Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: reception and transformation

Schwarzenbach Bowl, Germany, ca. 420 BC
photo: Rosemania
"Although Jacobsthal overstated his case, he was correct in emphasizing that the earliest Celtic ornament or Early Style involved the most widespread and direct borrowings from the South. Most of the patterns of Jacobsthal's later Waldalgesheim, Sword and Plastic Styles are far more distinctive in comparison to the Southern analogs which can be adduced for them. There is clearly a paradox in this aspect of the connections between Celtic and Southern ornament. Why should the Celts have continued to assimilate Southern patterns only to transform them in an increasingly radical manner?

"The answer must lie in the distinct origins or causes of the processes of reception and transformation." 

David Richard Castriota, Continuity and Innovation in Celtic and Mediterranean Ornament: A Grammatical-syntactic Analysis of the Processes of Reception and Transformation in the Decorative Arts of Antiquity, Ph.D thesis, Columbia University, 1981, p.14-15

David Castriota's thesis is a detailed grammar of Celtic ornamentation which proves the continuity and interconnectedness of what we call La Tène decorative art from its earliest expressions to its later insular expressions in Britain and Ireland. That it is not a mainstream publication; is highly technical and detailed; over 1,100 pages long and is far from being an "easy read" might explain why people might say that there was no unified Celtic culture or that Celtic art can be divided into distinctly separate regional styles. More importantly, though, he demonstrates its uniquely Celtic nature (regardless of whether we want to use the term "Celtic" or not). In other words, it is an overall style, bound by certain and definable tenets which distinguishes it from all other ancient to modern arts. He says later:
"...a limited group of Marnian Early Style works marks the inception of formal mutation or transformation in the assimilation of Southern ornament in Transalpine Europe. In these works Celtic artists coalesced the discrete components of Southern analogs to produce new elements, or they retained the form of the elements but transformed their structure as continuous hypotactical1y junctured strings of areal elements... Though based in part upon the analogy of the old Southern curvilinear meander, this transformation was a new and specifically Celtic creation . It represents a major turning point in the establishment of a distinctive Celtic ornament, and paved the way for nearly all subsequent developments in La Tene ornament." ibid. p. 726

Early 4th cent. BC.
photo: Gun Powder Ma
From the gold foil covering the (modern) wooden form of the German Schwarzenbach bowl (Jacobsthal 18) and the later French Auvers-sur-Oise disc )Jacobsthal 19), we can see the same elements such as leaf-shapes and scrolls, but they are arranged in different motifs. However both these elements and motifs are combined in the far later French Coriosolite coin design I illustrated in yesterday's post and can also be found on various British objects. So much for regional styles. Yet all of these designs and more (including British and Irish) follow the same and distinctive tenets in their compositions. This is what makes them Celtic, and nothing else.

Jacobsthal (1944) started a tradition of using patterns (PP) which were line drawing depictions of the parts of Celtic ornamentation, but these included elements, motifs and compositions which were selected in an arbitrary fashion, mainly to illustrate what he was saying, in comparison, of the various objects he was discussing. The tradition was continued by Jacobsthal and Jope (finally finished in Jope's name by Ian Stead in 2000). Sir Cyril Fox (1958) continued the tradition but classified them separately as elements and designs. Vincent Megaw will not be continuing the tradition in his forthcoming supplement to Jacobsthal (consisting of Continental objects yet undiscovered in Jacobsthal's time), now in production. He told me "People will have to use their eyes". I think it is a wise choice because the ghosts of Foucault and David Bohm warn us of the follies of classification and separateness. I struggled with these issues, myself in designing my own study of Coriosolite designs and ended up seeing the absurdity of classification instead of looking at everything as a continuum bound only by the start and end of issues of coins. I was already familiar with Bohm's Implicate Order and only came to Foucault's The Order of Things much later, but found him to be quite confirming of my previous concerns.

David Castriota has managed to find the underlying order to elements and motifs within their compositions and its strength is in the mechanics, as it were. It does not give much attention to meaning but plots the course of the transmission of the art very well. It gives the means and the methods but only infrequently, and very generally, gives the why. We are thus left with the phenomenon of objects bringing about changes in other objects as if imbued with human reason. Clearly, this cannot be so. Still, it does not purport to be a study in psychology and it delivers what it promises. It is orders of magnitude greater that any archaeological study which can only deal with the random accidental phenomena of loss and abandonment and cannot, through its own tenets, bring any real understanding to the subject whatsoever from the side of actual creation. Thus all of the intricacies of La Tène motifs and composition become just "swirly" (this descriptive word was actually used in a definitive manner in a recent Oxford publication!).

Tomorrow, starting to penetrate the distinctive and unique psychological nature of early Celtic art.

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