of Trinitarian motifThe Trinity was already a favourite motif of Celtic decoration long before Christianity. The ‘power of three’ was expressed in artefacts such as the three faced stone head from Corleck, Ireland, or in the ‘three mothers’ representing strength, power and fertility. The Morrigna resolves into three - Morrigan, Badb and Nemain. Brigit and Macha also occur as triads.

It is no wonder that when Patrick, Brigid and Columba are buried next to one another the graves carry the ‘potency of the triad.’ When the Christians make hymns to the Trinity the doxologies are more creative than in any other language - singers seeming to vie with one another to find new expressions:-

‘In the name of the Holy Spirit of grace, in the name of the Father of the City of Peace, in the name of Jesus who took death off us.’ ‘God and Christ and Christ and the Spirit Holy, and the cross of the nine white angels, be protecting me as Three and as One.’



Gold boss in Celtic iconInterlaced decoration was nothing new in the ancient world - Babylon, Mycenae, Ethiopia, Pompeii - all use similar decorations, but the Picts and Celts brought this decoration to an unsurpassed height. The endless thread - an interweave of one or more strands, in a rigourous pattern in which - no matter how many threads - each thread goes over another then under another, until the thread returns to its beginning, is the basis of many crosses and ‘carpet pages.’ Derek Bryce suggests it is a sign of ‘the great cosmic loom of the universe....there are no loose ends, and the symbol is also one of the continuity of the Spirit throughout existence.’

‘The tension of the interweave between the ‘under’ and ‘over’ passage seems to be related to the double disc -symbol of the dual existence of the sun in it’s dark and light phase. Creation has to grow out of this merging of the seen and unseen, patterned by an invisible weaver. Artisans - often monks used sophisticated geometry to develop underlying patterns, so minute as to be barely visible to the naked eye. The endless thread, like saying prayers on beads, was itself an unending prayer.


St. Columba with Iona scenesThe Celtic Saint was a wanderer. He realised he had no abiding home on earth, so many early monks left their homes as a sign of the spiritual quest - the white martyrdom. One of these monks was Saint Columba - a nobleman of one of the leading families in Ireland. With some other companions, including his cousin Beathain (Bean), he settled in the isle of I - Iona.

‘While there he sailed up Loch Ness to negotiate with the Pictish king, Brude at Inverness. On the way he is recorded to have encountered ( and tamed) the water horse which dwelt in Loch Ness, baptised natives along the banks of the Ness, and eventually left his cousin in Cannich, where he is traditionally held to have founded the cell known as Kil Beathain - now Clachan Comar. Above Clachan Comar is the spring still known as St. Bean’s spring.




St. Brendan reaches the paradise islandThe exile from the world was continually beckoned by another world - one both shown by nature and supernatural. Much Celtic imagery shows us a natural world transformed by patterning into something else - the humour is bigger and better ( the beard pulling), the trees are bigger and better - the world tree which transforms into the cross, potentially dangerous beasts and situations are transformed by the play of pattern into an almost supernatural humour.

More than any other religious artist, the Celtic Christian expressed a spirit of unalloyed joy and endless adventure. When St. Brendan decides to sail from the Hebrides off the edge of the known world into the uttermost west his spiritual journey, like the Celtic icon is an interlace of the magic of small things - such as the ‘island of (rather large) mice’ with the death of the jester - and the sublime - such as hermit in his cave, with no covering other than his snow white hair. For the Celtic monk his ascetic and austere life was fulfilled when he regained the paradise state lost by the first Adam. The sea voyage was, especially, the path to paradise.

This feature including Icons and Celtic artwork, is contributed by Sister Petra Clare, a nun living at Sancti Angeli Benedictine Skete, a monastic house attached to Marydale Church, Cannich. For more examples of her work, to commission an icon or join a course visit www.sanctiangeli.org