Books : reviews

George Henderson, Isabel Henderson.
The Art of the Picts: sculpture and metalwork in early medieval Scotland.
Thames & Hudson. 2004

Using art-historical tools and drawing upon two lifetimes’ experience and expertise in the field, George and Isabel Henderson dissect and scrutinize one of the great genuine enigmas of early medieval art: the sculpture and metalwork of the Picts, inhabitants of north-east Britain. Marginalized and dismissed for many years by art historians as inchoate and provincial, the large surviving Pictish corpus of cross-slabs, incised stones and metalwork remained until recently the territory of archaeologists and those bewitched by the mysterious, unfathomable symbols found in so much of the art. Through careful comparison and skilful observations, however, the authors show how the art of the Picts both interacted with the currents of ‘Insular’ art, and – contrary to received wisdom – was produced by a sophisticated society capable of sustaining large-scale art programmes.

A masterpiece of scholarship and deduction, the book is organized around eight thematic chapters dealing with the characteristics of Insular art, the ‘Pictishness’ of Pictish art, Pictish metalwork, themes and programmes in Pictish art, the form and function of the sculpture and a discussion of the impact of losses, illustrated with over three hundred photographs, six maps and specially commissioned line drawings. Throughout, the Hendersons give strong consideration to the formal qualities and the iconography of the works, throwing new light onto some of the more intractable problems associated with the Picts – not least the meaning of the supposedly ‘pagan’ symbols.