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

  • Introduction
  • History
  • Historiography
  • Reference Works
  • Guides and Museums
  • Bibliographies
  • Periodicals
  • Conference Transactions
  • Metalwork

Medieval Studies Pictish Art
Jane Geddes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0126


Pictish art was created by people living predominantly in north and eastern Scotland between about the 4th and 10th centuries. People in the same locality had created a distinct artistic culture in the Roman times and earlier, with their recumbent stone circles, vitrified forts (rubble stone fused together by fire), souterrains (underground storage structures), brochs (circular stone dwelling towers), and exquisite carved stone balls. Pictish art emerges in the post Roman period, when the Anglo-Saxons, Picts, Irish, and Britons each contributed their own traditions to form the spectacular fusion of Insular Art. The Pictish contribution to this cultural mix is both original and innovative, based on the outstanding production of stone sculpture and metalwork. Pictish art carries a heavy historical burden because so little else survives from this society. Almost all contemporary written accounts are produced by outsiders, with their own agenda, while systematic archaeological investigation is only beginning to approach the larger historical and social questions of power and patronage, daily life and technology. As a result, scholars have pitted themselves against the problem of decoding the Picts’ unique and endurable legacy: their enigmatic carved symbols. These occur first incised on rough boulders and jewelry; they are later incorporated onto Christian cross-slabs, and then they disappear. Their initial creation is associated with the formation of some coherent cultural and political unity within eastern Scotland in the post-Roman era (5th century onward), and their demise is associated with the eventual takeover of Pictland by the Scots (Gaels from the west of the country) during the later part of the 9th century. Difficulties with the ethnic label “Pictish art” emerge for the centuries between the political demise of the Picts and the appearance of Romanesque art in the late 11th century. Clearly, Picts and their artists continued to live in the east, albeit under a Scots hegemony but, lacking the symbols, the evolution of art in these centuries is poorly dated. Pictish art studies have grown from the monumental corpus created by J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson in 1903 (see Allen and Anderson 1993, cited under Academic Accounts). Since about 1970, scholars have concentrated increasingly on placing Pictish art in both a British and a European context, while specialists in related fields of archaeology, linguistics, and history have tried to fill the gaps in source material. The Art of the Picts (Henderson and Henderson 2004, cited under Academic Accounts) brings the argument back to art itself, looking at the objects not simply as diagrams and distribution patterns but as individual works of art created by patrons and artists. Pictish Progress (Driscoll, et al. 2011, cited under Conference Transactions) summarizes the direction of Pictish art studies between the 1950s and 2011. The one missing piece in this bibliography is a new corpus, fit for the 21st century. It has yet to be commissioned and written. Without it, all study in this field requires a large number of books on hand in order to locate the required items. In the meantime, online sources (cited under Reference Works) are becoming increasingly user-friendly and comprehensive for Pictish studies. Since the later part of the 20th century, the quantity and pace of research has greatly increased, with more scholars entering the field from diverse backgrounds. Part of its attraction is undoubtedly the strong visual appeal of the art itself, combined with the scant supporting evidence: The scholar must come up with solutions that are not readily provided. At its best, this leads to passionate engagement coupled with the humility of ultimate uncertainty.

General Overviews

General overviews are available on two levels: accessible introductions to the Picts and their world, which inevitably feature sculpture and metalwork as the richest source of illustration, and the two major monographs on Pictish art itself, Allen and Anderson 1993 and Henderson and Henderson 2004 (both cited under Academic Accounts). Historic Scotland has sponsored several useful guides to the early medieval period in Scotland, clearly written and well illustrated. These are aimed at beginners, tourists, undergraduates, and people who want to grasp the whole picture quickly. However, each volume incorporates the latest discoveries and research at the time of publication. They are also effective because they incorporate the interdisciplinarity essential for modern art history, covering archaeology, landscape, and distribution maps. This approach was begun by Henderson 1967 (cited under Popular Introductions) with a publication that came from a series about archaeology but succeeded in putting Pictish art on the popular map with its generous illustrations of visually compelling sculpture.

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