Article

Insular Art

Catherine E. Karkov

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0014
Insular Art

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy
  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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Insular art is a poorly defined area. Broadly speaking, it refers to the art of the British Isles and Ireland between, roughly, the years 600 and 900 ce. In Scotland (which includes the art of the Picts, Gaels, and Scots), Ireland, and the Isle of Man, it is often extended through the Viking and Romanesque periods, into the 12th century, while in England it is usually understood as ending in or around the last quarter of the 9th century. The distinction between Insular and Anglo-Saxon art is especially confusing, and for some scholars “Insular” includes Anglo-Saxon art. Generally speaking, the term “Insular” is applied to the art of northern England only up until c. 900, but there is no consensus, and debate among scholars continues. Many of the books cited below, especially those listed under Reference Works, General Overviews, and Conference Proceedings, cover both Insular and Anglo-Saxon art. Insular style is characterized by an interest in abstraction over figural ornament, an interest in linear pattern and rhythmic form over three-dimensional space and perspective, and, especially in manuscript illumination and metalwork, a love of colorful surfaces. It has frequently been pointed out, however, that the layering of pattern, line, and color on seemingly flat surfaces does in fact create complex spatial patterns. Insular art is often termed “decorative” or “ornamental,” but this is misleading because both terms have been taken to imply a lack of meaning, while the forms of Insular art have been shown to be full of meaning and symbolism. It has also often been described as exhibiting horror vacui (literally “fear of open space”) because of its preference for all-over pattern. All these terms (decorative, ornamental, horror vacui) are also applied to Islamic and other non-Western European art styles and were used by 19th- and early-20th-century art historians as a way of dismissing these styles as of less artistic and cultural value than the three-dimensional, figurative, narrative traditions of the classical world, the Renaissance, and later European art. In such a marginalizing scenario, Insular art became truly an art of the “dark ages.” This was a view that was rarely accepted by experts in the field, but it is only with the advent of the study of orientalism and postcolonial theory that the historical and historiographic colonialism of that approach has begun to be acknowledged by art historians in general.

Article.  12116 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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