Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Purpose and Pattern: abstraction on Celtic coins. 1: introduction

Gold stater of Philip II of Macedon (Pella mint)
Coins such as this one and those that copied it long after the death of Philip
served as models for much of the Celts' own coins after their return to Gaul.
Image courtesy  of Classical Numismatic Group Inc
When the western Celts first started to mint coinage, they copied the designs from Greek coins that had been paid to them for their military service in various Italian campaigns under such Greek leaders as Pyrrhos of Epeiros (319/318–272 BC). These campaigns were the last of a series that might have started even earlier than those of Dionysios I of Syracuse (c. 432 – 367 BC) who is known to have loaned some of his Celts to the Spartans.

Gaulish Imitation of Philip II stater
© Trustees of the British Museum
The coin to the left is fairly typical of the earlier Gaulish imitations. The die engraver would have been familiar with the Greek styles but without their philosophical background. His horses are especially Celtic ― being all hooves and knuckles. These imitations start with readable legends which eventually become simple pattern. His chariot driver is actually more realistically drawn than on the Philip II stater. Perhaps the driver meant more to the Celtic artist than it did to the Greek artist. The head of Apollo on the imitation can hardly be called "of the finest classical style", but it carries none of its affectations, either, and looks more like a real person than an Olympian god.

A more "barbaric" imitation
© Trustees of the British Museum
On the right is a style most often called "barbaric" or "crude". The native die engraver is copying a design in a style he had never been trained for or had to use. The head does not look that much different than a had drawn by a young child or even an adult who cannot draw from any time. Both of the imitations say most about the backgrounds of their creators than give any clues as to their exact date.

I imagine that most people who discover early Celtic art by way of their coinage are quite surprised by the skill and sophistication of its metalwork. Perhaps they would expect only "cruder" versions of Greek things. In the next episode I will explain why they did not simply make a coinage using the early Celtic art styles.

The title for this series is reversed from Sir Cyril Fox's Pattern and Purpose: A survey of early Celtic art in Britain, Cardiff, 1958. In his Foreword, he says:
"Early Celtic art is distinctive;technique and design in gold, bronze or iron are often masterly, but there is nothing of "Fine Art" about it; the incised patterns and the relief ornaments are on purposeful things―torcs and brooches and bracelets, weapons and drinking vessels, for example. It was not only a decorative art; useful things were well-shaped, with a sense of style, so a beautiful or well-balanced form often sufficed, satisfying the bronze-worker's critical sense, as it does ours. When the Council of the National Museum of Wales invited me to write a book on the subject, therefore, I had a title ready: "Pattern and Purpose".
In reversing the order of Fox's title, I want to show how form follows function in an evolutionary manner.

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