Friday, 6 September 2013

Important new example of British early Celtic art. 7. Influences - The Witham shield

The Witham shield is the work of a master metal smith. The shield furniture, consisting of the bosses and connecting spindle is all of one-piece construction. As a high status object, it displays the best of the fashions of the day and will thus serves us very well as a comparison piece.

It contains examples of the snail coil, the boss decoration of three curved lines, and linear decoration. It belongs more with the long Wandsworth shield boss than with the round example as they both utilize high relief repoussé work instead of the low relief work of the round boss which used the technique, largely, to outline the masses.

We could say that it thus does not need two dimensional line work to convey the idea of three-dimensional objects, so we would expect the line work  to be of a completely different class. We are not disappointed in our expectations for the line work makes no attempt to represent the three dimensional. In fact, it takes  the traditional ivy-scroll decoration which, even if portrayed with high realism, would still be of very low relief and it transforms it to a fully two dimensional pattern which reflects the best scroll work designs in insular early Celtic art.

The linear designs can be seen in the detail above, around the umbo and on the spindle. This class of scabbard design can be seen on some of the Irish scabbards from Lisnacrogher,and  the River Bann and on various other objects from England and Ireland. The defining characteristic being the presence of tightly wound spirals in the ivy scroll derivative pattern. While I would like to illustrate some of the Irish sword
Bronze knife from St. Albans showing tightly wound
spirals in a formal two dimensional composition
scabbards, no useful images are available on the web, presumably because some museums use such images commercially and do not believe in open access. So, instead, I illustrate this bronze knife from the British Museum, thanks to their enlightened free- use policies.

The knife is useful for our purposes, also, because its form shows the same water-bird head that we saw on the round Wandsworth boss, but the linear decoration is just as formal as those which appear on the Irish swords. The artist saw no need to use this technique to mimic three-dimensional effects.

Amfreville helmet, 4th Cent BC.
Amfreville-sous-les-Monts, Eure department, France
 Siren-Com source:
The linear decoration of the Witham shield, the St. Albans knife and the Irish scabbards is distinctively insular and finds no close parallel on the Continent, but the ivy scroll decoration is sometimes referred to as the "Marnian scroll" from its frequent appearance on objects made in the Celtic workshops around the River Marne in France. The most famous example of this ivy scroll decoration can be seen on the left on the Amfreville, helmet.

While the Witham shield is a masterpiece, not all British examples of the ivy scroll are as successful as the Amfreville helmet. This schematic of the linear design on the Standlake scabbard illustrated as Figure 16A here, just does not have the balance in design that we see on the helmet.

On the Witham shield, the triple curved line motif on the bosses can be seen as the eyes on the animal's head that is depicted on the top of the spindle. In most accounts, the species is left to the observer's perception, although it is sometimes described as a horse or an ox. Personally, I see it as a stag's head with the decoration around the boss serving as a reference to the antlers. A very similar boss exists on the Tarn armring that I illustrated in part 3, but that particular motif is not visible in the photograph. It can be seen, however in Jacobsthal, Plate 275 (top). The snail coils on the Witham shield can be seen directly above the animal's head in the illustration.

In summation, at this same time period, we can see two distinctly different classes of linear decoration in insular Celtic work: that like on the round Wandsworth boss which attempts a two-dimensional interpretation of three-dimensional objects and which exhibits lower relief  repoussé work and the formal two-dimensional ivy scroll of the Witham shield which is accompanied by high relief  repoussé work. Not all examples of this higher relief work show any linear decoration, as the Wandsworth long shield demonstrates.

In the next episode, we will examine the use of space in the finial.

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