An Irish Virgin

articulate

The Book of Kells’ miniature  folio 7 verso is the oldest image of the madonna in Western manuscript art. It is also one of the most complex. But while where see a simple picture of the Virgin and Child, its creators would understand the image as cosmopolitan, syncretic and deeply symbolic.

Painted by one of three artists who illuminated the Gospels codex around 800 AD, the full-page miniature depicts the Virgin enthroned with the infant Christ and attended by angels. The Virgin dominates the composition, her importance denoted by her large size and central placement. She is shown in the native Irish saffron veil and mantle rather than the more usual Byzantine maphorion, and the cross commonly found on the shoulder in Eastern depictions of the Virgin is stylised here as an Insular cruciform brooch. This is not mere culture-specific ornament: the Imperial purple mantle and the veil and brooch indicates her universality by referencing the…

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