The Viking Terror

Expressive calligraphy by Denis Brown, 2004. Ninth Century Irish Verse on goatskin vellum, stretched over a wooden frame, with a panel of painted calligraphy emerging from behind the vellum at the right hand side. Another sheet of expressive calligraphy on paper shows through from behind a transparent area of the skin towards the left hand side. Commissioned for a private collection, Tokyo. 47.5 x 92 cm, 36" x 18.5"


Click the image above for a huge enlargement


Is acher in gaith in-nocht,
fu-fuasna fairggae findfolt:
ni agor reimm mora minn
dond laechraid lainn ua Lothlind.

Bitter and wild is the wind to-night
tossing the tresses of the sea to white.
On such a night as this I feel at ease:
Fierce Northmen only course the quiet seas.


A poem written in the margin of "The St. Gall Priscian" by an Irish scribe in the ninth century- a time when Irish monasteries were under constant threat of attack by Vikings, (Northmen).

An expressive rendition suggesting the violence of Viking attacks on defenseless Irish monasteries in the 9th century.

The composition can be described in three distinct regions from left to right, as follows:
At the far left hand side the English translation of the text is transcribed in small informal italic. This was written with a no.6 mitchell nib. White writing, even more informal, is used for textural effect between the lines of black text. Just to the right of this area, expressive calligraphy with a decorated initial "B" shows through from behind a transparent area of the goatskin. It is on watercolor paper attached to the wooden frame that supports the stretched vellum. The calligraphy is layered on the paper with combinations of Irish and translated text.


The Viking Terror: detail view

Detail of a decorated capital B behind the translucent part of the goatskin.
This was freely written with an automatic pen.



The central part of the composition features layers of writing, brush strokes and dripped lines of gilded varnish. This builds to a crescendo from left to right. Subtle gold colors, similar in tone to the creamy vellum, gradually build to a dense mass of mixed media gilding at the right hand edge of the skin. The media includes gold inks and paints made from bronze powders, 23 carat shell gold, loose and transfer gold leaf, copper leaf and various paints. In the densest areas, horsehair, small wooden twigs and very fine copper wires have been embedded in the textural gilding. I sought to express the violence and burning chaos of a Viking attack, such as feared by the ninth century scribe who wrote this text. I slightly burned the edge of the skin with matches, causing it to cockle and rise forward before the third and final area of the composition.

This third area of the composition is a red painted sheet of calligraphy that emerges from behind the vellum at the right. This features a transcription of the verse in the old Irish, written in expressive script derived from old Irish minuscules. Small half uncial with text from the Latin Vulgate adds an interlinear textural variation. Fine decorative flourishes punctuate the end of the work at the lower right corner. This red painting features my layered painterly calligraphy technique- layers of calligraphic marks/writing alternate with glazes of oil paint, (actually alkyd paint- similar to oils but faster drying). This painting has been varnished to give a rich gloss finish.


The Viking Terror: detail view

Details from the red area which is varnished to give a rich gloss finish.

The Viking Terror: detail view




Looking at the calm aloofness of Celtic masterpieces such as The Book of Kells, it's easy to forget that their production was interrupted and overshadowed by murderous raids, (as happened repeatedly on Iona, eventually causing the community there to evacuate in 807 and seek refuge at Kells, possibly bringing their masterpiece-in-progress to complete there).

This is a work commemorating the horror of Viking invasions, using materials of the ancient scribe in a modern expressive context. It brings together techniques I developed in various parts of my career... formal and informal calligraphy, painting, mixed media, layering and the use of translucent materials.

It was a difficult work for me, taking a long time to find it's direction- many days finished with a total erasure of the goatskin (by wiping off all the days writing with a damp cloth, prior to a re preparation of the surface for another attempt). However I'm rather pleased with the end result, which I feel has an inner stillness despite outward violence appropriate to the theme.

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