[HNW] (OT) Origins of Interlacing (long)

Eowyn Amberdrake eowyna at sca-caid.org
Wed Apr 30 09:13:01 PDT 2003

Unto Master Gerald of Ipsley and the others here


At last, I'm ready to respond on the topic of the origins
of insular interlacing (not yet on the credited Etruscan
originsof La Tene art).  Since this has been a discussion
over many weeks, let me review first. Master Gerald, if I
have misquoted you or mis-stated the gist of your
statements, I apologize, and please do offer correction.

Previously on this thread:
At the end of an earlier post were 2 comments by Master
Gerald for which I asked for sources.  One of them was
 that the ultimate origin of interlacing was Saxon. (or
words to that effect)

  In a message on 25 Mar , Master Gerald credits
Sutton Hoo, ca. 625 AD, with introducing interlacing to
the British Isles,  with "the great gold buckle, which
displays irregular linear interlace, and the shoulder
clasps which display zoo-morphic interlace," and "Celtic
artists are known to have contributed to the Sutton Hoo
burials." Master Gerald then clearly shows that there is
no British instance of interlacing in a Celtic context
preceding Sutton Hoo.

I responded on 26 March that this is something I certainly
agree with ? I never said interlacing was Celtic in
origin, I merely questioned the sweeping attribution of it
to Saxons.

  I also offered some quotations from J. Romilly Allen
<Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, 1903> relating
plaitwork to the spread of Christianity, and  from GASO
<Grammar of Anglo-Saxon Ornament (I think this is from
Rosemary Cramp, at least she did the appendix I own>  that
felt that the Germanic tribes may have introduced
interlacing to Britain, following their close contact with
the Classical world.  But GASO is also not crediting the
Germanic tribes with originating interlacing, but rather
with passing it on.

Master Gerald questioned whether JR Allen actually knew
much about Insular art, because spirals and interlacing do
indeed occur simultaneously in many contexts.

  I responded with Allen?s credentials.  I believe that
the sense of Allen?s statement was that spirals came
first, in the pagan context, and that interlacing came
later, in a Christian context, but not that either design
motif represented, in any way, a religious meaning. I
think we are all agreed (Allen posthumously) that spirals
<aka ultimale La Tene decoration> and interlacing were
used extensively together post 600AD.

Master Gerald then notes that the Copts were not a big
influence on Insular culture. In general, I agree. I am
not seeking to prove that the Copts directly influenced
the Insular artists. I am seeking an origin to the style
of interlacing used in the Isles.  I believe (strongly
suspect??) that origin to be ultimately Coptic.  This is
not my idea, but that of other experts in the field.  But
I don't expect to prove it.   The information is not there
(yet) to connect the dots.

If the Saxons are the ultimate origin of the interlacing
style seen in Britain post-600 AD, what evidence is there
for such interlacing on the continent?  Or are you saying
it is original to the creator of the Sutton Hoo Buckle?
 Germanic zoomorphics, yes.  Interlacing in the insular
style... I'd love to see sources.

Here are the published comments by some of the experts in
the field:

Nordenfalk (p. 14) says, " Around the middle of the
seventh century, a step forward was brought about by
contact with a new type of ornament: interlace.  This
decorative motif is commonly believed to have been
imported directly from Egypt.  The fact that we find some
of its most developed forms in Coptic art is not, however,
a decisive argument.  There were similar trends in
Byzantine and Italian art.  In England a skilled use of
interlace combined with animal ornament is to be found on
certain objects from Sutton Hoo, now dated as early as the
first quarter of the seventh century?. Interlace is not a
motif that can be learned by simply looking at a model.
 One must know the ?trick,? and from unfinished interlace
borders we can tell how it was usually made up.  The
designated area was first marked alternately with three or
two dots?"

Alexander (p.10) says, "Insular artists were heirs to a
very different tradition from that of the Mediterranean
figural art with which they were now brought into contact?
Its main component is pattern which gives a sense of
living movement, which is ?kinetic?, to use Koehler?s
term.  Thus interlace pattern taken from Mediterranean
art, but varied and enriched, plays a major part.  It can
be of strapwork, of indeterminate zoomorphic forms, of
birds, animals, or even humans.  The animal interlace
appears to be a Germanic inheritance, already found in
objects from Sutton Hoo and from some such source
transferring to the pages of the Book of Durrow.  The bird
interlace may be a specific invention of the Lindisfarne

Guilman (p. 92) summarizes the gist of the theses of
several authors thusly, "Interlace is a good case in
point.  To a very large degree our understanding of the
nature of Insular ornament goes back to the pioneer work
of John Romilly Allen (Allen & Anderson 1903, II, 140 ?
307; Allen 1904, 257 ? 78).  Allen described Insular
interlace patterns as being formed from diagonal grids
whose lines were fleshed out by the artist to form
ribbons.  The designs were made by introducing breaks at
given crossing and redirecting the ribbon movements, thus
often creating long, continuous meandering labyrinths.
 This is, of course, the well-known ?interlaces with
breaks?. Another distinguishing feature of Insular
interlace composition is the way artists used colours
which are not restricted to particular ribbons but change
within the same ribbon.

Interlace with breaks can obviously take on a wide variety
of forms, and it appears to some of those configuration s
in Italian art. (Aberg 1945, 32-34), but research done
since Allen?s time indicates that the earliest examples
that have come down to us evidently appear in Early
Christian Coptic art, such as the wall-painting at Bawit
(Lexow 1921-22; Holmquist 1939, 29-72; Aberg 1943, 31-35).
 In a manuscript in the New York Pierpont Morgan Library ,
Glazier ms 67, dateable to the late 4th or early 5th
century, one finds in the cross page the characteristic
shifting of colours in the individual ribbons (Bober 1967,
40 ?49)."

More in the next message.


Alexander, J. J. G. Insular Manuscripts 6th to the 9th
Century. London: Harvey Miller. 1978.

Burke, John. Roman England. London: Artus Books. 1983.

Guilmain, Jacques. "An Analysis of some Ornamental
Patterns in Hiberno-Saxon Manuscript Illumination in
Relation to their Mediterranean Origins," in The Age of
Migrating Ideas edited by R. Micahel Spearman and John
Higgitt, Scotland: Alan Sutton Publishing. 1993.

Nordenfalk, Carl. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Painting: Book
Illumination in the British Isles 600 - 800.  New York:
George Braziller. 1977.

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