The Art of the Picts, Sculpture and Metalwork in Early Medieval Scotland by George Henderson and Isabel Henderson is a simply magnificent book which undertakes a detailed forensic analysis of the artistic legacy of the Picts, the least known and most mysterious of the residents of what has since become Scotland between the 500s and the 800s. While the origin and the eventual fate of the Picts remain topics of heated debate, and while they left no written records, they did leave a great deal of other evidence of their presence across large parts of, especially, eastern and northern Scotland.
Some of this evidence is in the form of beautifully crafted metalwork uncovered by archaeologists. But by far the Picts' most enduring legacy arises from the way they left their mark, quite literally, on the landscape of Scotland in the form of large numbers of Pictish symbol stones. Many of these have been gathered together and displayed in various Scottish museums, while others can still be found standing in the locations in which they were originally erected by the artists who created them, some twelve to fifteen centuries ago. Coming face to face with a beautiful large scale artwork in the place where it was erected, possibly with the help of the hands that carved it, should be an essential part of any trip to Scotland.
The Art of the Picts is a welcome first paperback edition of a work first published in 2004. There are many books about Pictish symbol stones, some of which are very good. Two things set this one apart. The first is the large number, high quality and, in places, large size of the illustrations: together with the way they are tied into the text. The second is that this is above all else, as the title implies, a book about the art of the Picts. The approach adopted is driven by detailed analysis of aspects of the art itself, and what emerges is based on a huge amount of work contrasting and comparing Pictish work from across Scotland with art of the same period from elsewhere in the British Isles. What emerges is a sense of the Picts as part of a wider artistic movement, albeit with some unique features of their own. No one who reads this book will ever look at a Pictish symbol stones in a field or a Pictish artefact in a museum in quite the same way again.