Part of a Celtic triptych that came to mind which includes the two previous icons of Sts. Brendan and Aidan. As with the other icons, I’ve named the icon in Irish Gaelic (Naomh Colm Cille meaning Holy or Saint Dove of the Church). Columba (the Latinized form), was born in 521 in the very north east of Ireland. He was a direct descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish High King, which placed Columba’s family amongst the royal class. At an early age he went to study at Clonard Abbey under St. Finnian. There he was contemporary of many of Ireland’s great celtic monastic saints. While at Clonard, he was ordained a priest at age 25. Later he was studying in the monastery of St. Finnian of Movilla Abbey. While there he copied by hand the psalter of Finnian for his own use. But accordingly to Irish law back then, a manuscript copy belonged to the owner of the original, not the transcriber. This set a rift between the two which eventually went to the ruling king, Diarmaid (who was in opposition to the O’Niall family). The king ruled on behalf of Finnian.
Another story tells of Columba sheltering a man under the rules of sanctuary from a prince who eventually killed the man. When Columba protested to the king, the king sided with the prince.
Whether it was from the former or the latter, in his outrage, Columba rallied his kinsmen of the O’Niall family to fight against the ruling family. It should be noted that Columba was also noted as a bard, a very significant class in that time. A king’s power could grow or disappear due to the accomplished tongue of just one bard. So legend has it that Columba left King Diarmaid’s court singing a song of the atrocities of Diarmaid which fired up the O’Nialls. Columba said he would take full responsibility for the war and in the end, 3,000 or Diarmaid’s men were slain. This was the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561.
When his temper had cooled, Columba realized what he had done. He was brought before an ecclesiastical court to be tried for the death of the 3,000, many of whom were Christian. The court was ruling to excommunicate him when his friend St. Brendan (it is difficult to tell from various sources if this was Brendan of Clonfert or of Birr) spoke on his behalf and recommended exile instead. The court agreed.
After visiting several confessors, Columba was told that in order to be forgiven and redeemed for his war, he must convert as many people as were slain. So he left Ireland, his beloved home, and set sail to the east with twelve of his fellow monks. They landed first on a rocky island that could support them, but Columba could still see the coast of Ireland from the top of the island. They set sail again and eventually landed on another rocky and windswept island. There they built small cells from the peat (there were no trees on the island), and made this their home. This was the holy isle of Iona.
With this island as his standing point, Columba spent the majority of the rest of this life venturing into Scotland and converting the Picts to Christianity. After his death, the Abbey of Iona became the prism that would direct the Celtic Christian light of Ireland across all of Scotland and most of England. Iona was the seat of Celtic Christianity for the British Isle and would send out many famous missionary monks who would become abbots, bishops and saints. Among these was St. Aidan of Lindisfarne.
Columba’s soul ascended into heaven in the year 597.
In this icon, Columba is depicted standing on the rocky land, representing the inhospitable Iona. His under cassock is red as a reminder of the blood that he caused to spill, the very reason for his exile. His outer cassock is black signifying his contemplative spirituality and humility. His right hand offers the sign of blessing as he was a priest, and his left hand carries either the Cathach of St. Columba (the psalter he copied) or the Book of Durrow (an illuminated Gospel attributed to him). His name, in Irish Gaelic is written in a celtic knotwork dove as a reminder of his name and the grace he received from the Holy Spirit. The knotwork was based off of an illumination from the Book of Kells.
St. Columba, pray for all of us who have caused others harm, and help us to find a way to spread God’s Word throughout the world. Help us to remember that we are never beyond redemption as long as we are willing to confess our sins and seek absolution. Amen.
Acrylic and gold leaf over pine. 7.75” x 2.5”.
Complete, the full miniature triptych of Celtic Christian saints looks like this: