[HNW] Re: design motifs (it's long, be forewarned)

Eowyn Amberdrake eowyna at sca-caid.org
Wed Mar 26 13:26:19 PST 2003

Master Gerald,

In this message, I would like to address the idea that you
expressed at the end of your first post, that "The Saxons
brought interlacing with them."

Your previous post appeared to be aimed at refuting a
proposed Celtic origin for interlace work.  I'm not making
that claim. I generally refer to the style as "Insular
knotwork."  The Celtic-speaking tribes were not the only
ones doing it, but I would also not give the majority of
the credit to the Saxons, either.  The style is an Insular
one, done (that we can document) by the Irish, Britons,
Picts, Saxons, and (later) Vikings.  They all contributed
to making this ornamental style a creative, vibrant, and
characteristic part of the artistic heritage of the Isles.
 I would strongly hesitate to credit it to any one
cultural group there, however.  But I see its beginnings,
the roots of its style, in that of the Coptic Bibles.

I will certainly grant that the earliest securely dated
instance of native knotwork in the British Isles may well
be from the Sutton Hoo burial, ca. 625.  I don't see why
this causes one to conclude that the "Saxons brought
interlacing with them."  Brought it from where?  Unless,
of course, you mean that Saxon monks physically brought
the books with them from Rome that are illustrated with
knotwork.  With that, I have no quarrel, though I quibble
with the larger implications of the original statement.

Let me insert a time line here:
ca. 3200 BC - Newgrange passage grave (is this what you
meant by "Lagrange"? with many stones carved with spirals
and triskelions. This is millennia before Celts reached
the Isles.
ca. mid 200s BC -- offerings in waterways done in the La
Tene Sword Style -- from this we conclude that Celtic
tribes have reached Briton from the Continent.
pre-432AD - Ninian establishes Whithorn, starts
evangelizing the southen Picts (Roman rite Christianity)
ca. 450 AD -- Last Roman legions leave Britain. Note that
the Romans left behind some magnificent floor mosaics
decorated with depictions of plaitwork.  The plaits were
not intrrupted by breaks, as is the later Insular
iinterlaced work (as make famous by Kells and
Lindisfarne), and their use of color (three bands, light
to dark, along the length of each strand) is distinctively
different from the later Insular work, as well.
497 - Angles and Saxons under Vortigern are invited to
invade Briton.
500 - Fergus Mac Mor establishes Scots foothold in
563 - Columba founds Iona, which is Celtic rite Christian,
and starts evangelizing Picts.
ca. 597 - Augustine founds Canterbury, bringing Roman rite
Christianity back to the Isles
625 - Sutton Hoo burial occurs

Clearly, something happened around the year 600 that
brought the interlacing motif to the attention of the
Insular artisans.  The Irish, Picts, and Britons had been
there ~800 years.  The Angles and Saxons ~100 years at
that point (not counting those imported by the Romans to
man the garrisons). So what happened about 600? A fresh
infusion of Christian evangelists, with Bibles.

"J. Romilly Allen (1903, p 142-3) says the 'plait was not
used for purposes of decoration until after the
introduction of Christianity into this country' and that
it was not found in combination with the divergent spiral
on metalwork of the pagan period. He therefore supposed
that the Christian sculptor may have seen interlace
patterns or plait-work on early manuscripts and developed
this form of ornament with the geometric background aids
such as he would have used for the production of
curvilinear art. Allen supposed that, once the visual idea
had been grasped, interlace could develop from plain

<above quoted from online version of _Grammar of Anglo
Saxon Ornament_, found as the only web site Google gave me
on searching for "Durham A.II.10".  I was delighted to
find GASO on-line!>

The site further goes on to say, "In the Anglo-Saxon
context it is not true to say that interlace appears only
with the acceptance of Christianity, although it has been
plausibly argued that it develops in a period (the seventh
century) after migration and new settlements had brought
the Germanic peoples into close contact with the
traditions of the Classical world (Åberg 1943). Fine line
ornament with crossing strands and linked 'elements' is
manifest in the simple patterns on the Crundale sword and
on the Sutton Hoo brooches (Haseloff 1958, pl. 8), and a
different type of closely packed strands of crossing
ornament is found in the seventh century on metalwork as
far separated as Kent and the Mote of Mark. These
ornamental essays may represent a response to contact with
plaited designs from the Mediterranean world, and filigree
such as is found on the Crundale material would have been
manipulated in its three dimensional form (Haseloff 1958,
pl. 8). Adcock (1974), whilst considering the metalwork
and possible inspiration from Roman or Coptic art,
convincingly discusses these as 'decorative parallels'
which have little in common with the complex patterns
found on later manuscripts and sculpture."

The Anglo-Saxon scholars here are clearly claiming the
interlace motif for "their side." Earlier works clearly
claimed it for the Irish. I suspect that the tides of
attribution will shift yet again. But even here,
Mediterranean influences are mentioned.

I still find the observations about Coptic Biblical
origins of interlacing (particularly the dots method,
which is still not much mentioned in the literature)
convincing. I do not see interlacing in Britain as
"brought by the Saxons." They were certainly a contributor
(as were the Celts), but I see the root idea as being
Coptic. The elaboration and full exploration of the idea
was done by both Celtic and Germanic artisans.

   I'm still researching where the Copts got the idea, and
the distribution of their designs / bibles/ textiles.
<side note - Minneapolis Museum of Art has an early Coptic
textile with what we would call a Celtic cross on it>

Are the multitudes of Continental instances of interlacing
likely due to Coptic or Insular influences?  Dunno yet,
but I suspect Insular.  I'm reasonably confident that the
knotwork in the Koran illustrates stems from the Copts,

The ball is now lobbed into your court.  Do we agree yet?


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