Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: the palmette motif

Etruscan terracotta palmette antefix, ca 5th cent BC
"After the 4th century BC, La Tène art is at a later stage in this process of the visual decomposition of figures, which results, as Luquet outlined, in achieving basic shapes which act as 'ideograms'. The complex creations of the early continuous style, with their methods of cutting motifs (like those, classical, of the palmette or the lotus flower) and of recomposing the elementary shapes obtained by the effects of mirror symmetry, fundamentally corresponding to an attempt to create 'hyper-figures', developed simultaneously in a multitude of ways. These idealized forms can then be projected onto relief surfaces which stretch and deform them: here we find a process basically very similar to anamorphosis."

Laurent Olivier, Les codes de représentation visuelle dans l'art celtique ancien, in: Celtic Art in Europe: Making connections: Essays in Honour of Vincent Megaw on his 80th Birthday, Oxford, 2014, p.54, Translated by S. Crawford.

Later classical elaboration to the S-scrolls
I have selected the first two illustrations to demonstrate Paul Jacobsthal's statement that early Celtic art has no genesis. the phrase: "There is no unified Celtic culture" is oxymoronic in that no culture at all is unified. Cultures consist of large numbers of cultural frames and any culture, in any place or time consists of some, but never all, of such cultural frames. Raimund Karl fully explains such cultural frames within the context of what we call Celtic culture in this downloadable PDF paper: The Celts from everywhere and nowhere. A re-evaluation of the origins of the Celts and the emergence of Celtic cultures. In J. Koch & B.W. Cunliffe (eds.), Celtic from the West. Oxford. 2010: pp. 39-64.

Glastonbury spindle-whorl

The adaptation of the Etruscan S-scrolls as part of the palmette motif to the Celtic Marnian running scrolls of Champagne is no more different that the adaptation of the latter to the running scrolls on the British Glastonbury spindle whorl in my collection or the famous Standlake, Oxfordshire scabbard. Thus John Collis' claim that early Celtic art is a continental phenomenon is meaningless as the differences in such art on the continent or in Britain are just as varied anywhere it is found within both Britain and on the continent, and furthermore, the differences in the same motifs in Classical non-Celtic art are just as varied. Once you eliminate the physical evidence, all that remains is rhetoric and motive. Changes in art through stylistic evolution are very similar to changes in religion through syncretism. Both art and religion can produce Maslovian "peak experiences". Early Celtic art is recognisable as such because it consists of a number of subtle perceptions of the manifestations of cultural frames that can usually only be accurately described by people who are very conversant with their associated varieties. Even trying to group them by "styles" limits that perception as they are all part of a continuum.

Coriosolite billon stater, Series X, group G, Coin 29
One particular Celtic variation on the palmette with conjoined scrolls is the split-palmette which depicts the design halved longitudinally. The focus of this variation is along the Rhine and its tributaries in southern Germany where Etruscan art first influenced early Celtic art. However, quite a large number of motifs on Coriosolite coins from Brittany also share motifs from the same region but their focus is at Weisskirchen, Saar. It is not apparent in the art from Champagne, however, which focuses only on the scroll. This demonstrates the foolishness of using geographical locations as any limiter of styles: when a group of people moved from one location to another, they brought with them, their visual vocabulary which then evolved differently in the new location than its prototypes did back in their homeland. Both were affected by their own regions and the changes that subsequently occurred in those regions through various influences both indigenous and foreign.

On the coin above and in the illustration from my book on the right you can see many varieties of the split-palmette with conjoined scroll decoration. On the obverse of the coin, even the locks of hair are adapted from the split palmette and are joined with interlocked S-scrolls; the hair of the head of the charioteer; his body; and the pony's mane are all split palmettes. Even the three lobes on te gold foil ornament from Weisskirchen is a simplified palmette or split palmette.

One of the greatest weaknesses in the archaeological study of early Celtic art is the almost complete neglect of meaning and significance: objects appear to travel under their own volition with "trade" being given as the only agency (which is almost always wrong) and things are copied, magically, through proximity alone. Objects are separated from people and studied independently of their creators and users thoughts. You cannot excavate a thought. Thus we are only getting the phenomenal aspect through archaeology and when explanations of human behaviour are given it is in simplistic terms like "ritual" or "display" which have little or no meaning at all and cannot be the provenance of any culture whatsoever. Anyone who has studied early Celtic art is very familiar with the palmette derivatives, but you will get only a blank stare if you ask "What does the palmette mean?"

The palmette is thought to have descended from the Assyrian tree of life but with no historical evidence. It appears across many cultures in many variations and is always (whenever attendant motifs are present) associated with fertility. However, fertility, itself is culture-dependent, so for an agricultural society it might well take the form of the fertility of life through growth. For a warrior culture such as the Celts, the meaning is somewhat different: it signifies rebirth. You can see this played out on the Gundestrup cauldron "procession plate". The Classical authors frequently comment on the Celtic belief in the transmigration of souls and compare this with the Pythagorean belief in the same. It seems to me most likely that the original Celtic aspect was syncretized with the Pythagorean in Italy (Pythagoras school was at Croton in Italy).The embedded meaning in the coin iconography was that the warrior, dying a heroic death, would be advanced in his next life. The meaning of the triple spiral, I believe, is that the soul travels to the world of the dead and then is later reborn back in our world. In other words, it describes the process which then repeats. Hence we often see running scrolls of triskeles.

I used two overlays on my Plastic Style sword pommel to demonstrate the existence of oblique anamorphosis in the style and in the Celtic consciousness of the time. On the left side, I associated the shape with a bug-eyed goldfish, but it must have meant something different to its creator, perhaps a frog or some mythical monster. The right side is more remarkable and is the only abstract anamorphic design of which I am familiar. It can only be clearly seen from this specific angle and it depicts a three leaved split palmette wrapped around the Celtic Yin-Yang boss. The leftmost leaf is one side of the large end of the trumpet motif which can be clearly seen in my overlay in yesterday's post. The third leaf is the side of the narrow end of the trumpet, and the centre leaf is the flat ground between. You can also see part of the top of the "bent triskele" in the form of the snaky-coil boss which is at the centre of the wavy-square design on the top register. A fairly rare motif in early Celtic art, the four sides representing completeness in Pythagorean philosophy, mandala imagery, alchemy and, of course, Jungian psychology. The sword pommel evokes archetypal imagery and we can only imagine the magical properties it held for its original owner. That it (and likely other objects from the same craftsman) changed the course of British Celtic art is a testament to the perceived power of such changing imagery and there is, to this day, no example of oblique anamorphosis from any culture that comes close to equalling it.

More in this series tomorrow. What it will be, I do not yet know!

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