August 21, 2015

Celtic Beasts

        We saw lots of lovely mythical beasts in Ireland!  It’s worth noting that with ancient depictions of creatures, especially medieval and earlier, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between real animals and mythical ones.  Note, for example, the wonderfully bizarre elephant holding up the castle in the first carving.  This obviously is the work of an artist who was no more likely to see an elephant than a griffin, and to whom both beasts were equally exotic, improbable, and real.  There are many creatures in Celtic artwork that are not readily identifiable.  They could be monsters, or they could simply be odd dogs.  Even so, fantastical creatures turn up everywhere you look in Celtic art, and I took great pleasure in spotting them on our recent travels.
        First and foremost were the stone carvings.  In addition to the elephant, there’s the oddly wingless griffin atop the castle.  Another stone, also on display at Cashel, shows two very handsome traditional griffins with fleur-de-lis tail tufts and formidable claws.  (Cashel had several more griffins, as well.  It makes me speculate whether Cashel might have hosted some real griffins over the centuries.)
        I should mention the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow, although between the crowds and the dim lighting it’s nearly impossible to get a good view of the Books in person.  I didn’t spot any mythical creatures on the pages that were open for display on the day we went, but I include a couple of illuminated animal selections anyway.  The animals in the Book of Kells are mostly real, but the number and charm of them sprinkled everywhere is one of the things that makes this illuminated book unique.

        Finally, several of the most famous national treasures of Ireland harbor creatures in their ornamentation.  The Tara brooch has animals everywhere, including these
knotted dragonish creatures.  The crozier of Clonmacnoise is supported by gorgeous leonine beasts.  And one of my favorites is the wonderful opossummy head on the Cross of Cong.  It’s probably not meant to be a mythical creature, but since I certainly can’t identify it, I’ll count it as something cryptoid!

[Pictures: Two stone carvings from Cashel, c 1100-1400 CE (Photos by AEGN);
Detail from the arrest of Christ, Book of Kells, c 800 CE;
Detail of carpet page, Book of Durrow, 650-700 CE (Images from Treasures of Early Irish Art, on the Metropolitan Museum of Art web site);
Details of the Tara Brooch, c 700 CE (second image from Archeo sciences);
Detail of the crozier of the abbots of Clonmacnoise, c 1100 CE;
Detail of the Cross of Cong, brass, 1123 (Images from Treasures of Early Irish Art, on the Metropolitan Museum of Art web site).]

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