Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: the psychology of early Celtic art, part four

"Yin-Yang" motif on the Oxfordshire Plastic Style sword pommel, late 3rd cent. BC
A side view of the motif can be seen at the bottom of the photograph. The boss on the left (top of pommel) is a "snaky coil" motif (pommel in my collection).

I developed a nomenclature for the study of early Celtic art which reflects the psychology of the artists. The parts of the design can be described as "motifs" and "elements". The use of either is not fixed to any shape: any motif can contain elements and the "Ying-Yang" motif consists of two interlocked comma elements. However, the entire "Ying-Yang" motif is also part of the trumpet motif and when the latter is being considered, the "Ying-Yang" then becomes an element. On the Oxfordshire pommel, the trumpet is one of three elements comprising a three-dimensional triskele whose arms are turned downward from its central "snaky-coil" boss. So when considering the triskele, the trumpet becomes an element.

A motif or an element can have significance or an inherent meaning to both its maker and a member of the culture or it may be a shape devoid of specific meaning and existing as a negative space formed by the position of surrounding elements and motifs (this phenomenon is very common in early Celtic art as its shapes are frequently circles and arcs, so repeated shapes can be found in different contexts). The same is true for a modern observer of the object but the ancient and modern descriptions and meanings (or lack of them) can also be entirely different for the ancient and the modern observer.

The mastery of the Celtic artist was measured by the artist's ability to enfold a number of significant motifs within a composition. Ordinary "cottage industries" making brooches, pottery etc. would also incorporate significant motifs which had popular understanding by repeating them in a register or frieze, sometimes interspersing them with other motifs in a manner similar to the archaic geometric art of the Greeks, but the few attempts to enfold motifs are never very successful. Martyn Jope called the design of my Glastonbury spindle whorl "rather dishevelled from canonical, but a good example of its class" (all other spindle whorls of the type are plain, undecorated: Bulleid & Gray, Glastonbury Lake Village, 1911, I. pl. XLV, L13).

Other examples of the "Yin-Yang" motif
Mounts from (left) Mairy, Marne, early 4th cent BC, Jacobsthal 379
(right) Santon, Norfolk,  40-60 AD, Jope pl. 296a
photos: Gun Powder Ma
Within the upper echelons of Celtic society, motifs can be found that would likely have had no or limited understanding by the masses. This is typical of the secrecy one finds within the Greek Mystery Cults which were syncretized into the Celtic warrior class in northern Italy. As such, these motifs are almost never found on the objects of the descendants of the indigenous population within the Celtic culture. Their own motifs are sometimes specific to certain regions and have an ancestry dating as far back as the Neolithic. The failure of many to understand "cultural frames" or embedded cultures within cultures has caused no end of confusion in Celtic studies.

The detail of the mount from Santon, Norfolk (previously attributed to Santon Downham, Suffolk) shows a very masterful example of embeddedness: the "Ying-Yang" motif contrasted in red enamel against bronze has an additional chased :Yin-Yang" motif within the bronze area which reveals, as negative spaces, two trumpet motifs above and below and the trumpet motif, itself, is associated with boss elements on other objects. it is through comparison of such recombinant motifs appearing through different techniques that we can sort out what was significant to the Celts from what we think we see ourselves, and falsely apply to being an original meaning. I call the latter phenomenon "horses in the clouds". From all of the above, I hope I have been able to demonstrate the enfolded and relativistic nature of the psychology of early Celtic art. We are currently more used to linear and cause and effect thinking and to singular realities so this art can seem quite alien to us unless we try to adopt the perspective of its artists and their clients.

Tomorrow, how hindsight is 20/20 in the studies of early Celtic art.

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