Medieval Art: Hiberno-Saxon and Gothic

Today we are going to study two different art works done in the Middle Ages, which took place between the 5th and 15th century, starting when the Roman Empire fell in 476 and ending with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1492. We will only analyze two art periods:

With the rise of Christianity all over Europe, the pagan conquest of the islands in the north resulted in an intense missionary activity, specially in Ireland, where isolation from the Continent and other urban centers gave them the concentration and dedication to create their own graphic style shown most commonly in the Illuminated manuscripts, religious books (specially the Gospels) complex in design and symbolic imagery. It is most likely that the interlacing and ornamentation was inspired by the established metal work traditions of both Germanic and Celtic tribes. One of the earliest examples of the Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts is the Book of Durrow, whose ornamentation is a combination of animal interlacing, abstract interlacing and extremely detailed ornamentation, aided by geometric patterns. The importance of type and lettering became imperative, since they were creating the perfect design to communicate the written word of the Bible. This is beautifully exemplified by the Book of Kells, a copy of the Four Gospels in the southeastern Ireland between 769 and 820.

Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells. Ireland, C. A.D. 760-820. Illumination. Trinity College, Dublin.

Above, we are looking at the Chi Rho Page from the Book of Kells, a large format manuscript written in latin of the four Gospels, created on vellum (calf skin) and completed around the year 800. The book is the work of a number of different scribes and artists but still, it is apparently not complete, since its design allows 60 more pages. We don’t know exactly if these pages are missing or never done. Little is known about the origins of the book, but the theory is that it was used for ceremonial purposes because of its highly detailed pages. Its creation started on the island of Iona in a monastery founded by St. Colm Cille, in the 6th century, and, after a possible Viking raid, the book was moved to Kells for safekeeping. The text has been identified to have 3 different hands at work with a high degree of consistency throughout.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.04.07 PMThe composition of this page is completely taken over by the letters XPI, the name of Christ in a Greek contraction. Along the visual plane there’s an extensive use of geometric shapes, interlacing patterns and elements within elements: angels, naturalistic mice and cats, circles with abstract ornamentation and patterns on the inside.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.04.23 PMPatterns and shapes defined by line in this page is impressive. Line quality and variation can be easily seen in the X letter, narrowing in the outer edges and making a diminishing and delicate flowing curve. Even though there’s so much detail on this page, the black outlined letters stand out from the visual plane to rank them on top of the surrounding elements, supported by the contrast of scale.

Color is deceiving in the reference images found around the web. Color variation and alteration is a constant problem, mostly around the saturation levels. Fortunate enough, with the combination of technology and scholars, the book has been adapted to the digital world in its entire length (680 pages) for the iPad, which can be purchased here.  It is the most reliable source I could find to really understand and analyze the actual color of the book. The Book of Kells uses an unusual technique of adding thin translucent washes of one color, layer after layer. Pigments were created from different minerals and plants. Blue was created with an indigo dye extracted from woad plant. White was created with a calcium hydrated sulfate. The predominant yellow or gold pigment was taken from a toxic yellow arsenic sulphide. Purple was created from a dye from an orchil licken, mixed with white to create pink. Verdigris was created locally. New colors emerged from mixing these pigments creatively.

Graphic textures are created through repetition of elements, in this case, circles and interlacing elements. The amount of detail of these textures makes it hard to understand what’s actually going on between these lines, which would be extremely hard to reproduce again. One common characteristic of these textures is that they all present abstract and organic forms, going from basic geometric shapes (circles and ovals) to leaf-like forms. Most of the text pages were written in a brownish ink known as iron gall ink. This was made from oak galls or oak apples, mixed with iron sulfate and wine or vinegar. A carbon black ink, made from lamp black or soot, was also used but less commonly. Other colors of line are green, yellow and purple.

Here are some additional images of different pages of this beautiful book:

Let’s jump now to another art period in the Middle Ages: The Gothic. This style was born in the northern part of France, which later was spread throughout Europe and even carried to other regions such as Mexico and Palestine. The style is one of a kind, from architecture to stained glass masterpieces. With their incredible height, towers and spires, images and narratives, the cathedrals built in the Gothic period summed up the knowledge in every art form done at the time.

Let’s go to the Cathedral of Chartres, the most nearly complete of all Gothic cathedral in terms of architecture, sculpture and stained glass. The height of cathedrals cannot be explained with certainty, since the temples could easily hold a big congregation with much lower structures. It was mostly for symbolism: humanity’s aspiration to reach heaven, the desire to be closer to God.

Rose window and lancet windows, north transept, Cathedral of Chartres. Stained glass, 13th century.

Rose window and lancet windows, north transept, Cathedral of Chartres. Stained glass, 13th century.

Stained glass was an important asset to tell the story of Christianity in the temples to all its followers, and of course, it had the function of lightening the tall and dark interiors of cathedrals. Chartres cathedral’s stained glass is in the best condition regarding form and content, since it portrays all the representations of medieval knowledge: Old and New Testaments, lives of the saints, signs of the zodiac and so on.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.04.07 PMThe composition of the gigantic window of the north arm is a rose above five lancets. In the central lancet is St. Anne, mother of the Virgin, holding her child. She’s flanked by two kings (Solomon and David),  two high priests (Melchizedek and Aaron). The rose shows Mary in the center holding Christ as a child.  In the next circle there are four doves indicating each one of the Gospels, and below them eight angels kneel or stand in adoration. Twelve kings sit in the next circle of twelve diamonds. Finally twelve semicircles around the rim depict prophets. Between the kings and the prophets, the four-leaf shapes are filled with lilies on a blue field. All of these icons are arranged in a symmetrical way, which adds a sense of balance, power and suitable formality.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.27.57 PMStained glass achieves its effect by the passing of light through the glass, rather by the reflection of light as in mosaic. This effect is also known as Lux Nova.  The predominant colors are red and blue, making a high contrast in hue. Green, yellow and white appear too.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 11.04.23 PMLine is used in stained glass to limit the shapes of the elements in the visual plane, usually painted with a dark pigment. These are as detailed as they can get; absolutely every element is outlined, with inner additional outlines to add detail such as wrinkles, texture strokes, clothing folding and so on.

Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves movie poster. Warner Bros. 1991.

Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves movie poster. Warner Bros. 1991.

To continue with medieval research, I’ve selected a case of study to detect the accuracy of the time period’s elements. The film I’ve selected is Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves, a film released in 1991 featuring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. It is a CLASSIC.

Focusing on the main character’s profile, Robin of Loxley (Costner), is an English nobleman who joined King Richard in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), later imprisoned in Jerusalem. He eventually escapes, returning to England to his father’s castle. However, upon his arrival, Robin finds his homestead burned to the ground and his father executed by the soldiers commanded by the sheriff of Nottingham. Later on, we find him as a rebel stealing from noble people with the help of outlaws living in the woods, embarking on a quest to usurp the corrupted nobility and return their wealth to the poor peasantry.

Robin  is a noble man’s son that decided to join The Third Crusade, so its interesting to see that there are really accurate elements on his clothing. Wool was the cloth in demand: it was warm, took dye easily, and could be produced in weights to suit any number of garments. Medieval folk did not have separate wardrobes for summer and winter but simply added another layer or a lining in cold weather. Following the discovery of exotic Eastern fabrics during The Crusades, trade routes opened up a new world of glamorous options, light materials and patterns.

Costume and fashion. Medieval World. Bailey Publishing Associates. 2009. Page 7.

Costume and fashion. Medieval World. Bailey Publishing Associates. 2009. Page 7.

At first glance, Robin Hood’s noble costume looks a bit overwhelming with the number of clothing pieces. It is a bit understandable because of England’s weather or hierarchy of the character in Medieval social classes. Also we can see patterned fabric and ornamentation in the gallery above and armor parts, which I can deduce as a glimpse of Robin’s visit to the Eastern lands, which must have been some of the interesting art direction decisions made for the film. Below, I created an illustration with a simplified approach to what could be the noble costume based on a couple of book sources.

Robin Hood sketch - costume design

Robin Hood sketch – costume design

Hope you enjoyed the post!


  • Kathy Elgin. “The medieval world”.Bailey Publishing Associates Ltd. 2009. Print.
  • Steele, Philip. “The medieval world”. New York: Kingfisher, 2000. Print.
  • X Communications, Trinity College Dublin. “The book of Kells” for iPad. Dublin. 2012. Digital.
  • Hartt, Frederick. Art: a history of painting, sculpture, architecture. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1989. Print.

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