Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Give me a wooden cross – crosses in the void?

Some time ago I published a piece on this blog about the occurrences of swastikas in Early Medieval Irish Art ("Always remember to draw the swastika turning to the right": Some thoughts on swastika directionality in Early Medieval Irish Art). For the most part, these examples are relative uncontroversial – while their exact meaning may be up for debate, they’re individually identifiable as swastikas. That is, until one comes to St Patrick’s Bell shrine. The external portion of the shrine was commissioned somewhere between 1091 and 1105 by King Domnall Ua Lochlainn. In among the writhing serpentine motif, showing the influence of the Scandinavian ‘Urnes style’ there are a number of swastikas, L-shapes, and Tau crosses. They are all formed through the interplay of a pierced silver grille against a sheet of gilded bronze. By my count there are some 37 clockwise-spinning swastikas. And that is where the problem lies … ‘by my count’ … one particular commentator on the piece argued that the swastikas only appeared to exist as they naturally occur when equal-armed Greek crosses are stacked together in the manner employed on the back of the shrine.

St Patrick’s Bell shrine

In comments on social media myself and some others argued that the craftspeople who designed and created this magnificent piece – as well as the kingly commissioner – would have been sufficiently skilled to incorporate this element in the design and appreciate this subtle interplay of forms. In every respect, these individuals – though separated from us by almost 1000 years – were just as intellectually able and manually skilled as any person today.

That’s kinda where we left it, each convinced of the validity of our arguments, but neither seemingly able to deliver a convincing blow to the other’s argument. For my own part, I felt I was unable to convincingly press my argument as I could not produce a viable parallel – ancient of modern – that depended on the same interplay of physical material against a void to create that interplay of forms. In some respects, this is not altogether surprising as this Bell Shrine is unusual in many respects and represents a particularly high achievement of Irish medieval art.

Wooden window screen Methodist College, Belfast

Sometime later I was making my way through the gorgeous grounds of Methodist College Belfast (colloquially known as ‘Methody’) when I spied their refurbished former church building. More to the point, I spied the wooden screens that covered the inside faces of the windows. I’m not going to make any argument for their beauty, but the effect is impressive. A series of square wooden pieces are joined together with narrow, rectangular batons that each together create a stylised cross-shape. However, the spaces between each of these clearly forms an equal-armed Greek cross in a manner that I would describe as 'negative space patterning'. I can accept no argument that this was merely a happy accident of the use of these shapes and not a deliberate and intended part of the design. I see no issue with accepting that a modern crafts-person could have envisioned, designed, and executed these panels precisely with this effect in mind.  and not a happy accident that I’m reading too much into. By the same token, if we’re able to accept the validity of this interpretation, it can only strengthen my contention that the swastikas in the St Patrick’s Bell shrine are deliberate, intended and not a product of my fevered imagination. It may not be the definitive and final 'proof' I wanted, but I believe it takes the argument further in the correct direction and cements the contention that artists and crafts-people of the medieval period were capable of all the subtlety and sophistication we value and cherish in ourselves today.

The first part of the title of this post is taken from the song Wooden Cross (I Can't Wake The Dead) by Witchcraft, from their 2005 album Firewood. But, of course, you knew that.