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CHAPTER EIGHT

PATHWAYS TO BRITTANY (part two)

There is a considerable difference in the character of Celtic art found on the coinage and that found on other artifacts. This is not the case with the Greeks: their coins usually display miniature examples, sometimes truncated, of works in marble and bronze, or of vase paintings. To the Celt, art was decorative and subordinate to the shape of the object it adorned. While a Greek vase painter was also decorating an object, he would be more likely to use the body of the vase, as we would use a canvas. Abstract decoration would be used to frame the representational subject. Exceptions to this are twofold: where the vessel itself is shaped like something else, as in the case of the rhyton, a drinking horn often in the shape of an animal or bird; and where no representational subject is depicted - in which case, the abstract decoration would divide the component parts of the vessel.

To the Celtic mind, the design of a coin was part of the object itself; a coin was not merely a disc of metal that could be decorated in any manner. This can be demonstrated by the existence of other discs of metal used by the Celts, often as horse trappings, chariot fittings, or decorated studs on helmets. These objects are decorated abstractly, in the same manner as other artifacts.

When scholars try to draw parallels between the images on Celtic coins and other forms of Celtic art, they scramble to find the representational. This has taken the form of finding Celtic objects depicted, notably torcs, Celtic trumpets, and figures of boars. An object favoured for comparison is the cauldron found at Gundestrup in Denmark. It dates to about 100 B.C., and is believed to be eastern Celtic, with foreign influences. The cauldron depicts various mythological scenes, and although the imagery is Celtic, it is not typical of Celtic art. When an image on a Celtic coin cannot be compared with an image on the Gundestrup cauldron, a Celtic artifact, or a prototype from the classical world, then it becomes necessary to draw parallels to later Celtic literature. All of this is more relevant to Celtic mythology than to Celtic art, and stems from the confusion between style and subject.

I can illustrate this point with two fragments of poetry; the first is from "The Circus Animals' Desertion" by the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats:

"First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands,..."

The second fragment is from "In the White Giant's Thigh" by the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas:

"And heard the lewd, wooed, field flow to the coming frost..."

Yeats' examples contains Celtic imagery, but its style is not Celtic; Dylan's example contains no Celtic imagery, but the internal rhyme and the similarity of sounds is typical of early Celtic poetry. So we can say that Yeats was making use of Celtic subjects, and Dylan was making use of Celtic style.

Let us examine Dylan's line more thoroughly: the four central words, "lewd wooed, field flow" contain eighteen letters, each of the six different letters is used in three places. In any word that contains those letters, 1 precedes w or d, w precedes d, f precedes 1 or d, and if there is a d in the word, it is at the end. This can be compared to a Celtic design divided into four zones, each zone containing the same elements of design, but each using them in a different pattern. At first glance the design appears repetitious, but as we look closer the variety can be seen.

In the example of the words, the differences and the internal rhyme are immediately noticeable, but the visual pattern needs to be studied. This reversal of what appears obvious is because we are literate and more easily recognize the sounds and differentiate between meanings than do we see structural similarities within the words caused by the frequency and positions of the letters. This is not to say Dylan consciously arranged his elements in an elaborate, mechanical fashion, but that he wrote with a feel for language based on Celtic traditions.

Since the subject depicted on the Celtic coin was an integral part of that object, the actual decoration would be the ornamentation on and around the subject, not the entire design stamped on the metal disc. In other words, in the case of the Coriosolite coins, the type of decoration is subordinate to the depiction of a head on one side and a driven chariot on the other. Thus, in order to determine the origins of the style per se, we must ignore the subject, and focus on the decoration, or smaller design elements, that are embellishments to the main subjects.

The scarcity of Celtic art, together with the fact that the decorated artifacts are often found some distance from their place of manufacture, makes it difficult to establish the course of certain styles. This difficulty is ameliorated by the existence of some characteristic regional styles. Paul Jacobsthal's corpus, Early Celtic Art, has proved invaluable for this task. Regional archaeological surveys contain few important works of art. Most sites yield humbler artifacts and the surveys often exclude isolated, chance finds by members of the public, and those items excavated prior to modern recording methods.

Jacobsthal records nearly five hundred different patterns: this diversity of design is characteristic of Celtic art and exact parallels between designs are difficult to find; yet, so many of these patterns are immediately recognizable as Celtic. It is the Celtic penchant for almost infinite variations on a few themes that makes this so. Modern design usually makes use of fewer elements, and repetition is everywhere, so the use of such a large visual vocabulary may be difficult for us to grasp. Keep in mind that the designs recorded by Jacobsthal were selected from what had survived; many times that number could have existed. This may not be as startling if we consider that the entire body of Modern English literature is composed of only twenty-six letters.

By being as specific as possible in our comparisons with the design elements on the coins and on other artifacts, and by avoiding those elements that are too simple in their design, such as circles, curls, full spirals, and simple "S" shapes, we can locate a possible origin for the Armorican style.

The following three design elements are listed with references to the catalogue of the coins where they can be seen in the strongest parallels; other variations are not listed here. Against this are the pattern (P), and the number of the artifacts as listed and illustrated in Jacobsthal.

S scroll with leaves: Coins 19 and 21, Jacobsthal P409, No. 100, bronze scabbard from Weisskirchen, Saar. Grave A. There are more leaves on the scabbard than there are on the coins, but the derivation can be discerned; note especially the simplified split-palmette issuing from the top of the S shape: on the coins, this becomes the outward-pointing leaf.
S shape split-palmette derivative: Coin 24 and many others of Series X and Y, Jacobsthal P412, No. 350, Coral inlaid bronze girdle-clasp from Weisskirchen, Saar. Also from Grave A. Here the parallel is close: this is one of the commonest elements on Coriosolite coinage, and can be seen in both the pony's and the driver's heads in Series X and Y, as well as the head above the pony in Series Y.
Wide leaf shape: in conjunction with curl on mane ornament of Group M coins: Jacobsthal No. 20, gold foil ornament with amber inlay from Weisskirchen, Saar; No. 21, gold foil ornament with amber disc from Schwabsburg, Rhinehessen; No. 23, gold overlay on bronze "spoon" from Klein Aspergle, Wurttemberg; No. 24, gold foil ornament from Eygenbilsen, Limburg, Belgium.

Similar shapes are to be found on other artifacts from Germany, but I have just listed those that are closest to the form of the mane ornament. There is one depiction of a horse with this mane ornament painted on a vase from Bethany, Marne, France. Jacobsthal traces the origin of the horse, not the ornament, to Val Camonica in northern Italy. The similarity of the wide leaf shape with the curl and the leaf crown of the head on the famous bronze fragment from Waldalgesheim, Hunsruck, must also be noted.

The above artifacts are of Celtic manufacture and are generally from the same vicinity as the coins of Armorican style found in the territory of the Treveri, thus strengthening the connections between these two places. Artifacts from other parts of the Celtic world are stylistically different.

We can trace these designs further; The Celts in the Rhineland were rich in gold, and this made them attractive trading partners to other people. They liked luxury goods and wine; the source for much of these imports was northern Italy. In Grave A at Weisskirchen was an Etruscan bronze beak flagon (Jacobsthal plate 245e); at the base of the handle are two opposed comma shapes, their tails ending in curls. It only takes a reversal of the curl to provide the curl and leaf shape. The curl and leaf shape in its familiar form is provided by an amphora by the Villa Giulia painter (Jacobsthal plate 245g) here there is an additional leaf, as can be seen on the rein curl of the coins of Groups D to G. Jacobsthal was of the opinion that Celtic inspiration was not drawn from imports of pottery, but from Italian bronzes bearing similar designs. The boar on the coins of Group A, with its outlined head and the tusk issuing from the top of the snout in a rhinoceros fashion can be compared with the boar decorating an Etruscan helmet (Jacobsthal plate 222a). The driver's nose on Coin 82 can be compared to a design of similar form in combination with a palmette on the handle base of an Etruscan oinochoe from Perugia. The split-palmette is represented on this and most other coins by the driver's crest. I have mentioned the lituus shape of the nose on the obverse heads of Group B coins, again of Etruscan origin.

Out of the hundreds of Celtic patterns and artifacts illustrated by Jacobsthal, there are only seven that contain elements that appear in some form on the coins of the Coriosolites. Of these, three were found in the Celtic graves at Weisskirchen, Saar; two others were found also in southwest Germany; and the other two, from Belgium and France. Saar is the nexus of the various designs. The Etruscan flagon from the Celtic grave at Weisskirchen provides evidence of trade with Italy, and the similarity of various Coriosolite design elements to those found on Etruscan wares adds further emphasis to the connection.

This supports the theory that the coins of Armorican type from Saar and the surrounding lands were antecedent to the coins from Armorica, and the movement of artisans, bringing their traditions with them, established that style there.

There has long been a perception of eastern influences on Celtic art: the term "orientalizing" which was given to this feature is both archaic and confusing to the modern mind. It really refers to presumed connections between the Celts of the Danube and the Scythians from there eastward to the Volga. It is believed that Celts, migrating west from their homeland around the Danube, maintained trade connections with the neighbouring Scythes and it was from them that Persian and other Eastern Empires influences were transmitted. This theory is weakened by the almost complete absence of items of eastern manufacture in the Celtic area.

A large number of these eastern design elements can be found on Etruscan wares. The Etruscans themselves were not responsible for this, although many believe that the Etruscans were of eastern origin; the influence was transmitted by eastern Greek artisans who, fleeing the oppression of the Persians, migrated to northern Italy. There they set up workshops and undoubtedly prospered by catering to the pleasure-seeking Etruscans and the Celtic tribes to the north. This more reasonable theory of how the eastern influence came into Celtic art is supported by eastern elements on Etruscan wares, and Etruscan wares in Celtic graves. There is no reason to be puzzled about design elements in Celtic art that also show up in Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes, and the mainland of Asia Minor.

Familiarity with foreign art forms is not reason in itself for these designs to transverse cultural boundaries. The Celts did not copy the figurative elements of Greek and Etruscan art to any degree: it was the abstraction of plant forms that first struck a chord in the Celtic consciousness, and later became the raison d'Ítre of their art.

Landscape has the power to transform the psyche. As the Celts migrated to more verdant lands, they became impressed with the bounties of nature, and perhaps most of all, with the products of the vine. Whether this wealth of nature corresponded to beliefs held earlier, or whether it inspired a new religion, we cannot say. It did, however, radically alter their art.

The plant forms they discovered in the land, and on imported vessels from the south, thus impinged on their consciousness. The sense of wonder that would have been experienced by more than a few of these people is what Abraham Maslow calls the "peak-experience"; he writes:

"Much theology, much verbal religion throughout history and throughout the world, can be considered to be the more or less vain efforts to put into communicable words and formulae, and into symbolic rituals and ceremonies, the original mystical experience of the original prophets. In a word, organized religion can be thought of as an effort to communicate peak-experiences to non-peakers, to teach them, to apply them, etc."
He adds later:
"In peaks, the miraculous "suchness" of things can break through into consciousness. This is a basic function of art, and could be studied in the realm also." Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences.

These borrowed forms were adapted and expanded by the Celts, becoming symbols, perhaps not with specific verbal meanings, but as an expression of their original moment of epiphany on beholding their new environment. The design elements became formalized, often regionalized, and as part of the repertoire of Celtic artisans, were passed from generation to generation, moving with the people to new territories.

The more geometric symbols, many originating in megalithic times, were retained or adopted. Some of these had special relevance to the indigenous people that shared the land with the Celts and gradually, through syncretism, they were absorbed into the Celtic religion.

So we find a wonderful synthesis in the coins of the Coriosolites and their neighbours; the type ultimately derived from a Greek original, incorporating design elements adapted from their homeland near the Rhine; these were inspired by Etruscan imports, themselves containing eastern imagery, and including, as well, symbols from the megalithic cultures of western Europe. It was not a haphazard pastiche, but a carefully wrought theme with variations; the religious philosophy follows the same aesthetic and structure as the art of the designs, and the internal rhymes and alliterations of Celtic poetry.

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