Friday, 8 August 2014

The La Tène religion of the Celtic elite ― part 23: Shapeshifting

Although a carefully designed formal composition,
seen obliquely, the shapes shift in the mind's eye.

Imagine the two diagonal bosses to be the eyes of a
bird-beaked reptile with a domed crest. its snarling
mouth seems to be grasping something. Now, look
at its left eye and call that a nose. Suddenly, a new
creature appears.

British bronze finial in the Plastic Style, late 3rd cent. BC,
found in Oxfordshire. (in coll.)

"We are told that the Gauls were valiant, quarrelsome, cruel, superstitious, and had the gift of pointed speech; their art also is full of contrasts. It is attractive and repellent; it is far from primitiveness and simplicity, is refined in thought and technique; elaborate and clever; full of paradoxes, restless, puzzlingly ambiguous; rational and irrational; dark and uncanny―far from the lovable humanity and the transparence of Greek art. Yet, it is a real style, the first great contribution by the barbarians to European arts, the first great chapter in the everlasting mutual stock-taking of Southern, Northern, and Eastern forces in the life of Europe." Paul Jacobsthal, Early Celtic Art1944, Epilogue

In speaking of naturalism, realism, and allusion, Martyn Jope (Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, 2000, p. 119), says:
"We have seen how much of the apparent imagery is allusive, conjured by reminders of analogous shapes. This may be particularly so when hints of natural forms are used to create focal points, articulations, or finial, in tectonics or ornament. Animal-head effects may, for instance, be conjured out of lyres, the foot- and top-scrolls, giving nostrils and eyes (pl. 69a, 175a, b); the breed may be made more specific by the containing outline and ancillary detail, as horse (pl.175a, b) or ox. When our vision becomes accustomed to animalizing such lyres, even the simplest relief modelling of a brooch (pl. 175d) may take on equine or bovine character. Other compositions will become similarly animated in the viewer's mind"

In another view of the finial, I decided to make the imaginary
creature a bug-eyed goldfish, but the accompanying design
also revealed is not from my imagination but wrapped
around the "Yin-Yang" boss is a traditional palmette
derivative with a distribution focus on Saarland.

On the same plane as that boss is the small palmette leaf
formed by a delineated flat area to the left of the cusp
(another common Celtic design element). The other leaves
are indicated only by the position of the viewer and are
formed on sloping sides of masses.
The importance of the shapes revealed in the view on the left cannot be overstated: not only does the addition of a revealed linear design of established design prove that the revealed image was deliberately placed, but that specific forms, at least in some cases, were also intended.

Oblique anamorphosis had been thought to have been an invention of the Renaissance, in paintings where details were to be seen from a specific point, and later "all done with mirrors". To produce an example of oblique anamorphosis in sculptural form is remarkable enough, but to create a two dimensional design from three dimensional masses also in the same piece has never been done since.

Even ignoring the anamorphosing, anyone seeing the work of this artist or one of his companions must have thought they were witnessing magic. All casting before this point had been fairly crude, only simple shapes were possible and decorative detail was not "in the round" but bas-relief. Such a small and detailed casting would seem impossible.

I have noticed that whenever people see a photograph of a masterpiece, they often imagine the object to be bigger than it really is. When a number of authorities in early Celtic art looked at the photos of the finial, one of them started calling it a "bed-knob" before he realized that it was only 23 mm. high. When proportions are just so they give a certain dignity and weight to the object. Not having any visible measure of size, an observer can add "mental mass" to the object when seeing it only as a photograph. Thinking about what he said, though, I could imagine it adorning some Art Nouveau bronze bed in a 1910 Paris apartment.

We can only speculate on from where this artist and his workshop originated. He has used the palmette in a way that starts around Weisskirchen Saarland in his time, but much later found its way to Armorica. The formal design is a triskele like on the armring from the River Tarn in France, but instead of being arranged on a curved surface, it is here draped over a fully three-dimensional form and this requires a turn of ninety degrees in each limb shortly after the centre. When his workshop ended, the knowledge of his casting technique was lost. This was obviously a tragedy to other British craftsmen and they immediately developed greater repoussé skills and even reversed his "three-dimensions to two trick" by depicting three dimensions linearly in chasing on flatter areas of a repoussé shield boss. This "missing link's" workshop changed the direction of British art.

The shapeshifting of the Plastic Style was not adopted by the Celts from Dionysos' battle with the Titans alone, but it echoed their own experiences of seeing many indigenous religions along their travels which shared underlying motifs, but which were not being understood as different metaphorical expressions of such motifs. The Druids, who were primarily philosophers and judges, insinuated themselves above all local priesthoods as being in closer contact with the otherworld. But they also controlled military matters as well. Their beliefs might already have included something very close to the Pythagorean transmigration of souls, before they even arrived in Italy, but seeing how the Greeks had organized such a philosophy into mystery cults must have been a great peak experience as we can see from this artistic explosion.

As the prototypical ivy scroll represented a second, winter, birth and this connected with the winter solstice traditions later transposed to Samhain, and to the Deep, the more primitive idea of ivy covering everything and sometimes even holding weak structures together had already started to gain more ground. In the Plastic Style, the forms of everything interweave like ivy. Everything is connected by metaphor and metaphors can also be visual. Metaphor is shapeshifting.

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