The Monks Who Used the Arts in Missions

celtic christianity

When we speak of Celtic Christianity, often large oversized crosses, mystic spirituality, and colorful characters like St. Patrick come to mind. In my study of the Celts—particularly the missionary monks who left Ireland to evangelize the rest of Europe—I’m struck by their ability to connect with local cultures, communicate the gospel, and disciple new believers using visual strategies. This was especially true in their work among the Pictish people of Scotland beginning in the late sixth century.

Remembered as the apostle of Scotland, Columba (AD 521–597) was the most famous Celtic missionary monk. Summarizing his life and work, the English historian Venerable Bede (672–735) wrote,

[In 565], there came from Ireland to Britain a priest and abbot named Columba, a true monk in life no less than habit; he came to Britain to preach the word of God to the kingdoms of the northern Picts. . . . Columba came to Britain when Bridius [Brute] . . . a most powerful king, had been ruling over them for over eight years. Columba turned them to the faith of Christ by his words and example and so received the island of Iona from them in order to establish a monastery there (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 3.4, trans. Collins and McClure).

Columba began his ministry by seeking the favor of King Brute, who was apparently converted to the gospel. He gave Columba the small island of Iona on which to build a monastery. Brute also granted Columba freedom to evangelize his subjects—the Pictish people—throughout the Scottish highlands. From their monastic mission base at Iona, the Celtic monks ventured into Scotland and eventually the rest of Europe to proclaim the good news.

Art historians have long been intrigued with Pictish art, including stone art, metal works, and also book art. While the Picts had traditionally constructed stone monuments to commemorate military victories and other important events in their history, once the gospel took root among them, the primary focus of their stone art became public displays of the cross.

Gospel-Clarifying Art

While the Picts allowed their arts forms to be transformed for Christian purposes, Columba and his monks seemed deliberate about adopting them to clarify the gospel. Indeed, Pictish stone crosses communicated the essence of the gospel—the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Later, other crosses communicated a more detailed biblical narrative. For example, St. Martin’s cross, a large eighth-century stonework that stands to this day at Iona, contains a number of Bible stories. At the center of the cross, Mary is depicted holding the newborn Christ. Stories of Daniel in the lions’ den, Abraham raising his sword to sacrifice Isaac, David fighting Goliath, and David playing music are also carved into the cross. Stone crosses like St. Martin’s functioned as a visual form of catechism and Bible study for visitors to Iona. Ever wonder about the origins of Celtic crosses? Celtic monks embraced the art forms of their host people and used them to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.

The Iona monks further communicated the gospel visually through developing the famous Book of Kells in the late eighth century. Though the book only contains the four Gospels in Latin, it weighs in at eight hundred pages due to its intricate artwork: the beautiful calligraphy, stone art images, and many illustrations—including many New Testament Bible stories.

Though small and portable enough to be carried on mission trips around Pictland, the Book of Kells probably remained at Iona. As visitors arrived on the island and participated in worship gatherings, the visual themes conveyed in the book (the person and work of Christ, the cross, other Eucharistic imagery) offered instruction for new believers. Since the Book of Kells connected with the Pictish visual imagination and oral memory, these Bible stories and truths were probably circulated orally throughout Pictland.

Arts for Missions

As we think about Celtic mission history in light of twenty-first-century mission practice, the Celts were clearly on to something.

First, they had a high regard for cultures in which they ministered. They understood that the Pictish people bore the image of God and could produce art that was pleasing to God. The Celts also believed that stone, metal, and book art—the building material of Pictish culture—could bring glory to God and also serve as a vehicle to communicate the gospel.

Second, the Celts cared about the Bible in mission. Through St. Martin’s cross and the Book of Kells, they sought to convey the message of Scripture in order to disciple Pictish believers. They celebrated the story of salvation in Scripture by carving key Bible stories into the crosses.

Third, while biblical in their outlook, they also realized that the Pictish people were a visual and oral people. Although some of the Picts may have been literate and capable of reading and writing, their primary means of learning, gaining information, and communicating was through audiovisual and oral means.

Finally, by connecting with the art of the Picts, the Celtic monks were engaging the visual imagination of a people already committed to visual expression. The Picts could better understand the gospel because they could see the gospel. Their discipleship was both biblical and visual.

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Edward Smither
Edward Smither is a professor and dean of intercultural studies at Columbia International University. He spent fourteen years in intercultural ministry in North Africa, France, and the US. His previous books include Missionary Monks, Mission in the Early Church, and Augustine as Mentor. His latest book is Christian Mission: A Concise, Global History.