Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 2012
Lloyd Laing European Influence on Celtic Art: Patrons and Artists Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010. 248 pp.; 110 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9781846821752)

Lloyd Laing’s survey of art in Britain, Scotland, and Ireland from the Iron Age to the conversion period opens with an introductory chapter entitled “The Study of Celtic Art.” It then provides an overview in the following chapter, “Pre-Christian Insular Celtic Art,” exploring both the motifs and the media of metalwork and examining interactions with the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons, ending with a consideration of the Mote of Mark as a site of cultural interaction. Chapter 3, “The Impact of Christianity,” looks at the structure of the Celtic church, the role of monasticism, and the development of Insular Christian iconography and its applications in stone- and metalwork. “Mature Celtic Art c. AD 650–1200” surveys the importation of models for art by the church, including materials from Late Antique Rome, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Frankish world, as well as Anglo-Saxon influences in the eighth and ninth centuries and the subsequent impact of the Norse presence in several areas of the British Isles. Chapter 5, “Workshops and Artists,” is a broadly conceived overview of production contexts, considering the legal status of artisans, the loci of production, the use of pattern books and motif pieces, and the materials and practices of several media, including metalwork, sculpture and stone masonry, and manuscripts, and ending with a brief overview of the underlying geometric structures of design. The following chapter is appropriately titled “Patrons,” looking at the social contexts of both secular and ecclesiastical patronage, including changing patterns of patronage under Frankish influence in the ninth century, and analyzing evidence of patronage in inscriptions, secular subject matter, and selection of models. The final chapter, “Symbol and Image,” primarily concerns Christian iconography, considering overt and hidden meanings and their accessibility to various audiences. A postscript reminds the reader that despite its range of source materials, Celtic Insular art is not entirely derivative but a creative and thoughtful response to its own context and models.

The volume, as Laing states, “has been written with the needs of students in mind” (14); later he expands his purview to include the general public, with the hope of offering both groups “pathways through the myriad confusions that have become the study of Celtic art” (215). If by his reference to “myriad confusions” he is gently referring to the vast array of popular books on Celtic visual culture, with this book he has aimed at and succeeded in providing a more substantive beginner’s introduction to Insular art. Individual sections, particularly the chapter on “workshops and artisans,” would serve as excellent reading assignments for undergraduate courses. With its emphasis on pan-European connections, the roles of artisans and audiences, and the functions and limits of intentionality and polyvalent readings in construing visual iconography, Laing’s book is very much in step with major directions in the field.

For specialists in the field, however, the book is not entirely without occasional problems. The term “Celtic,” in reference to the early medieval art of the British Isles, has been tagged as uncertain in light of recent debate concerning the links of descent and ethnicity between earlier continental Celtic peoples and the early medieval Britons, Irish, and Picts: its use here may be in part based on its familiarity to the book’s intended audience. Other issues similarly arise from the necessity of simplifying for beginners. Laing tends to assimilate important surviving objects to major centers, linking, for example, the Hunterston Brooch to Iona (99); such linkages are not entirely necessary, especially for the early medieval British Isles, where not all of the important centers are well documented, as the recent spate of evidence from Portmahomack clearly demonstrates. It is not universally agreed, as Laing argues, that the early Christian church was anti-iconic, considering figural imagery a vestige of paganism, nor was early Christian catacomb imagery necessarily “covert” in the face of persecution of the faith and its adherents (75–78). Although number symbolism is not at all uncommon in the ancient world, including early Christianity, where every whole number up to and including eight can serve as a signifier of religious content, it does not inevitably follow that every design using eight or fewer (or any other symbolic number) of any visual element must be assumed to be making the full array of possible associations.

There are also questions concerning methodology. Art historians may be taken aback by Laing’s application of a dated but still popular critique of their field for long-discarded approaches such as linear historical progressions and de-contextualized stylistic comparisons. Indeed Laing himself sometimes presents pairs of stylistic comparanda from very different contexts without further explanation, as, for instance, in his parallels of Roman and Celtic metalwork that leave his readers to wonder whether these connections reflect widespread long-term workshop traditions, specific patron requests, or the reuse of obvious visual solutions. Similarly, texts play an ambivalent role in their potential to describe early Celtic societies. Laing presents law codes and saints’ lives as problematic sources, providing ideals rather than realities, but nonetheless uses them as though they were factually transparent to provide such data as the ranking of artisans within workshops and the value of art objects. The accessibility of hypothetical text sources is also not fully considered: Laing recognizes that the date of the arrival of the Physiologus into the British Isles, the extent of its circulation, and the widespread familiarity of its imagery are uncertain (196–97), yet he evokes this text as a source to provide meaning for animal ornament in public sculpture of relatively early date (198).

Laing provides an extensive if selective bibliography at the end of the volume, and the text of the volume is thoroughly provided with parenthetical citations to permit the reader to pursue various aspects of the subject beyond the necessary limits of this survey. Nonetheless, sources listed in his bibliography are sometimes not cited where they might be useful. Although Michelle Brown’s The Lindisfarne Gospels: Society, Spirituality and the Scribe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003) is included in the bibliography, Laing provides no reference to that volume in discussing the identity of the scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospel (175), an issue for which Brown provides the fullest recent treatment. Brown’s argument for the possible use of a light table in the production of some of the ornamented pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels that have a preparatory drawing on one side of the folio and the final painting on the other would also have been a worthwhile inclusion in Laing’s discussion of scriptorium practices. Other potentially useful sources are not referenced, such as Paul Finney’s work on the historiography of the myth of an anti-iconic early church (The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) and Jane Webster’s groundbreaking discussion of creolization as opposed to Romanization in the provinces of the Empire (“Creolizing the Roman Provinces,” American Journal of Archaeology 105 (2001): 209–25).

In European Influence on Celtic Art, Laing is consistently mindful that his readers are beginners. Helpful definitions of unfamiliar terms are often included in the text, although these are sometimes partial: readers are told that a flabellum is designed to keep the flies from the Host (213), but not that it is a disk-shaped fan with an extended handle. An illustrated glossary would have been helpful for the technical terminology of Insular ornament: dodo-head terminals, berried rosettes, broken-backed scrolls, and the like. Illustrations in the text are plentiful, many in the form of line drawings of details of objects, although the clarity of the drawings is variable. Sometimes, as in figures 2.14 and 2.15, not all of the objects chosen for illustration are discussed in the text; and several objects discussed in the text, sometimes at length, are not illustrated. For Laing’s audience of beginners, familiarity with even those objects frequently illustrated elsewhere cannot be assumed. Generally the text is written clearly, with regard for its intended audience. However, a bit more editing for clarity could have been helpful in a few locations. In several places Laing seems to contradict himself, as where he notes that no motif pieces in organic media survive (146), and then mentions extant wood and bone examples (147). The few minor errors of fact might have been caught with one more read-through, as could have been the occasional erroneous plate numbers in the text and a few residual misspellings and typographical errors. On the whole, however, this introductory survey is a worthwhile endeavor successfully undertaken.

Carol Neuman de Vegvar
Professor, Fine Arts Department, Ohio Wesleyan University