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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Journals
  • Iconography
  • Design, Interlace, and Ornament
  • Pigments

Medieval Studies Insular Manuscript Illumination
Carol A. Farr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0046


The manuscript decoration produced in Ireland and the British Isles from about 600 to 850 marks the advent of medieval book art. Linked to the arrival of Christianity, it includes some of the earliest surviving examples from groups of northern European people who, never having lived fully within the Roman Empire, received the religion from a culture outside their own milieu. Artistic developments in this context included mixtures of native art with Mediterranean as well as interpretations of Late Antique and contemporary Mediterranean art. The name “Insular,” however, is used here not to denote a style but rather to provide a simplified label for the stylistically diverse examples of decorated manuscripts from 7th- through mid-9th-century Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Welsh, Pictish, British, and Scottish contexts. Another term, “Hiberno-Saxon,” is sometimes used, but it, too, is not entirely satisfactory because it appears to exclude all but Irish and Anglo-Saxon contributions and to ignore the complexity of the various groups’ interactions. Manuscript decoration played an important role in visual art developments because of the Bible’s centrality to Christian thought, ritual, and authority. Moreover, the imported medium of book art required adaptations of native decorative forms and assimilation of foreign traditions, such as illusionism and depictions of the human figure. By the late 8th century, Gospel books and Psalters, the most significant biblical texts for Christian thought and prayer, appear to have become sites for development of complex interpretative images and traditions of graphic presentations that incorporated concepts of orthodoxy, liturgical and devotional meaning, and the role of the church. Of all illuminated Insular manuscripts, biblical manuscripts survive in the largest numbers, but they were not alone in receiving decoration. Other types of illuminated texts include prayers, histories, lives of saints, biblical commentaries, poetry, natural science texts, liturgical books, canon law, and grammatical studies. The chronological reach of Insular manuscript illumination extends from the 7th century, when the groundwork laid by Irish monastic founders (such as Patrick, Brendan, Columba, and Aidan) and the missionaries sent from Italy and Gaul to the Anglo-Saxons (Augustine, Mellitus, Paulinus, Felix, and Birinus) had begun to flourish, and it comes to an end in the later years of the Carolingian empire, with changes brought with the arrival of the Vikings. Geographically its embrace reaches beyond the islands of Britain and Ireland to Continental centers (Luxeuil, Bobbio, Saint Gall, Echternach, Fulda, and others) founded by Irish and Anglo-Saxon missionaries and their followers, the major figures being Columbanus, Willibrord, and Boniface. Most of the decorated manuscripts have undoubtedly been lost, however, and determining dates and places of origin and use for those that have survived is fraught with difficulty, with only a few of them attributable and datable by evidence such as scribal colophons. Production of Insular manuscripts is thought to have been done almost exclusively in monasteries, but the involvement of royal and aristocratic families in these communities certainly exerted a considerable force. Royal involvement left some record in texts and in the archaeology of royal sites such as Dunadd. The gaps in our knowledge about specific contexts have given rise to a sometimes frustrating conflict of opinions in scholarship but also to lively debate and an ever-widening discussion.

General Overviews

Few modern overviews of Insular manuscript illumination have been published, in part because it is perceived as a specialist subject and, in part, because the relatively small number of surviving examples and the uncertain attribution and dating of nearly all of them make an overview difficult without the context of contemporary sculpture, metalwork, and architecture. Moreover, trends since the early 1980s, responding to the theoretical preoccupations of related humanities disciplines, have tended toward iconographic and contextual studies, and publishers consider monographs on the most well-known individual manuscripts more marketable than scholarly overviews (see Studies on Individual Manuscripts). Academic publication of surveys on Insular manuscripts peaked during the 1930s to 1970s. Interest in that time was to a degree linked to nationalistic concerns (Henry 1965, Henry 1967, Masai 1947), a tendency against which more recent scholarship has reacted (see Historiography). Micheli 1939 demonstrates some of the strengths and weaknesses of this earlier scholarship, in the author’s discussion of the spread of Insular art on the Continent and in her attempt to establish its stylistic influence into the Romanesque period in France. The most-comprehensive modern surveys of Insular manuscripts are found in Alexander 1978, Henderson 1987, and Barbet-Massin 2013, all of which are appropriate for advanced undergraduate and graduate students, and are useful to specialists. Valuable overviews are given in Webster and Backhouse 1991 (see Exhibition Catalogues) and in the commentary volume of the Lindisfarne Gospels facsimile, Brown 2003 (see Studies on Individual Manuscripts: Lindisfarne Gospels). Brown 2007 provides a short overview into the later Anglo-Saxon period, useful to general readers and undergraduates. For the same readers on Irish art, Moss 2014 has readable, informative accounts of iconographic features and major examples that are linked to Ireland. Modern overviews of Insular art of all media suitable for students and more serious readers are not numerous. An excellent introduction for students and general readers, Webster 2012 surveys art of all media. For advanced students and academics, Karkov 2011 gives a specialized survey of Anglo-Saxon art. Neuman de Vegvar 1987 gives a thorough and readable account focusing on Northumbria. Useful discussion is sometimes given in scholarship also dealing with Carolingian manuscripts (Koehler 1972, Zimmerman 1916) and in other disciplines, such as paleography. General surveys of Insular and early medieval art provide further introductions to the subject (see also Textbooks).

  • Alexander, Jonathan J. G. Insular Manuscripts 6th to the 9th Century. A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles. London: Harvey Miller, 1978.

    Presents well-organized individual entries in catalogue form on nearly all the surviving examples, in roughly chronological order. Each entry succinctly covers the relevant aspects and questions, gives a summary of provenance, and has a complete bibliography to the mid-1970s as well as illustrations. Remains essential to Insular manuscripts research.

  • Barbet-Massin, Dominique. L’Enluminure et le sacré: Irlande et Grande-Bretagne VIIe–VIIIe siècles. Paris: Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2013.

    A wide-ranging survey that presents thorough discussion of contexts and recent scholarship, providing insights that deserve further consideration. The chapter on symbolic representations of space in particular gives original and fruitful interpretations. Engages with current scholarship across multiple disciplines. A rare, recent study in a language other than English.

  • Brown, Michelle P. Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age. London: British Library, 2007.

    A compact overview focusing on decoration and paleography of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts but with some examples relating to Irish contexts, such as the Cathach of Columcille, the Books of Durrow and Kells, and the British Library’s Irish pocket gospels (Additional MS 40618). Lavishly illustrated with dozens of full-page color illustrations.

  • Henderson, George. From Durrow to Kells: The Insular Gospel-Books 650–800. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

    This study of gospel books extends to manuscripts of other texts, integrating historical background and earlier scholarship. Henderson provides important insights into the seemingly eccentric iconography of Insular art. A forerunner of recent arguments for complex iconographic meaning based on patristic and Insular exegesis (see Iconography; Design, Interlace, and Ornament; Studies on Individual Manuscripts).

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art in the Early Christian Period to 800 A.D. London: Methuen, 1965.

    A student of Mâle and Focillon and a leading scholar of medieval Irish art, Henry in her two-volume survey champions the Irish contribution to Insular manuscript decoration. Although much of her work has been refined, revised, or disproved, present-day scholarship maintains many of her attributions, dates, and interpretations.

  • Henry, Françoise. Irish Art during the Viking Invasions. London: Methuen, 1967.

    The second volume of Henry’s two-volume survey of early medieval Irish art. Covers the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh, Macdurnan Gospels, the Turin Gospel fragment, and other illuminated manuscripts attributed to Irish contexts to the 11th century.

  • Karkov, Catherine E. The Art of Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2011.

    Surveys Anglo-Saxon art of all media. Organized thematically. Discussion of manuscript art emphasizes the Alfredian period and later, but with some discussion of selected Insular examples. Recent critical theories are prominent in treatment of works and thematic organization. Comprehensive on artistic context.

  • Koehler, Wilhelm. Buchmalerei des frühen Mittelalters: Fragmente und Entwürfe aus dem Nachlass. Edited by Ernst Kitzinger and Florentine Mütherich. Veröffentlichungen des Zentralinstituts für Kunstgeschichte in München. Munich: Prestel, 1972.

    Koehler died in 1959 before completing his history of manuscript illumination. His posthumously published notes give an insightful treatment, which sees Insular illumination as produced by a unified early medieval culture and both figural art and abstract ornament manifestations of a unified, dynamic visual tradition. An unconventional view at the time.

  • Masai, François. Essai sur les origines de la miniature dite Irlandaise. Les publications de scriptorium. Brussels: Éditions “Erasme,” 1947.

    Influential despite being deeply flawed, even repugnant, with its racially skewed argument. Masai, not having studied the original manuscripts, placed the origins of all early deluxe examples and the Book of Kells in Northumbria. His book gave rise to the more thoughtful theories found in Brown 1972 (cited in Studies on Individual Manuscripts: Book of Kells).

  • Micheli, Geneviève Louise. L’enluminure du haut Moyen Âge et les influences irlandaises. Brussels: Éditions de la Connaissance, 1939.

    Micheli, a student of Focillon, saw Insular art as originating in Ireland, with subsequent developments in England, and acting as the intermediary of Antique and Romanesque decoration. Following early-20th-century theories of stylistic sympathy, she argues on behalf of Insular manuscript illumination’s Continental influence. Presents the broader early medieval artistic context.

  • Moss, Rachel. “Art of Worship and Devotion.” In Art and Architecture of Ireland. Vol. 1, Medieval: c. 400–c. 1600. By Rachel Moss, 225–328. Dublin, Ireland, and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.

    Published for the Royal Irish Academy and the Paul Mellon Centre. Includes Irish manuscript art, 7th to 9th centuries, with introductions to text types (gospel books, psalters, missals) and features relating to visual art (canon tables, evangelist portraits, etc.). Bibliographies uneven in coverage, quality. Well illustrated. Students should augment with Alexander 1978, Henderson 1987.

  • Neuman de Vegvar, Carol L. The Northumbrian Renaissance: A Study in the Transmission of Style. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1987.

    A clearly written survey of visual art and architecture in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. An excellent introduction that places manuscript illumination in Northumbria in historical and artistic contexts. Informative notes and full bibliography to the mid-1980s.

  • Webster, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Art: A New History. London: British Museum, 2012.

    The major examples of manuscript art produced in England, c. 700–c. 1066, set within a survey of Anglo-Saxon art of all media. Organized thematically but with a chapter devoted to “the Viking impact.” Written by an articulate, sensitive authority.

  • Zimmerman, Ernst Heinrich. Vorkarolingische Miniaturen. 5 vols. Berlin: Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft, 1916.

    One volume of text; four volumes of plates, two of these devoted to Insular manuscripts. Intended to reproduce all illuminated pages of early medieval manuscripts. Remains a useful resource but is flawed by inaccuracies, particularly in dating of the manuscripts. See Nordenfalk 1987 (cited in Historiography) as well as Arthur Haseloff’s review, Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 42 (1920): 164–220.

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