LAST WORDS (part five)
We can turn our attention now to the purely artistic parts of the coins designs, with the qualification that this activity also contains a religious aspect.
When I first became aware of the large numbers of varieties within the Coriosolite coinage, I felt that a stylistic evolution had occurred. With such a large number of variations, it would have taken a conscious effort on the part of the die engravers to avoid evolutionary features. Plotting the changes in the design would create a chronology with a larger number of steps than existed with the current classification system, and this was the totality of my purpose at that time. It was only as I worked on this chronology that I became aware of other considerations, such as the novel idea of reconstructing the coin designers' thought processes. When a person dies, his thoughts die with him. In historic times, thoughts can be transmitted to others by the written word. An artist may leave a body of work, and this can be interpreted by the art historian, but there is still dependence in literature. Even if our artist was completely illiterate, many of his contemporaries were not, and they wrote about techniques used in that time, and recorded the titles of other, similar, works of art. The subject matter of the art was usually taken from literary sources. Although the art itself was non-literate, it was surrounded by literary reference.
When the only evidence of peoples' work is archaeological, we are presented with a problem, if we wish to understand their psychology. An artifact may say something about the person that made it, but a single object can say very little. A good archaeological site may contain many artifacts, but it is difficult to tell how many people were responsible for their manufacture. Many of these artifacts might contribute some small piece of information about its creator, but rarely are there enough of these attributable to a single person to be of much help. It is like standing at the doorway of a room in which a hundred people are conversing in several foreign languages. We might hear a word or two that we can translate amidst the murmur of the throng, but no single idea can be reconstructed.
Coriosolite coins present us with a body of data that is rarely paralleled in the archaeological record: their vast numbers guarantee that most of the types are represented; and their numerous variations, united by a common theme, enable us to reconstruct many ideas governing the nature of their creators' beliefs.
Before we can unravel the mysteries of the images, we have to define the framework in which they are represented. It is at this point where our subjectivity can completely block the process. If we enter the picture ourselves, we may introduce foreign elements that will impede, or completely destroy, understanding. This does not mean that we cannot use common sense, but we must insure that the elements are common to the human species, and do not reflect considerations germane only to our modern culture.
In matters of aesthetics, this is singularly difficult. We have little idea just how enmeshed we are in our own aesthetic heritage. The designation of something as a work of art automatically generates a series of thought processes that changes our natural aesthetic perception. If I paint a canvas that is dark blue at the top, and fades to a paler blue, bordering on turquoise at the bottom, most people would not find it beautiful. These same people, confronted with a sky of exactly the same gradations, would experience aesthetic pleasure. Someone may claim that abstract art is trash, and then go home and cover their walls with it in the form of wallpaper. A company president might declare that art should be realistic, only to authorize the spending of a fortune for a purely abstract business logo.
Colour, shape, and composition affect our visual aesthetic sense, and with it, our psychology and behavior. A red ceiling will give you headaches; fewer people want to buy a cleaning product that is not white, blue, or green. Many of these things go beyond cultural customs, and apply wholly to our human identity.
In evaluating Celtic art, we must ignore personal preference and focus our attention on more elemental matters. Human beings prefer harmony to discord. Two shapes in proximity must contain harmonics of each other if the results are to be naturally felt as pleasing. Discord can be experienced as pleasure if the viewer knows that he is expected to feel this, but this is really harmony in disguise: the harmonics are between the object and the expectation. Repetition leads the eye, and if the eye is thus led in patterns that are harmonics of design elements within the object viewed, then the aesthetic sense is aroused. When shapes are in proximity, other shapes are created out of the spaces in between. Care must be taken by the artist to insure that, even if the shapes are themselves in harmony with each other, the resulting spaces do not form shapes that are discordant, and clash with the positive elements. This consideration of positive and negative shapes is absent in the majority of artistic traditions, although in modern art it is sometimes employed. M. C. Escher is known for making clever use of the device.
These are just a few aesthetic principles that transverse cultural differences and can be applied to Celtic art.
Celtic art is predominantly abstract, but that abstraction is a reflection of nature. In our culture, when we go on a walk to view nature, we perceive collections of things, a macrocosmic impression of trees, hills and streams. The Celt was more likely to see a single leaf unfurling in a spiral, or a bud beginning to open. We may be aware of these things, as well, but if is a matter of emphasis, and the degree of influence on our art.
When nature is viewed as a whole, some of the mystery is lost, for it is the awareness of the similarities of its parts, or the underlying laws that connect disparate objects of nature, that the aesthetic sense is rooted in. In this way the aesthetic experience is strongly connected to the religious experience, and with Celtic art it is often difficult to differentiate between the two, if indeed such differentiation is appropriate. Both the aesthetic and the religious experience is sullied by the attempt to organize what is felt into a formal system. When this occurs, the aesthetic/religious experience is often transferred to feelings of allegiance or obedience to the belief structure or movement, resulting in the shutting down of receptivity to experiences contrary to, or other than, those tenets.
The Greeks, and later, the Italians at the time of the Renaissance, made use of a system of proportion known as the Golden Selection. It equates to 0.6180339 and can be expressed by the formula:
A rectangle constructed in the proportion of one unit on the long side to the Golden Section on the short side is perceived as harmonious by most observers in preference to rectangles of other proportions. This ratio exists in nature in a number of apparently unrelated situations. It does not exist in order to appear harmonious to people, but people are unconsciously aware of its pervasiveness in nature, and thus find it aesthetically pleasing. The ratio is used rarely today, but its effects can be experienced by anyone. It is not integral to modern aesthetic systems, but owing to its psychological power, and the fact that it is not contradictory to any of our beliefs, we have not suppressed the ability to perceive it. Many aspects of Celtic art have fallen away from our consciousness because of contrary considerations, but may still remain as archetypes that are recoverable, if we can let go of the constricting aesthetic "rules" that originated with classical art.
An observer of a Celtic coin who is concerned only with how realistic the portrait is must wonder, upon reading these paragraphs, if he is in Kansas anymore.
Unlike other Armorican tribes, the Coriosolites have yet to have any earlier gold coins attributed to them. Coins of the Veneti, for example, exist in both gold and billion. Although the gold coins are unmistakably Celtic, they have not progressed to the state of abstract ornamentation displayed on the later billion coins. The Aulerci Eburovices, while not situated in Brittany or Normandy, were allies of the Unelli, and had a gold coinage related in style to Armorican coins, as well as to the coins of other Celtic tribes' closer to the Belgae, such as the Parisii.
There are several types of early Armorican gold coins, whose provenances are, for the most, unknown. They have not yet been attributed to a particular tribe. In style, they predate the gold coins mentioned above, and their obverses, especially, are not far removed from the classical prototype. In addition to this, other Armorican billion coins remain without firm attributions. They generally belong to the Gallic war period, but some of them appear to be of better silver content.
Without analysis, it is impossible to be certain about the metal purity. Surfaces of the coins might have been treated in ancient or modern times to dissolve copper, leaving a silver-rich appearance. One of these coins in my possession had been treated prior to purchase, and smelled strongly of acid and copper oxide. Another coin was advertised by a dealer as a silver prototype of the Coriosolite coinage: it was, however, later in style than the Group A and B coins, and was of a type sometimes found in Jersey in later contexts and with little wear from circulation.