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The project explored how early medieval culture can inform contemporary creative practice across England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The spiral tracked the journeys of the Columban mission from what is now Northern Ireland through to Llandeilo, Wales, and Dublin. Six contemporary artworks linked revered and significant sites from the furthest reaches of the UK and Ireland along once-vital perimeters and sea routes. The commissioned works, each exhibited at their originating sites, were re-presented in December 2013 in Derry-Londonderry as part of the UK City of Culture 2013. The artworks and performances were accompanied by talks and discussion in each ‘knot’ of the Spiral, enlightening and inspiring new understandings of a fascinating shared history of these islands. Colm Cille’s Spiral used the inspiration of the past to fuel creativity in the present and collaboration in the future.
Colm Cille’s Spiral was devised by Professor Clare Lees for King’s College London’s Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies and by Difference Exchange. It was funded by King's College London, Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture, Creative Scotland, Arts Council Wales and Dublin City Council.
The performance work Vicissitudes by Ceara Conway involved journeys into the River Foyle on the curragh Colm Cille. There were vocal performances by the artist and an accompanying sound installation on the quay at the launch of UK City of Culture 2013.
A group of 18 scholars, artists and curators took part in a week-long residency on Raasay, off Skye, responding to the legacy of Colm Cille in which the island is the centre of thinking and what was outside was ‘the peripheral imagination’. The group re-gathered in Glasgow to share their creative responses and presented the work in a highly successful, extensive exhibition at the Mackintosh Museum, Glasgow School of Art, in October 2013.
Twelve poets were commissioned to write a poem inspired by the life of Colm Cille and by the Lindisfarne Gospels and to celebrate its temporary return to the North-East region. The poems were published as a pamphlet entitled Shadow Script, and were turned into a sound installation, Antiphonal, by Tom Schofield, and sited in two iconic places: the newly renovated Lookout Tower on Lindisfarne and the crypt of St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh, which was opened to the public for the first time for this event. A diptych screen video installation was made by Kate Sweeney, with the reworked sound recordings, which responded to and recorded these installations. The poetry, film and sound installation were exhibited in Newcastle in November 2013 and Kate Sweeney’s film was presented at The Fold exhibition in Derry.
A group of postgraduate students from King’s College London produced work in response to a brief by Marc Garrett of London-based arts organisation Furtherfield. Interruptions: New Ways to know the Medieval was presented at the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, site of a monastery founded by St Cedd. An exhibition of their work, and a commission by artist Erica Scourti was presented at Furtherfield in November. Scourti’s work was exhibited at The Fold exhibition in Derry, while the group of postgraduates attended and participated in the accompanying Creative Convention.
Two artists – Bethan Lewis, based in Birmingham but of Welsh heritage, and Richard Higlett, who is based in Cardiff but grew up in the West Midlands – made two paired groups of works, shown separately in the cathedrals of Lichfield and Llandeilo in November 2013, reflecting the contested history of the St Chad Gospels.
Tracy Hanna made a new artwork reaching back in time in response to a number of historic objects held in collections in Dublin that had links to Colm Cille. In Dublin the installation was presented in the below ground vaults of St Mary's Abbey as part of a series of walks coordinated by Dublin City Council taking in historic locations, including the Book of Kells and Marshes Library, devised by Dr Laura Cleaver of Trinity College Dublin.
Two events brought the curators and artists of each knot together. A curators’ conclave took place at King’s College London on 22 May 2013 and The Fold: creative convention after Colm Cille took place on 30 Nov and 1 Dec at Verbal Arts Centre. A new website was designed for the project and an extensive blog contributed to by curators, artists and academics grew as the project evolved.
All the artworks produced during the project were exhibited in The Fold at London Street Gallery in Derry-Londonderry, 30 November – 15 December 2013.
In August 2013, a group of seventeen scholars, artists and organisers made their way to Raasay, a small island off Skye, for a short residency responding to the legacy of sixth century Irish monk Colm Cille. This film shows interviews with the participants including Jenny Brownrigg, John Hartley, Prof Clare Lees, Kathryn Maud, Francis McKee, Emma Balkind, Susan Brind, Caroline Dear, Hardeep Pandhal, Edwin Pickstone, Michail Mersinis, Jessica Ramm, Johnny Rodger and Augustus Veinoglou.
Professor Clare Lees, King’s College LondonBen Eastop, Difference ExchangeTim Eastop, Difference ExchangeJohn Hartley, Difference Exchange
Professor Michelle Brown, University of LondonPeter Jenkinson OBE
Linda AndersonJenny BrownriggMarc GarrettGreg McCartneyMaggie Mc KeeverRuairi O CuivCliodhna ShaffreyMike Tooby
Colm Cille’s Spiral was an ambitious multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional project which succeeded because of the energy, commitment and vision of its participants.
Linda AndersonFran AllfreyGillian Allnutt Peter ArmstrongEmma BalkindPeter BennetSue Brind Michelle BrownJenny BrownriggColette BryceThomas ClancyLaura CleaverCeara Conway Thomas Joshua CooperJosh DaviesCaroline DearChristy DuckerDave DugganBen EastopTim EastopAlistair ElliotKatherine ForsythLinda FranceCynthia FullerMarc GarrettTracy HannaBecky HardieJohn HartleyBill HerbertRichard HiglettPeter JenkinsonCarl KearsJames KerrTalitha KotzéClare LeesBethan LewisPippa LittleKath MaudeGreg McCartneyMaggie Mc KeeverFrancis McKeeMichail Mersinis Emma NicolsonSean O’BrienRuairi O CuivHardeep Pandhal James PazEdwin PickstoneJessica Ramm Kate RobertsonJohnny Rodger Tom SchofieldErica ScourtiCliodhna ShaffreyKate SweeneyMike ToobyAugustus Veinoglou Hana VideenVictoria Walker
How can early medieval culture inform contemporary creative practice across England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? The Colm Cille's Spiral legacy film gives an overview of the processes and learnings that came from the project.
Colm Cille, also known as St Columba, lived between approximately 521 and 597. It is thought that he was born in Garton, Donegal, although he left Ireland in 563 as a missionary determined to spread Christianity to Britain. He was a key figure at the heart of the explosion of culture and learning that emanated from early medieval Ireland and spread through and beyond the British Isles. Carried on this wave of monastic innovation, a new culture of word and image spread. Some of our contemporary principles of tolerance and social justice can be traced back to Colm Cille’s legacy, as well as subjects of contemporary discussion and controversy such as ownership of knowledge, education and information flow.
Much of what we think we know about Colm Cille survives in Adomnán of Iona’s Life of St Columba. Adomnán lived c. 624 – 704 and was Abbot of Iona 679 – 704. He records that Colm Cille founded the monastery at Iona in 563 after he had left Ireland accompanied by twelve companions, and his Life is a celebration of Colm Cille which presents him as a model of Christian behaviour whose example was to be emulated by the monks of Iona. As with many other early medieval texts, Adomnán’s work moves seamlessly between history and myth. As well as important biographical details, Adomnán records extraordinary events such as Colm Cille’s encounter with a sea beast which is often taken to be the first textual account of the Loch Ness monster. Adomnán and Colm Cille are both associated with the development of the first law of non-combatants, while Colm Cille is also associated with the emergence of the concept of copyright, as a medieval Irish legend suggests that his departure from Ireland was directly linked to his opposition to King Diarmait mac Cerbaill’s judgement that ‘to every cow belongs her calf and to every book its copy’.
Although he established his foundation on the secluded island of Iona, Colm Cille was an influential and powerful figure, deeply engaged in contemporary politics and culture. Adomnán tells of his intimate ties with the Scottish Dál Riata kingship as well the Irish King Áed mac Ainmerech of the Uí Néill (who was in fact Colm Cille’s cousin), the King of Strathclyde and Brude son of Maelchon, who was king of the Picts.
Colm Cille’s considerable diplomatic skills and political power no doubt played an important part in his successful establishment of numerous religious foundations across Ireland and Britain. Many abbeys and monasteries were founded by Colm Cille and his followers in his lifetime and the century after, including the important Irish foundations at Durrow and Kells, which were both founded in the early 550s. Aidan, who was trained at Iona, founded the abbey at Lindisfarne, Northumbria, by 634. The brothers Cedd, Chad, Cynebill and Caelin, who were all trained by Aidan at Lindisfarne, founded abbeys at Tilbury, Bradwell on Sea, Lastingham and Lichfield in the second half of the seventh century. Bede recorded the extraordinary careers of the brothers in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, and wrote that they were ‘all famous priests of the Lord’ which, he noted, was ‘a very rare thing to happen’.
As well as Adomnán, many medieval writers and artists were inspired by Colm Cille’s life and work. A vernacular poem, Amra Coluim Cille (‘The eulogy of Colm Cille’), was written in Ireland soon after his death. Colm Cille is one of the dedicatees of the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels, a masterpiece of early medieval art which, as Michelle Brown has explained, displays ‘influences from Celtic, Pictish, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean art (including Roman, Italo-Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian and Coptic traditions)’. The Lindisfarne Gospels, like the Book of Kells, the Lichfield Gospels and Adomnán’s Life, offers a powerful visualisation of the ambition of the Columban missions, the importance the movement placed on education and the dynamic cultural contacts which formed, and were formed by, Colm Cille’s life and legacy.
Adomnán of Iona, Life of St Columba, trans. R. Sharpe (London: Penguin, 1995)
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969)
Betha Colaim Chille: life of Columcille compiled by Manus O'Donnell in 1532, ed. and trans. A. O'Kelleher and G. Schoepperle (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois, 1918)
Brown, Michelle P, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (London: British Library, 2003)
______, The Book and the Transformation of Britain, c.550-1050: A Study in Orality and Visual and Written Literacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
______, The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Early Medieval World (London: British Library, 2011)
Brown, Michelle P and Carol A Farr, Mercia: An Anglo-Saxon Kingdom in Europe (London: Leicester University Press, 2001)
Cunningham, Bernadette, and Siobhán Fitzpatrick, Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2009)
DeGregorio, Scott, The Cambridge Companion to Bede (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Godden, Malcolm, and Michael Lapidge, The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Grocock, Christopher, and I N Wood, The Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Hawkes, Jane, and Susan Mills, Northumbria’s Golden Age (Stroud: Sutton, 1999)
Hudson, Benjamin J., The Picts (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013)
Karkov, Catherine, The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011)
Lacey, Brian, St Columba: His Life and Legacy (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2013)
Lees, Clare A, ed, The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Lees, Clare A and Gillian R Overing, eds, A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006)
Meehan, Bernard, The Book of Durrow: A Medieval Masterpiece at Trinity College Dublin (Dublin: Town House, 1996)
______, The Book of Kells: An Illustrated Introduction to the Manuscript in Trinity College Dublin (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013)
Ó'Carragáin, Tomás, Churches in Early Medieval Ireland: Architecture, Ritual and Memory (London: Yale University Press, 2010)
Spearman, R Michael, and John Higgitt, eds, The Age of Migrating Ideas: Early Medieval Art in Northern Britain and Ireland (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993)
Wallace, Patrick F, and Raghnall Ó Floinn, eds, Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan in association with The Boyne Valley Honey Company, 2002)
Webster, Leslie, and Janet Backhouse, The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD600-900 (London: British Museum Press, 1991)
The project was supported by the university's Culture team.
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