Celtic Art Of The Christian Period


IIE leading characteristics of Celtic art of the

Christian period are as follows :—

(1) The prominence given to the margin or frame within which the whole design is enclosed.

(2) The arrangement of the design within the margin in panels, each containing a complete piece of ornament.

(3) The use of setting-out lines for the ornament, placed diagonally with regard to the margin.

(4) The use of interlaced-work, step-patterns, key-patterns, spirals, and /oomorphs in combination.

(5) The geometrical perfection of all the ornament.

(6) The superiority of the decorative designs to the figure-drawing.

There are in the world two distinct schools of decorative art, one which entirely ignores the shape of the surface to be ornamented, and the other which allows the contour of the margin to influence the whole design. Japanese art belongs to the first of these, and Celtic art to the second. In the Irish illuminated

MSS. the rectangular shape of the page determines the setting out of the design, which is universally enclosed within a rectangular margin composed of lines of various thicknesses, or within an ornamental panelled frame. The only exception is in the case of the initial pages of the Four Gospels, where the margin is incomplete, so as to allow the extremities of the letters to project more nearly to the edge of the page. This prominence given to the margin often greatly influences the designs within it, more especially the key-patterns with diagonal set ting-out lines. In sculptured stonework either roll-mouldings or flat bands form the margin, and n metalwork the margins are raised and the panels sunk.

The panels within the margin are generally rectangular, but someiimes they are circular, annular, segmental, triangular, etc. The ornament in adjoining panels is seldom of a similar kind, and the patterns are often arranged on the principle of chequerwork, so that f there is a panel of interlaced-work at the left-hand upper corner of the page of a MS., and a panel of key-pattern at the left-hand lower corner, the order will be reversed on the opposite side of the page, and the key-pattern will be at the right-hand upper corner and the interlaced-work at the right-hand lower corner.

The diagonal setting-out lines are chiefly confined to the key-patterns, and, as we shall see subsequently, are the origin of the peculiar form of Celtic key-pattern which was developed from the Greek fret.

The various motives that have been specified—> namely, interlaced-work, step-patterns, key-patterns, spirals, and zoomorphs—are not always found in combination, except in the MSS., sculptured stones, and metahvork of the best period. The step-patterns are, as a rule, only found in the early MSS. and on the enamelled settings of metahvork. Foliage is a distinctly non-Celtic element, and wherever it occurs it is a proof of Anglian influence from Northumbria. As the decadence of Celtic, art set in the spirals disappeared first, and then the key-patterns, leaving only interlaced-work and zuomorphs, which survived even after the Norman conquest. Key-patterns survived in a debased form in the architectual details of the churches of the twelfth century i 1 Ireland, but not in Scotland or Wales.

By the geometrical perfection of the Celtic ornament is meant that there are hardly ever any mistakes in the setting-out and complete execution of the designs. Thus in the interlaced-work every cord laps under and over with unfa.'ing regularity (never over two or under two), and all the cords are joined up so as not to leave any loose ends. All the details of the spiral-work are executed with the minutest care, and there is never a broken li ie or pseudo-spiral. In the zoiimorphic designs the beasts are all provided with the proper number of limbs and are complete in every respect down to the smallest detail.

The inferiority of the figure drawing in Christian Celtic art to the ornament will be dealt with subsequently in its proper place.

We will now proceed to examine in detail the different motives made use of in the Celtic art of the Christian period in Great Britain.

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