Monday, 2 September 2013

Important new example of British early Celtic art. 3. Motifs and elements

The first step in studying a newly discovered example of early Celtic art is to find other published examples to which it can be favorably compered. As it is the decoration that is important and not so much the form or type of object, any sort of object might be used providing it contains similar motifs and elements. An element is a single shape and a number of elements can be grouped together to make a motif -- essentially, a picture of something. These terms are not absolute: in a complex design, what might be called a motif (if we were studying it isolation) would consist of different elements that together make up the complete motif. So for a complex design, each discrete shape can be called an element even if it contains elements of its own when described in isolation.

Armring, River Tarn, France. Late 3rd Cent BC. 

The first object I have selected for comparison is the bronze armring from the River Tarn in France. Not only does it contain a motif (triskele shape) used in the composition of the finial, but it serves as the geographically closest example of the Plastic Style to the finial.

Detail of armring showing triskele
(same photo credits)

The snail-coil central boss corresponds to the small
boss in the arming detail. The curved triangle shape
surrounding the snail-coil equates to the raised
mass surrounding the small boss of the armring.
The corners of the triangle are not the end of the
design, but show where the triskele shape turns 90
degrees downward to form the main shape of the
finial, itself.

One of the most remarkable features of the finial is the fact that the artist has taken this triskele motif and has changed its spatial dimensions. What could be described as a bas-relief decoration on the armring, becomes transformed as the main shape of the finial, itself.  The top of the finial becomes the central design of the triskele as in the illustration to the left.

This transformation of the space of the design does not exist on any Continental example of the Plastic Style of which I am aware and appears to be a British innovation. What seems to have happened is that at the end of the Continental Plastic style, one of its workshops moved to Britain and continued the style there, developing the style even further. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Plastic Style not only moved to Britain, but it influenced the direction that early Celtic art would take in Britain. Many examples of this will be revealed in the study.

The most important innovation expressed in the developed Plastic Style was an ability to create very complex three-dimensional castings that went far beyond simple castings that gave a bas-relief effect only. This must have seemed almost magical to the metal smith's clients and would have seemed more amazing to everyone than the invention of 3D scanners in the modern world. There can be no doubt that the method was a trade secret and that it was lost with the death of the master or his heir just a few decades after he first arrived in Britain -- but this matter must wait for a later installment.

The following chart shows how each limb of the triskele equates to the Tarn example once it is translated back into two dimensional space:

1 shows the top of the finial. The "corner" of each point of the curved triangle travels down the side of the finial (2), then curves back upward (3) terminating in the boss at the end (4). Thus, the composition of each limb of the triskele on the Tarn detail (above) is represented here in this exploded view. What, on the armring, is a smooth gradation between the central boss and the terminal boss becomes two distinct masses that are smoothly connected on the finial -- the ridge (2), and the trumpet (3). These masses and the negative spaces between them become very important design elements in their new three dimensional space as we will discover in the next installment.

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