In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Insular Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Collected Papers
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Architecture
  • Metalwork and Enamel
  • Wood and Bone

Medieval Studies Insular Art
Catherine E. Karkov
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0014


Insular art is a poorly defined area. Broadly speaking, it refers to the art of the British Isles and Ireland between, roughly, the years 600 and 900 CE. In Scotland (which includes the art of the Picts, Gaels, and Scots), Ireland, and the Isle of Man, it is often extended through the Viking and Romanesque periods, into the 12th century, while in England it is usually understood as ending in or around the last quarter of the 9th century. The distinction between Insular and Anglo-Saxon art is especially confusing, and for some scholars “Insular” includes Anglo-Saxon art. Generally speaking, the term “Insular” is applied to the art of northern England only up until c. 900, but there is no consensus, and debate among scholars continues. Many of the books cited below, especially those listed under Reference Works, General Overviews, and Conference Proceedings, cover both Insular and Anglo-Saxon art. Insular style is characterized by an interest in abstraction over figural ornament, an interest in linear pattern and rhythmic form over three-dimensional space and perspective, and, especially in manuscript illumination and metalwork, a love of colorful surfaces. It has frequently been pointed out, however, that the layering of pattern, line, and color on seemingly flat surfaces does in fact create complex spatial patterns. Insular art is often termed “decorative” or “ornamental,” but this is misleading because both terms have been taken to imply a lack of meaning, while the forms of Insular art have been shown to be full of meaning and symbolism. It has also often been described as exhibiting horror vacui (literally “fear of open space”) because of its preference for all-over pattern. All these terms (decorative, ornamental, horror vacui) are also applied to Islamic and other non-Western European art styles and were used by 19th- and early-20th-century art historians as a way of dismissing these styles as of less artistic and cultural value than the three-dimensional, figurative, narrative traditions of the classical world, the Renaissance, and later European art. In such a marginalizing scenario, Insular art became truly an art of the “dark ages.” This was a view that was rarely accepted by experts in the field, but it is only with the advent of the study of orientalism and postcolonial theory that the historical and historiographic colonialism of that approach has begun to be acknowledged by art historians in general.

General Overviews

There is no one book that deals with the broad topic of Insular art. General books tend to be devoted to particular areas within the Insular world, so the reader needs to begin with whatever area is of most interest. For Scotland, Henderson and Henderson 2004 is excellent, and the authors do a good job of defining their material, their area of study, and aspects of style and terminology. Moss 2014 is the place to start for Ireland, although Henry 1947, Henry 1967, and Henry 1970 still offer excellent coverage of Irish art and Harbison 1999 has better illustrations and is more suited for general readers. Wilson 2008 is best for anyone interested in the art of the Isle of Man, and Henderson 1999 is preferred for those interested in early Anglo-Saxon England.

  • Brown, G. Baldwin. The Arts in Early England. 6 vols. London: John Murray, 1903–1937.

    Individual volumes cover The Life of Saxon England in Relation to the Arts; Ecclesiastical Architecture in England from the Conversion of the Saxons to the Norman Conquest; Saxon Art and Industry in the Pagan Period; The Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses, the Gospels of Lindisfarne, and other Church Monuments of Northumbria; Completion of the Study of the Monuments of the Great Period of the Art of Anglian Northumbria; and Anglo-Saxon Sculpture. The organization of the volumes and their chapters is idiosyncratic, but Brown was one of the first to stress the artistic merits of Anglo-Saxon art and architecture and to consider such topics as the artistic aspects of Anglo-Saxon coinage. His work marks a shift from 19th-century antiquarianism toward an art-historical methodology. Available online.

  • Foster, Sally M. Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. London: B. T. Batsford/Historic Scotland, 1996.

    Foster covers the art of the 5th through 10th centuries, exploring the relationship between Picts and Gaels in the creation of a unified Scottish culture. The book is extremely useful for its information on the place of art in the larger agricultural, industrial, and political landscape.

  • Harbison, Peter. The Golden Age of Irish Art: The Medieval Achievement, 600–1200. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

    This is a book for the general reader, providing a chronological survey of architecture, sculpture, manuscripts, and metalwork from the period. Excellent photographs reinforce the author’s portrayal of the period as a golden age.

  • Henderson, George. Vision and Image in Early Christian England. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    This book attempts to eliminate the traditional divisions between “Insular” and “Anglo-Saxon” art by adopting the Continental descriptor “Early Christian” (a term applied more generally to European, especially Mediterranean, art and architecture of the 4th–8th centuries). Most of the book is devoted to manuscript art, with art in other media discussed as it relates to the questions generated by issues such as narrative, color, or artistic production. Informative, if idiosyncratic.

  • Henderson, George, and Isabel Henderson. The Art of the Picts: Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Medieval Scotland. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.

    This book begins with a series of chapters useful for anyone interested in Pictish art, covering the characteristics of Insular art in general, the Pictish participation in Insular art, and the Pictishness of Pictish art. Subsequent chapters deal with metalwork, figurative art, and different forms of Pictish sculpture. All illustrations are in black and white, which can make sculptural decoration easier to read but does not do justice to the metalwork.

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art in the Early Christian Period (to 800 A.D). London: Methuen, 1947.

    Translation of the first volume of Henry’s three-volume L’art irlandais (Paris: Zodiaque, reprinted 1963–1964). These books provide a chronological survey of Irish art broken down into its traditional stylistic/cultural divisions. The focus is on stylistic and iconographic analysis and the identification of artists and artistic origins, with a wealth of historical and cultural background to set the scene. Together with Henry 1967 and Henry 1970, this remains arguably the best overview of the art of early medieval Ireland.

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art during the Viking Invasions (800–1020 A.D.). London: Methuen, 1967.

    Translation of the second chronologically sequential volume of Henry’s L’art irlandais (Paris: Zodiaque, reprinted 1963–1964).

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art in the Romanesque Period, 1020–1170 A.D. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970.

    Translation of the third volume of Henry’s chronologically sequential L’art irlandais (Paris: Zodiaque, reprinted 1963–1964).

  • Moss, Rachel, ed. Art and Architecture of Ireland. Vol. 1, Medieval c. 400–c. 1600. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014.

    Excellent overview of the art of Ireland during the Insular period and beyond. Includes over three hundred essays and five hundred illustrations, many of them in color.

  • Wilson, David M. Vikings in the Isle of Man. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 2008.

    This is a broad survey aimed at the general reader that includes a detailed discussion of metalwork and sculpture, but also excellent background information on the history and archaeology of Viking-age Man. There is also a brief but thorough discussion of the position of the island within the larger Insular and Scandinavian world.

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