Irish Art, art created on the island of Ireland and in its European dependencies. The earliest forms of art in Ireland were prehistoric carved stones (circa 2500 BC) that formed parts of megalithic stone monuments and tombs. Stone burial urns, ornamented with crude geometric designs and wavy lines, were also common.
Pagan Celtic Art
Art and decoration remained relatively primitive until the arrival of the Celts, a migration that was probably complete by the 3rd century BCE. Early Celtic art expressed itself in gold and silver personal ornaments and such bronze and iron implements as swords and bridle bits. These objects were decorated with engraved designs or raised relief; the distinctive Celtic style emphasized abstract geometric figurations based on circles, spirals, and curved lines.
Christian Celtic Art
With the arrival of St. Patrick in the 5th century CE, full-scale conversion to Christianity took place, and monasteries became the principal artistic centers. Christian Celtic art consisted mainly of stone crosses, illuminated manuscripts, and metal objects such as chalices, shrines, and reliquaries. The art of this period utilized traditional Celtic curvilinear motifs enriched with foreign embellishments brought back to Ireland by returning missionaries-motifs such as the Saxon use of entwined, interlocking animal forms in geometric decorations.
The most impressive Celtic Christian art was produced from the late 7th to the early 8th century, both in Ireland and in Irish missions in Europe. Manuscripts of books of the Bible were embellished, or "illuminated," with decorative borders and lettering of astonishing intricacy and inventiveness. Complex, twining geometric designs predominated; the rare representations of human faces and figures were abstract and stylized.
The masterpiece of this period is the Book of Kells , which is unsurpassed for the minute perfection of its jewel-like illumination. Other art of the period included large stone crosses carved with interlacing relief decorations; ceremonial religious objects ornamented with gold filigree and colored enamel studs, such as the Ardagh Chalice; and personal ornaments of highly sophisticated design, especially brooches-called pennanular brooches-in gilded bronze and silver.
Viking raids of the 9th and 10th centuries caused upheavals that put an end to contemporary artistic endeavor. The return of settled conditions around 1100 brought with it a period of renewed creative activity, although the virtuosity of earlier centuries was never regained. Shrines and reliquaries for sacred objects-such as the great processional cross from Cong were the outstanding artistic productions of the time.
An important innovation, most evident in the carving of stone crosses and metalwork, was the gradual movement away from abstract geometric decoration toward increasing representation of the human figure, particularly bishops, saints, and biblical personages.
The indigenous Celtic tradition in Ireland declined rapidly during the 12th century. Increasing foreign influences, such as the introduction of the Cistercian order in the mid-1100s, weakened traditional artistic practice, and in 1170 the Norman conquest of Ireland put a complete end to it. Thereafter, Irish art tended to be a mere subcategory of English art.
Irish Gothic art, the dominant style through the 15th and 16th centuries, was only a weak imitation of English Gothic. Not until the 18th century did Irish art enjoy a resurgence. In architecture, the neoclassical style then popular in England swept over.
Ireland, and Irish architects, sculptors, and decorators produced many distinguished country houses and town residences in that style. Irish painting emerged in this period, when a number of Irish émigré artists in London achieved modest successes in the field of landscape and genre painting. The attempt of James Barry to change the course of English art by reviving large-scale historical painting, however, was a notable failure. In Dublin, a native school of art, particularly devoted to landscape, coalesced after 1800 around such artists as William Sadlerand George Mulvany.
In the 20th century, Irish art has been notable for a modern revival in stained glass; a minor renaissance in painting was led by Jack Butler Yeats, whose exuberant, romantic paintings portray such lively figures as Gypsies, clowns, and fighters.