‘The ‘Interpenetration of Motifs’ and the Pictish contribution to Insular Art’

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On 30 April 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Cynthia Thickpenny who discussed  ‘The ‘Interpenetration of Motifs’ and the Pictish contribution to Insular Art’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Cynthia described ‘interpenetration of motifs’ in Pictish art as the interweaving of two distinct geometric or abstract designs. The strands link seamlessly, either large or small-scale. This means they can appear on only one arm of a high cross, or across the entirety of the sculpture. In insular art, motifs are generally separate and this interpenetration is rare. Cynthia noted the influence of work by Isabel Henderson and Françoise Henry, the latter of whom coined this term, ‘interpenetration’.

Cynthia convincingly argued that the probable origin of this technique is Pictland. She looked at 230 Pictish stones or fragments, 22-26 of which featured interpenetration. They were scattered evenly across the geographic landscape, with obvious clusters at ecclesiastical sites. The St Andrews sarcophagus from southern Pictland features fret-pattern which interpenetrates into interlace. The famous cross at Nigg features spirals that interpenetrate into fret-pattern, back into spirals and then into interlace.

Cynthia noted this technique was not a ‘flash in the pan’ but lasted for at least 100 years. It was ‘full blown’ in the late eighth century. Attempting to find examples of external influence, Cynthia investigated sculpture from Anglo-Saxon Britain, ‘Cumbric’ Britain (Isle of Man and Wales), Ireland and Dalriada. The results were very interesting. After looking at around 1000 (!) examples from Anglo-Saxon Britain, only 2 were found to have interpenetration. From ‘Cumbric’ Britain, there were no examples from Wales and only 1 from the Isle of Man. From Ireland, where expectation of interpenetration was high, due to similarity in motifs with Pictland, only 3 examples were found from 230 stones. Many of these were significantly later than the Pictish examples. And out of 100 examples from Dalriada, only 3 were found with interpenetration, none of which came from Iona, surprisingly.

This all points to the likelihood that this technique of interpenetration radiates outward from Pictland. Cynthia looked at examples of interpenetration in insular manuscripts and found only 2 examples: one in the Book of Kells and the other in a little known manuscript known as ‘The Maeseyk Gospel Fragment’. The rarity of interpenetration in manuscripts is somewhat surprising yet Cynthia argued it still suggests a wide awareness of Pictish art. Furthermore, the instance of interpenetration in the Book of Kells may indicate a Pictish author was responsible for at least part of this famous work! Cynthia suggested the Book of Kells was ‘a bit of everyone’, with lots of influences and possibly lots of different authors, which lends weight to this conclusion.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

The Centre seminar series continues next Tuesday 7 May with Christopher Harvie’s ‘Remembering 1979’ as part of the ongoing Vox Populi series. This will be held in Room 611 of the Boyd Orr building at 5.30pm. All welcome!

Information about the Vox Populi series is available here: http://www.gla.ac.uk/events/?range=keyword&keyword=vox+pop

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