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Arts and Crafts of Celtic Britain

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The Celtic races seem to be first known in that portion of western Europe where the Danube, Rhine, Rhone and Elbe have their origin. In the eighth century B.C. we find them, or at least a tribe of them, established at Hallstadt in the Salzkammergut, probably attracted there by the salt mines, which still exist in that spot. This was in the Early Iron period, and there is a definite form of culture to which is given the name Hallstadt.

Two centuries later a much more important culture was in existence at La Tene, a Gallic town at the northern end of Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, a culture which spread far and wide and is recognizable in its artistic products by a "motif" known as the flowing spiral, of which more shortly will be said.

The Celtic peoples linguistically consisted of two groups, P and K (or Q) Kelts. The former used P where the latter used K (or Q), e.g. pen, a head- as in Pen-maen-mawr, "the great stone head," or Ken (more properly ceann), a head - as in Kenmare, "the sea head." The former are the linguistic ancestors of the Brythonic speakers of Wales and Brittany; the latter of the Goidelic or Gaelic speakers of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The general belief to-day is that the K-Celts first appeared in England circa 1150 b.c., arriving, armed with leaf-shaped bronze swords, at the Thames and the Wash as well as the Wessex ports. Moving westward, they passed by the upper Severn and the Bala gap into Wales and then they moved across the channel to Ireland.

Later invasions which brought the La Tene culture may perhaps have been around 450 b.c.

These later invasions brought into Britain one very important implement, namely the potter's wheel. Plenty of rough pottery had been made in Britain during the Neolithic Period and up to the arrival of these immigrants, but it was what is known as hand-made, that is, it was roughly moulded, as to-day is moulded the pottery of people like the Akikuyu and other primitive races, and as all the pottery in the American continent was moulded before the coming of the Spaniards. It is remarkable what symmetrical vessels can be produced by skilled workers without the wheel, but without that implement only a few can attain to the skill which the multitude can acquire with this mechanical aid. Such wheel-made pottery we find, for example, in the famous cemetery at Aylesford, and it is easy even for an untrained eye to discern the great difference that there is between it and even the best funerary pottery of the earlier time.

Another art which the Celts introduced, one of great beauty and interest, was that of enamelling. Their knowledge of this art is alluded to by an early writer, and in its essentials it resembles that in use to-day. Enamels are a kind of glass coloured with various pigments (like stained glass) and deposited in a molten condition on a metal background. It is obvious that if they are to be arranged in patterns and not to be mere smudges of colour, these fluid glasses must be confined within limits, at least until they cool and solidify. There are two methods of doing this. The first, I called "cloisonne" and largely used by the Japanese for many years and by them and others to-day, consists in soldering down wire barricades shaped to correspond with the desired patterns within which the molten glass can lie without mixing with its neighbours. But the other method, also employed to-day, the method used by the Celts, is known as "champ leve" and consists in excavating recesses in the metal background into which the molten glass may be poured. The Celts used enamels of various colours; these included red, blue, yellow and green.

It is now time to speak of their artistic motifs, and specially of the flowing spiral already alluded to. In the later parts of the Palaeolithic age, in those cultures known, from then classical sites, as Magda lenian and Aurigmacian, there was a wonderful outburst, especially in Spain and in France, of a naturalistic art which delineated animals of various kinds, also fishes, with wonderful fidelity. With the coming of the Epipalaeolithic period that wonderful chapter in artistic history was closed, nor did anything at all resembling it reappear until many centuries later. Not in that which followed nor in that with which this chapter deals. There is very little attempt to represent animals or birds, still less man, and what attempts there are of the Celtic period are lamentably bad: and very unimportant if we omit the zoomorphic figures on the funerary buckets found at Marlborough and at Aylesford. These, it seems tolerably certain, were imported from Gaul and cannot be described as British, and in any case were a very debased following of Etruscan originals.

But in another direction the Celtic artists and, more especially at a later date, their goldsmiths and scribes reached a pitch of excellence which has never been excelled, even if ever attained, and that was in the region of geometrical decoration. We may think of this kind of decoration as consisting of two classes- straight lines and curves. The former was constantly used in the Neolithic period for the ornamentation of pottery and other things with criss-cross lines, chevrons and the like, and these and other simple forms were very naturally also employed by the Celtic designers. But their forte lay in curved geometrical figures. Did they originate this idea? That we cannot say. Mr. Romilly Allen, who is an authority on this subject, says that the Celts never invented any new ideas, but that once they had picked up an idea from someone else-a thing for which they had a great aptitude-they gave it such a strong Celtic tinge as to make it unrecognizable even by those from whom it was borrowed.

"Wait till you hear me tell that story to-morrow night!" said a great Irish raconteur to a friend of his and mine after listening to a good tale ill-told at a Cambridge High-Table. My friend's account was that when it was so told the original narrator laughed as loudly as anyone else and was equally delighted with the perfect novelty of the story.

Where the spiral came from no one quite knows; perhaps it may have had an Aegean origin. But it made its way across Europe, as George Coffey showed, and is met with, for example, in great display on the huge stone at the entrance to the marvellous sepulchral chamber at New Grange in Co. Louth, Ireland. It is found on the curious stone balls which are almost a speciality of Aberdeenshire; it is found in goldsmiths' work, and at times so closely resembles what we know to have been examples of Mycenaean art that we shall probably not go far wrong in agreeing with Coffey that there was its origin, and that it made its way into Scotland and Ireland via Scandinavia.

The flowing spiral is not close and compact, but like the long trailer of some climbing plant, and once the eye has grasped what it is there never can be any difficulty in recognizing it wherever it is encountered. Go right across to the west of Europe, and in County Galway is a great natural stone, about four feet in height, at Turoe, perhaps a stone of great sanctity, where this decoration can be seen. Go down to the south of the same island and in the Museum of University College, Cork, there are three curious long cones of thin bronze, most beautifully made and with their edges united by the tiniest of bronze rivets-a marvel of workmanship. They were almost certainly the ornaments of some kind of head-dress; were found in slob-lands along the river Lee below Cork, and show the same flowing spiral. Very commonly the spiral was adorned with leaf forms, and one of the most beautiful examples of this is to be met with in the scabbard which formed part of the finds at the Crannoge of Lisnacroghera in Ireland. The same curve was used by wood-workers, for it is to be found on the wooden bowl discovered at the lake village near Glastonbury in Somerset, a copy of which is in the British Museum. And this form of curvilinear geometrical art is to be met with on many of the ornaments and articles of daily use of that period. As an example let us consider the backs of the bronze mirrors found in various places, of which those discovered at Birdlip, Gloucestershire, are beautiful instances.

As much as space will admit has now been said respecting the type of art employed, and we must now turn to some account of the kind of objects to which it was applied. To continue with warlike objects, of course there were swords and daggers, and there is at Colchester Museum the bronze, un-decorated helmet of a Celtic warrior from St. Albans, a Celtic town before it became the Roman Verulamium. It is shaped like what is known as a hunting cap, but it is probable that the peak was worn at the back to protect the neck from missiles and blows. Perhaps here may be mentioned the horse-trappings, bits and appendages which have been found in various places, and sometimes, as in the fine examples discovered in the Polden Hills, Somerset, adorned with beautiful designs in enamel.

From these we may turn to articles for personal use or adornment. Besides their mirrors, the ladies had metal combs and also chatelains. But the fibulae or brooches form a group of great magnitude and much interest. The true fibulae are just more or less glorified safety-pins; the simplest kind of fastening which can be imagined. Large numbers may be seen in all museums, and without delaying over them we must direct attention to the far more elaborate pennannular brooches.

This kind of brooch, which belongs rather to Christian than pagan Celtic art, is in use to-day among the Ouled Nail of North Africa, who close their garments with it just as the Irish nobles and their wives did fifteen hundred years or so ago. The ornamentation of these brooches reaches the high-water mark of the jewellers' art, and the best example is what is known as the Tara brooch, which is in the National Museum in Dublin.

The decoration on both faces of this large and richly adorned example is unsurpassed of its kind. The torque was a twisted metal collar made of bronze or gold, and worn by men. They, as well as the women, wore armlets and wristlets of the same metals, twisted or otherwise ornamented and at times enamelled. In connexion with these must be mentioned the curious gold lunulae which.

when first discovered, were claimed to be the golden sickles with which the Druids detached the mistletoe, but which are now recognized as head or neck ornaments. Most of them are of Irish provenance and are decorated with the straight line, not the curvilinear geometrical ornamentation-chevrons and the like.

It may here be mentioned that there is little doubt that in the times with which we are concerned Ireland was the El Dorado of the Western world, and that most of her gold, stream and not vein, was then collected by the people of the day, a fact which accounts for the extraordinary richness in gold ornaments of the Dublin Museum, in spite of the untold quantities of objects which have been found and surreptitiously melted down for bullion.

Jet necklets have been found occasionally in England, as at Middleton Moor in Derbyshire, but the finer and more numerous examples come from Scotland. Necklaces of glass beads of divers colours are also amongst the ornaments of the period.

Something must new be said concerning the marvellous examples of Celtic art in early Christian times. When the Celt, especially in Ireland, took to Christianity, he took to it with all his heart, and the great monasteries of the Celtic type-quite different in discipline from the Benedictine abbeys of later introduction-were of great size and existed in considerable numbers. In the abbeys lived, no doubt, the men who cultivated the wonderful art of script and illumination which we find in the few gospels and other works of a religious kind which have come down to us, for large numbers must no doubt have been lost or destroyed in the destruction of the religious houses at the time of the change of religion in these islands. There is admittedly no more beautiful example of an illuminated manuscript than the Book of Kells, now in the library of the University of Dublin, a work which was seen and commented on by Giraldus Cambrensis in his Irish journey. It dates back to the eighth century, and its ornamentation includes the circles, knots and triskeles which we have met with in other cases and in that of the last named, especially on the backs of mirrors.

The Book of Lindisfarne, or Durham Book, is an English example, but none the less of Irish inspiration, for S. Aidan was brought from lona to Lindisfarne, where the book was made, and lona had its origin from S. Columba. A point to be noted in these books is the poor drawing of the human frame where introduced, quite in accord with what was previously said as to the characteristics of Celtic art. In the Gospel Book of MacDurnan, dating from the ninth century, there is, as title page to the Gospel of S. Matthew, a figure of that saint which is purely Byzantine, and clearly was copied by the illuminator from some such source. It is quite out of harmony with the rest of the decoration. The Book of Deir, of the same century, shows this art in its degradation; poor spirals, many contractions in the Latin (there is a curious Gaelic gloss in the margins) and execrable figure drawing. These books, being of great value, were supplied with metal cases, and a fine example is that known as the Soisgeal Molaise.

The Domnach Airgid or Silver Lord's (book) is more probably a reliquary, and marks the end of the real Celtic work, for the ornamentation is obviously affected by Gothic influences. But, then, it belongs to the fourteenth century. It was the work of one, John O'Barrdan. The Ardagh Chalice in the Dublin Museum is the high-water mark of the Celtic (or any other) jewellers' art as applied to religious objects, and is profusely decorated even to the under surface of the foot. Here again we meet with triskeles and curvilinear ornament. The Cross of Cong; the pastoral staff of Clonmacnoise, showing the shape of that episcopal appurtenance as it was at that day, and very different from the later Gothic, with the arm-shrine of S. Lach- thin, must not be omitted from mention; nor the bells, often ornamented, which were carried about by wandering pre lates and priests, nor the cases made for their protection, the most elaborate of which is the so-called bell-shrine of S. Patrick.

A few words must be said about the high crosses like those at Clonmacnoise and elsewhere, which were such a glory of the art of the Celts in the Christian period. These are wheel crosses, that is to say the arms of the cross are embraced by a stone circle from which the ends project. The figure of the Redeemer is small and within the ambit of the circle. On the top of the cross is a small representation of a roofed building of the type used for reliquaries. The cross and circle are at the top of a tall pillar with a pedestal, and the sides, face and back of this shaft are covered with that knot-work which is so marked a characteristic of this art. The crosses of Cornwall, like that, for example, at Sancreed, are smaller examples, marked by the same characteristic of the figure being unduly small in comparison with the shaft.

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Pictures for Arts and Crafts of Celtic Britain


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