Craft Techniques And Celtic Ornament

Many researchers into Celtic Crosses have emphasized the close relationship between the designs used on ornamental metalwork and stone sculpture. It is evident that small items of metalwork, whether sacred objects, ornaments, jewellery or weapons, were easily transported from

It is likely that the early Celtic Christians believed that to depict God literally in an image was as unnecessary as it was blasphemous.

The cross-slab from Nash Manor, South Glamorgan, Wales, depicting a standing cross. It is similar in pattern to slabs from Dunfallandy in Scotland and Maughold, Isle of Man. (The National Museum of Wales)

placc to place and thus could serve as models for craftspeople in localities distant from their places of origin. Thus, new artistic styles could be disseminated as small objects. However, we should remember that while much metalwork has survived from the first millennium the undoubtedly more common wooden, bone, ivory, textile and leather items were not as durable and have decayed. Only a few have been preserved until the present day. So when we look at metalwork, we arc seeing only one part of the repertoire of Celtic craftspeople.

Christian elements of design may have been disseminated into Celtic art before the religious beliefs to which they refer. When Christian elements such as the chi-rho, cross and fish appear in metalwork or other art of this conversion period, it is not a certain sign that the makers or owners were members of the religion. Today in everyday life we can see people wearing crosses and crucifixes as lucky charms, along with ankhs, yang-and-yin signs, Stars of David, pentagrams and Hammers of Thor, among other sacred amulets. Perhaps, however, the majority of those who wear these do so for reasons of adornment in a pluralistic culture rather than as part of any personal belief. Similarly, in the past, when a craftspcrson took a Christian motif from a textile or a pot, he or she may have done so because the design had magically protective connotations, rather than for ideological reasons. The same applies, of course, to exotic Pagan motifs.

There is much evidence of religious and artistic syncretism in the post-Roman period. For instance, at the Mark of Mote, a fortified town on the edge of Dalbeattie Forest in Kirkcudbrightshire, archaeologists have excavated cosmopolitan metalworking workshops dating from the sixth and seventh centuries. There, Celtic and Anglian craftspeople co-operated at a centre of excellence, making brooches and other small items in bronze, brass and gold. The artefacts made there incorporated contemporary elements from indigenous Celtic art, as well as Germanic motifs and interlace patterns from the eastern Mediterranean. Glass was brought in from Germanic workshops elsewhere, for use in enamel-making. Items of Mark of Mote style were exported across the sea to Ulster. Cosmopolitan centres such as this were places where differing traditions could be integrated to produce new ideas and styles. It is to them that we must look for the formative elements which went to make up the phenomenon of the Celtic Cross.

Certain cross-slabs, made in the period before free-standing stone crosses, depict the actual cross as an element of a picture, as if the cross is standing in the landscape. Often, they stand above scenes of hunting

The cross-slab from Nash Manor, South Glamorgan, Wales, depicting a standing cross. It is similar in pattern to slabs from Dunfallandy in Scotland and Maughold, Isle of Man. (The National Museum of Wales)

or battle, and the otherworldly 'haunted tanglcwood', in which men fight serpents and dragons. Because these representations pre-date the erection of stone crosses, then the crosses they depict must have been made of some other material, either of wood, or, in the case of small ones at least, from plaitwork made of grass, straw, rushes, osiers or hazel wands. It is indisputable that interlace patterns have their origin in the plaiting of materials, such as in ropework and basketry, hurdle-making and the braiding of hair.

Until the invention of wire fencing, wattle hurdles of woven hazel were made all over the Celtic realms. Primarily known as components of fences and screens, as early as the neolithic period, trackways of hurdles were made across swampy ground, such as the Somerset Levels. The present Irish name of Dublin, Baile atha Cliath, means 'the town of the hurdle-ford'. Wattle hurdles also served as walling elements in timberframe buildings and as fish weirs. Panels of Celtic interlace work on stone carvings resemble closely the patterns employed in wattle-weaving. Ribbonwork with a central line may depict the split hazel branches from which hurdles are woven, for the actual objects have this appearance. Each region of the British Isles has its own traditional wattle-forms, expressed through the variant weaving-patterns of the 'middle binding'. The contemporary wattle-makers of Sussex and Dorset, where the craft continues, maintain their own local traditional designs to this day. In the bardic mysteries of the Celts, wattles have yet another, hidden meaning. Describing his poetic art, the Welsh bard Taliesin wrote: 'I am a reader, I love the branches and tight wattles.' In bardic language, the wattles are a metaphor for poetic knowledge. Poems written in ogham, the bardic tree alphabet, could be presented in the form of a woven wattle, containing encoded information indecipherable to the uninitiated. Perhaps some Celtic interlaces on crosses are messages in ogham.

The better-known corn dollies and other small plaited work are made throughout the Celtic lands at certain times of year, and it is unlikely that this is not the continuation of a very ancient ancestral practice. They vary in complexity, with the simplest designs being made from only two strands, but for more complicated work four, five or even six strands are needed. In Ireland, Harvest Knots are made from the straw taken at the harvest, to be worn as buttonholes for the harvest fair. Other harvest straw emblems include the stellar 'harvest stars' and the numerous forms of corn dollies. Straw-plaiting is an ancient craft, the techniques and patterns of which have been handed down through the generations. Traditional hereditary straw-plaiters, such as the late masters Fred Mizen of Essex and Arthur 'Badsey' Davis of Worcestershire, demonstrate astonishing dexterity. Davis's masterpieces, for instance, were woven simultaneously from no fewer than 49 straws. Most European corn dollies are not so complex, being made from a spiral plait that uses five strands of straw. The straws are plaited from the base in a spiral, one over the next, gradually building up a three-dimensional body of the required shape. This is the method for making the St Bridget's Cross, which, along with the simpler but related Palm Sunday crosses, is an example of plaitwork which still retains its sacred connotations.

In keeping with making a holy artefact, there are a number of prescriptions that must be observed in making St Bridget's Crosses. They must be made on St Bridget's Eve, after sunset on the last day of January. St Bridget's Day marks the commencement of the pastoral year. Rushes must be pulled up, not cut, and the weaving must be done sunwise, from left to right. There are a number of patterns for St Bridget's Crosses, but the most common is in the form of four equal arms, set on the edge. Putting a St Bridget's Cross above the door brings holy protection from the risk of fire and other misfortunes that might befall the household. There is also a three-armed form of the cross, the triskele, which is used today only to protect cowsheds, though it is the basis of the emblem of the Isle of Man. The plaited straw charm called Bratog Brighde (Bridget's Rag) is a protection against

Brigid Cross Three Arm

Irish St Bridget's Crosses of woven rushes (various forms).

Book Kells Saint Bridget
Cross at Cardonagh, County Donegal, Ireland, where the cross has 'escaped' from the stone, but where the wheel-head is absent. The form of the interlace parallels woven crosses like those of St Bridget, though they are serpentine in form.

storms at sea, carried by the Donegal fishermen of Tory Island. Another common form that St Bridget's Cross can take is an interlace of six elements that makes a binding knot. This shows affinities with the Swabian and Tyrolean magical protector known as a Schratterlgatterl, which is an interweaving of a number of sticks employed as a barrier beyond which evil spirits cannot pass. Interlaces like this appear frequently in the patterns on Celtic crosses, while some Welsh and Manx crosses have designs that reproduce in stone the plaited patterns of whole crosses that are made from grass, rushes or straw, some of which arc the classical Celtic Cross within the wheel. In County Galway, such 'woven crosses' are put in the rafters of the house at Hallowe'en to protect it and the family against demonic intrusion. Another form of St Bridget's Cross is in the shape of a square plaited on a cross of sticks. These straw-square patterns are made at Christmastime in Sweden and in Estonia, where they are worn on hats, and on the straw masks used in guising games.

Although they are carved from stone, many crosses have the appearance of structures made from less durable material, perhaps wickerwork or wood. Some stone crosses seem to be representations of wooden crosses upon which panels have been fixed. Therefore it is frequently suggested that many early permanent free-standing crosses were made of wood, perhaps with separate panels on the outside. Perhaps the interlace patterns on stone crosses reproduce the actual plaitwork of wickerwork that was attached both as adornment and magical protection against evil spirits. It is probable that, in Pagan days, woven sacred objects or poetic wattles resembling St Bridget's Crosses were hung on holy trees. Later, when crosses were set up, the sacred weavings were fixed to the cross instead.

In addition to panelwork made of plaited material, it is often suggested that metal panels were also used, where the patron was wealthy enough to commission them. However attractive this theory may seem, no large metal panels of this type are known, and the relative scarcity of metal in pre-industrial times makes it very unlikely that there were large wooden crosses sheathed in bronze. Attaching separate panels to larger artefacts was a common technique in Europe at that period, where craftspeople fixed cast or hammered panels bearing protective images of divine beings to helmets, armour and sacred objects. Many examples of this principle survive in the Celtic area, but they are all fairly small. They include reliquaries made to hold the possessions or holy relics of early Celtic patriarchs, such as books, bells and crozicrs.

Elements of woodworking technique can be seen in representations of crosses, such as the cross visible on a buttress of the church at Llangeinwen in Anglesey, or that at St Laurence's Church at Papil in Shetland. Staff-crosses ending in a spoke are depicted on slabs at Clonmacnois in County Offaly, Trowbridge in Wiltshire, and Hansted, near Aarhus in Denmark. A Celtic cross-slab re-used at a later date for part of the church fabric, the Llangeinwen cross is shown with a pointed foot, resembling a spike. It has been suggested that this shows a wooden cross, with its means of insertion in the ground, but we can never know how large this cross was meant to be. Perhaps it represents a small processional cross the size of a priest's crozier, rather than one of high-cross dimensions. There are actual contemporary illustrations of hand-held crosses for processional and ceremonial use. The north cross at Ahenny has a sculpted panel showing a funeral procession led by a priest carrying a portable wheel-headed cross. It is illustrated here. The eighth-century Lichfield Gospels, otherwise known as the Gospels of St Chad, have an illuminated page showing an evangelist holding crossed staves in the 'Osiris' position. One staff has a double-volute terminal in the manner of Irminsul, while the other is a Celtic Cross, with an eight-petalled pattern in the centre of the wheel. Unfortunately, the ravages of time have destroyed all of the crosses of this type, made of wood and metal, which once existed in every church.

Many of the later, larger crosses, assembled from several separate pieces of stone, were put together with mortise-and-tenon joints, which are usually associated with the craft of wood-joinery rather than that of the mainstream European tradition of stonemasonry. It can be argued, however, that because such joints in stone were used in megalithic times at Stonehenge and elsewhere, they may represent the deliberate use of an archaic technique as sacral craftsmanship. This deliberate sacred archaism appears in certain essential elements of Classical architecture. Some stone crosses, such as St Martin's Cross on Iona, also have enigmatic slots that may have accommodated wooden extensions that held ribbons, banners or woven emblems. Crosses with a circular shaft, such as the Wolverhampton Pillar and the Gosforth Cross, have patterns that resemble the tree bark left at the basal portion of some contemporary maypoles in Germany. This may recall the creation of crosses from whole trees, but equally may be derived from the patterns carved on the lower portions of Roman Jupiter Columns. Until an intact ancient wooden standing cross is found, these opposing interpretations will have equal plausibility.

Opposite: Human figures depicted on Celtic Crosses. Left: (above) upper part of cross at Gosforth, Cumbria, England, showing an episode from the Norse prophecy of the end of this world; Ragnarok, in which Odin's son, Vidar, slays the destructive Fcnris-Wolf; (below) Pictish cavalryman, Inchbrayock, Tayside, Scotland.

Centre: wrestlers from the Town Cross, Kells, Meath, Ireland; mermaid from Pictish stone at Meigle, Tayside, Scotland; interlace of four men, Ahenny, Kilkenny, Ireland; monks with portable Celtic Cross, Ahenny; the Welsh warrior Briamail Flou from Llandyfaelog Fach, Powys, Wales.

Right: quarterstaff scene, Town Cross, Kells; crucifixion scene, Gosforth, Cumbria, England.

Welsh Warriors
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  • michelle
    How to make a three armed brigid's cross?
    7 years ago

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