Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 10: The ivy scroll becomes Celtic

Apulian red-figure krater with ivy scroll frieze,
mid 4th century BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Rogers Fund, 1950, OASC photo
When we encounter the ivy scroll in the vase-painting of Magna Graecia, its abstraction retains far more of the details of the actual plant than it does when it becomes syncretized by the Celts. In the ivy scroll illustrated on the right, the vine and the leaves are abstracted only slightly, but of the flower, the anthers and either the stigmas or the ovaries are more abstracted. The filaments are not shown at all. Commentaries on Greek vase painting frequently omit any references to these ornamental friezes at all, concentrating on the figural elements.

Etruscan pottery can become abstracted even more, although the leaves can still be shown. Sometimes, even when highly abstracted, Etruscan pottery can show us even more details of the original plant. Whenever we do not see the leaves we have, of course, the problem of not being able to identify the vine as an ivy at all. Perhaps we are seeing a grape vine, instead, where not even the bunches of grapes are shown. Yet, it is in this, earlier work, where we see much of the inspiration for the "Waldalgesheim" or vegetal style of La Tène art. Look, for example, at the amphora illustrated below:

Etruscan amphora, mid 6th cent. BC, showing vine scroll work prototypical to the Celtic
vegetal style. Perhaps we are seeing ivy leaves among the scrolls between the legs of
the two figures, but these are not clearly defined and might even be "generic" leaves
or bunches of grapes. photo: Mattes

Part of a chariot fitting from Waldalgesheim before the
restoration seen in Jacobsthal Pl. 156d. I adapted this
drawing from my scan of a plate in Die Alterthümer
unserer heidnischen Vorzeit. Only one set of this title
exists in libraries in North America (at Berkeley). The
line drawing actually shows clearer detail than the
photograph in Jacobsthal. (later 4th cent BC)

When similar scroll work to that depicted on the Etruscan amphora reached the Rhineland, the design became even more eccentric at Waldalgesheim and it gave its name to a general style (although the designs from the Waldalgesheim workshop are very specific to that workshop). Other early Celtic adaptations of Etruscans designs can be quite formal. It seems to me that what might have been just a sloppy rendering on an Etruscan vessel had inspired the artist to create an entirely new style. Such inspiration belongs to what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called "peak experiences". Such experiences can be experienced through intense religious or aesthetic events, and even love. For such expressions to become a "movement" where they are experienced by many people, however, usually requires an accompanying philosophy, religion, or a change in their world view. Note how some parts of the design are mirrored, while other parts are asymmetric.  Britain, especially, developed a passion for the asymmetric and you can see that in the decoration on the Waterloo helmet  in the British Museum.
Amfreville helmet, Eure, France. Also later 4th cent. BC
photo: Siren-Com

The workshops in France adapted the ivy scroll as a purely abstract design which omitted leaves and flowers. This came to be known as the "Marnian scroll". The famous Amfreville helmet in which the scroll is quite formal, also took on an aspect of triplism in the form of a connected series of triskeles, and this seems to have had widespread influence. You can see the triskele motif appearing on armings of the Plastic Style which are focused between Bavaria and Bohemia, but had travelled as far as France, and in my own, unique example of a British Plastic style finial that I believe to be sword pommel. I discuss these objects in a previous post. We see this tripling in the Gundestrup cauldron plate in part seven of this series, in many British mirror plate designs such as the Desborough mirror, and in plenty of other places, too. It is also reflected in Celtic iconography and inscription such as Tarvos Trigaranus or "the bull of three cranes". This tripling is one of the unifying elements in Celtic culture, but where did it come from? Why was it so widely used? The solution to these problems, tomorrow.

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