Book Review: Christ in Celtic Christianity, by Michael W. Herren and Shirley Ann Brown

Christ in Celtic ChristianityCeltic has become a buzzword in today’s age, evoking romantic notions of a peaceful, inclusive, nature-loving Christianity practiced in the British Isles of the Early Middle Ages. Classicist Michael W. Herren and medieval art historian Shirley Ann Brown, however, do not indulge these popular misconceptions in their book Christ in Celtic Christianity: Britain and Ireland from the Fifth to the Tenth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2002, 2012). On the contrary, by examining textual and artistic evidence they reveal that the Christianity that was first embraced by Celtic-speaking peoples was very much ascetic and oriented around the avoidance of hell, with salvation being conceived as the end of a life of self-effort rather than an act of God’s grace. Christ the Perfect Monk and Christ the Judge were the most common images of Christ during this period—literary images, that is, for the early British and Irish churches rejected the making of physical images. Only later in the mid-seventh century, when the Roman Church began to infiltrate the Isles, did Celtic Christology start to take on a more orthodox form, with a greater emphasis on Christ as divine, redeeming, and miracle working. This is when stone sculpture and incision, metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts of a distinctly Celtic Christian nature started appearing.

The book contains 16 halftones and 10 line-drawn figures. Because the paperback is being printed by an on-demand service, the quality of the halftones is compromised—however, most of these images can be found online, and in fact I wouldn’t recommend viewing the manuscript illuminations in any other way than in color.

A collaborative effort between two scholars of different specializations, the book is for the most part conjunctive, its voice consistent. Chapters 1–4, written by Herren, present a history of Christianity in Britain and Ireland up to the tenth century, with special emphasis on Pelagian doctrine and the relationship between the Celtic Church and Rome. Chapter 5, also by Herren, describes the four most common images of Christ found in the religious writings produced in or imported to Britain and Ireland: Christ the Perfect Monk, Christ the Judge, the Heroic Christ (Harrower of Hell), and Christ the Wonder Worker. Chapters 6–7, written by Brown, survey the various visual representations of Christ in Celtic art, including symbolic representations like the cross and the sacred monogram. I would have preferred that the literary themes were integrated with the visual rather than treated in separate chapters, as this would have eliminated some redundancy and made for better flow, in my opinion, but this is a minor criticism.  

Note that the chapters of the book are not self-contained essays; each contributes to a line of argument, so those art students wishing to skip to chapter 6 would be ill served in doing so, and likewise students of religious history or theology ought not to neglect the last two chapters, as art is an important expression—and even shaper—of religious culture. The authors describe the inextricable relationship between text and image in their introduction:

We do not necessarily see text and image in a direct causal relationship – an image need not have been a deliberate illustration of a specific text. In fact, this is seldom the case. Nor must every level of meaning have been intended by the creating artist or the ‘patron’. Our arguments are built upon the principle that, in our period, texts are ‘absorbed’ into a society and become part of the ‘collective’ way of thinking. An image can recall a number of different associations relayed by texts and culture and can carry multivalent meanings, the comprehension and interpretation of which will be reliant upon the repository of ideas in the viewer’s mind. (20)

Pelagianism in Britain and Ireland

The central claim of the book is indeed its most controversial: that the common Celtic Church was substantially influenced by the teachings of Pelagius, a British-born theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries who denied the doctrines of original sin, predestination, and special grace and thus was denounced as a heretic by the Roman Church, which espoused the theology of Augustine instead. (Acknowledging it as a term of convenience, the authors use “common Celtic Church” to refer to “a set of commonalities of theology and of some features of practice” on the British Isles from ca. 450–ca. 630, despite the absence of a centralizing institutional structure.) The main tenets of Pelagianism are as follows:

Its adherents taught the natural goodness of man, that a sinless life was possible not only for the Jewish patriarchs but for gentiles as well, that sin was not transmitted through the blood-line, that grace was not necessary for salvation, that God predestined no one, that all men could be saved if they believed, that salvation was achieved through perfect obedience to the law, and that obedience to the law was fostered by asceticism. The Christ of the Pelagians did not save men and women by dying on the cross, but by his teaching and example he made salvation possible for those who willed it for themselves. (278)

Celtic Christology, therefore, emphasized Jesus’s role as lawgiver, teacher, and model of conduct at the expense of his role as divine redeemer. The Christ of the Pelagians was nontranscendent, heavily humanized.

Temptation of Christ (Book of Kells)

In this page from the Book of Kells (ca. 800) that faces Luke 4, Christ is shown perched atop the Jerusalem temple, depicted as a small Irish-type church or house-shrine. At the bottom of the illumination a smaller figure of Christ stands in the doorway of the structure holding a crossed rod and scepter, with a group of men crowded on either side–an allusion to the Last Judgment. Shirley Ann Brown interprets this image in light of the monastic ideal: if we, like Christ, resist the temptations of the devil in this life, we will receive a favorable verdict in the next.

Scholars disagree on the extent of Pelagian influence among the Celts, with many asserting that the Celtic Church was wholly orthodox in matters of faith, differing only in practical matters like the dating of Easter and the manner in which monks were to cut their hair. While the authors offer support for their controversial view, I myself remain a bit skeptical, as both written and visual records appear inconclusive, espousing (it seems to me) a range of theological views, or at least emphases. The authors do acknowledge this variety and are honest in addressing images that do not fit tidily into their thesis, but they often present these anti-Pelagian types as exceptions to the norm, or paradoxes, or reactions against the restrictiveness of Pelagianism, or products of Romanizing influence. While tinges of Pelagianism might be interpreted in some of the art and are more obviously present in some of the textual sources, the evidence presented in the book does not seem strong enough to justify the claim that Peliagianism or even semi-Pelagianism was the “foundation” or “defining” characteristic (100–101) of the common Celtic Church.

Early Celtic Christian art

As mentioned above, the common Celtic Church was hostile toward visual representations of God and even of created nature. This is due, Herren claims, to Pelagius’s strict, literal interpretation of the second commandment of Moses’s law. Therefore, all the examples of visual culture given in this book date from after the era of the common Celtic Church—that is, after the mid-seventh century. At this time the Romanizing factions within the Celtic Church had gained ascendancy, essentially uniting the Celtic Church with the Church at Rome and relegating Pelagian theology to the fringes.

Ahenny cross

South Cross, Ahenny. Late 7th century. County Tipperary, Ireland. Five bosses are placed at the spots of Christ’s wounds.

The Roman Church had already reconciled the second commandment with its practice of art making, and so with Roman influence came the beginnings of Christian art in Britain and Ireland. But having been steeped for the previous two centuries in an iconoclastic mind-set, Celtic Christians were cautious at first in their representations of Christ, preferring abstract symbols such as the cross or the Chi Rho (which represented Christ by proxy and were therefore deemed safer) to the representational figures that were popular on the continent. These are the two iconographic types that one probably thinks of when one thinks Celtic Christian art, a tradition that calls to mind the high stone crosses of Ireland, many with a distinctive “Celtic” ring, and the heavily ornamented Chi Rho page of the Book of Kells, in which spirals, peltas, and other indigenous designs beautify the name of Christ.

Chi Rho (Book of Kells)

This Book of Kells page depicting the first three Greek letters of the messianic title “Christ”—Chi, Rho, and Iota—is considered to be one of the most beautiful illuminations of all time. “The Christological references seem to be hidden within the forms decorating the Kells monogram and invite a close contemplation by those privileged to view it at close range,” writes Shirley Ann Brown. “It incorporates images of animals which had close associations with Insular monastic life and legend: men, fish, otter, cats and mice.” (230–31)

It wasn’t until the eighth century that Christ was first directly represented in Celtic art. With vestiges of their former semi-Pelagianism still remaining, the churches on the British Isles commonly promoted images of Christ as a monk or a judge. Two other somewhat common iconographic types—ones that express a more Romanized theology—were the Harrowing of Hell and Christ the Wonder Worker; these types acknowledge the intervention of God in salvation and in life. The Crucifixion was also common, with some representations emphasizing the event as the ultimate example of self-mortification and others emphasizing the grace imparted to mankind by the shedding of Christ’s blood. With the influx of Roman (read: Augustinian) theology into Britain and Ireland came an expansion of the Celtic understanding of who Christ is and how he acted in history.

The art analyses by Brown in chapters 6–7 (which span ninety pages) were a definite highlight for me. She expertly guides the reader through the iconographic details and context of dozens of Christological works, some of which are well known and others that are lesser so. For example, she identifies a unique iconographic feature in two crosses (the one at Durrow, and the one at Clonmacnois): a bird breathing life back into the entombed Christ, likely an anti-Pelagian symbol of Christ’s divine aspect returning to his mortal body after the harrowing.

Her survey extends to the broader genre of Insular art, which includes those works produced by Anglo-Saxons, such as the famous Ruthwell cross.

I appreciate Brown’s in-depth discussion of the cult of the true cross and its influence on the Isles and its art. I also enjoyed learning more about the function of illuminated manuscripts—who used them, and for what; the Irish high crosses, which served as gathering points for public sermons as well as local sites of pilgrimage at a time when the Holy Land was under Muslim control and thus closed off to Christian pilgrims; and the incised cross-slabs, which were used mainly as grave markers.


The authors set out to write a book that is scholarly but accessible to nonspecialists, and they succeeded admirably. A few supplements that would have been helpful as appendices are a map and a timeline—the former because several different regions and people groups are discussed that were particular to early medieval Europe, and moreover, much of the art is named after its place of origin or its present location; and the latter because the book is not organized chronologically and yet many dates are mentioned that provide an important historical framework. This would have enhanced the book’s accessibility even more.

But really, the book is excellent, full of cogent expositions of historical material and many quote-worthy passages. Although I am not altogether convinced of the wholly distinctive nature of early Celtic Christianity, I can easily agree with the authors’ thesis when stated in its softer form—that Pelagianism exerted some influence in early medieval British Isle churches, which affected the way some local communities perceived Christ and his relevance. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the origins of Celtic Christianity and in particular the development of a heterodox Christology that endured for a period until becoming absorbed into the more dominant Christology of continental Europe.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Christ in Celtic Christianity, by Michael W. Herren and Shirley Ann Brown

  1. - Marleen Hengelaar says:

    Wow! Interesting. Is it an idea that you write about a Celtic image some time?

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