I enjoy a powerpoint presentation as much as the next academic. Putting up quotes for all to see is very helpful, but I mainly use it to show daft pictures and to take people unfamiliar with medieval Irish literature. For this reason I am often scanning the pages of Google image search for pictures of Cú Chulainn, Medb, Fergus mac Roich, saints, and the members of Tuatha Dé Danann. What I have taken away from these searches is that all pictures of medieval Irish characters are terrible. So I thought I’d try and answer that question: why is the artistic response to medieval literature so dire? There are obviously many different answers to this question and my response is not going to cover everything. I’m intrigued by your thoughts so feel free to leave a comment below.
I am going to try to make a specific point about medieval Irish literature but there are a few universalities that need addressing first. Three things to be precise. The first is the clear debt many of these images owe to fantasy tropes. The muscle-bound heroes and scantily-clad women of 80s and 90s fantasy art are all here. Half-decent representation of women is something that fantasy art, and the genre more widely, struggles with.
That’s one reason why the art’s bad. The second point is closely tied to this. I was recently at a talk given by Rosie Weetch, one of the curators of the Celts exhibit. As part of their public engagement they asked the attendees of the exhibit what they thought about when they thought of the Celts. Oddly, one of the most common responses was vikings. So representations of medieval Irish characters is caught up in modern popular culture’s obsession with the old north and fantasy Norsemen. This trend has been discussed in a recent article on our Northern obsession. This too produces naff images. Finally there is a New Age aspect to much of this art, which attempts to move the gods away from the Romanising images we see in the historical record.These are common problems with all modern representations of medieval literature. What I want to discuss is Irish literature itself and the peculiarities that make creating visual representations of its characters so difficult. I suggest that it does not, and possibly cannot, work on a representative level. I will propose a reason for this later, but for now lets get involved with an example, the famous Warp Spasm of Cú Chulainn. This is the state of warrior-frenzy that overtakes the young hero in battle. Here is a description of it from the Book of Leinster version of the Táin.
Then his first distortion came upon Cú Chulainn so that he became horrible, many-shaped, strange and unrecognisable. His haunches shook about him like a tree in a current or a bulrush against a stream, every limb and every joint, every end and every member of him from head to foot. He performed a wild feat of contortion with his body inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees came to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams came to the front. The sinews of his calves came on the front of his shins and each huge, round knot of them was as big as a warrior’s fist. The sinews of his head were stretched to the nape of his neck and every huge, immeasurable, vast, incalculable round ball of them was as big as the head of a month-old child.
Then his face became a red hollow. He sucked one of his eyes into his head so that a wild crane could hardly have reached it to pluck it out from the back of his skull on to the middle of his cheek. The other eye sprang out on to his cheek. His mouth was twisted back fearsomely. He drew the cheek back from the jawbone until his inner gullet was Seen. His lungs and his liver fluttered in his mouth and his throat. He struck a lion’s blow with the upper palate on its fellow so that every stream of fiery flakes which came into his mouth from his throat was as large as the skin of a three-year-old sheep. The loud beating of his heart against his ribs was heard like the baying of a bloodhound or like a lion attacking bears. The torches of the war-goddess, the virulent rain-clouds, the sparks of blazing fire were seen in the clouds and in the air above his head with the seething of fierce rage that rose above him. His hair curled about his head like branches of red hawthorn used to re-fence the gap in a hedge. Though a noble apple-tree weighed down with fruit had been shaken about his hair, scarcely one apple would have reached the ground through it but an apple would have stayed impaled on each single hair because of the fierce bristling of his hair above him. The hero’s light rose from his forehead so that it was as long and as thick as a hero’s whetstone. As high, as thick, as strong, as powerful and as long as the mast of a great ship was the straight stream of dark blood which rose up from the very top of his head and became a dark magical mist like the smoke of a palace when a king comes to be attended to in the evening of a wintry day.
This is an evocative image of a bodily transformation and distortion caused by his great anger. This is what it looks like when I try to put myself through the same transformation.
I think we can all agree that it is a bit less evocative. There have been many attempts at representing this transformation. Some meet with more success than others. I think the best is the spasm in 2000 AD’s Sláine, as it captures something of the comic grotesquery but even here the visual is a reduction, a flattening of the effect of the writing. This is a transformation to be read or heard, to be recreated in the protean space of the imagination, not delineated on a page.
The transformation here is grotesque. An often over-looked features of popular presentations of the Warp Spasm is what follows after the transformation. After Cú Chulainn distorts himself to wreak bloody vengeance on the men of Ireland, he feels it necessary, on the next day, to show off his natural beauty. He prettifies himself and gets in his chariot to show how really, really good-looking he actually is. Throughout the description we are told that he is beautiful but when we look at the text we may disagree:
Beautiful indeed was the youth who came thus to display his form to the hosts, Cú Chulainn mac Sualtaim. Three kinds of hair he had, dark next to the skin, blood-red in the middle and hair like a crown of red-gold covering them. Fair was the arrangement of that hair with three coils in the hollow at the back of his head, and like gold thread was every fine hair, loose-flowing, golden and excellent, long- tressed, distinguished and of beautiful colour, as it fell back over his shoulders. A hundred bright crimson twists of red-gold red-flaming about his neck. A hundred strings with mixed carbuncles around his head. Four dimples in each of his two cheeks, a yellow dimple and a green, a blue dimple and a purple. Seven gems of brilliance of an eye in each of his royal eyes. Seven toes on each of his feet, seven fingers on each of his hands, with the grasp of a hawk’s claws and the grip of a hedgehog’s claws in every separate on of them.
What do seven pupils even look like? The dimples and colours are similar to a description of ideal female beauty that we see in Tochmarc Étaíne. So we may be dealing with a disjunction between medieval and modern aesthetics. That aside, even with beauty we see that a drawing would struggle to capture it. This is why the most successful art based on medieval Irish literature is the more abstract work of Louis Le Brocquy.
I will finish with a possible explanation for this. Medieval Irish art, as seen in manuscripts, tends away from the figurative. It is most famous for the carpet pages in the Book of Kells and the geometric interlace designs. When we do see figures, such as the famous Durrow man or carvings on high crosses, they tend to be abstract.
What I would tentatively conclude from this is that the medieval Irish mind was not as ready as our modern one is to approach texts through figurative images. The visual vocabulary was more abstract. It is a hackneyed observation that we are over-exposed to images in the twenty-first century, but I think this is central to understanding the differences between us and medieval audiences. All of this is merely speculative, however, and I invite you to disagree with me in the comments below. I think that it is so hard to draw Cú Chulainn because, at heart, he is not meant to be drawn.