[From Manx Note Book vol 3]

The Ornamentation of the manx Runic Crosses

CANON TAYLOR sends us the following reply to the criticisms on his paper on Manx Runes:

Mr. Bradley considers that the Nial Lumcun-or as I suppose, we should now call it-the Mael Lomchon cross at Kirk Michael is not, as I have contended, the oldest in the Island. He does not deny that on this cross the ornament is more archaic, and the Runes of an older type, than on the other monuments, but nevertheless he thinks that this cross, was the production of a later artist who came from a part of Scandinavia where the older Runes were still retained." The difficulty in the way of this hypothesis is that this cross, executed as he supposes by an artist newly arrived from some remote part of Scandinavia, is not only free from any trace of the peculiar Scandinavian zoomorphic ornament, but affords the most archaic example in the Island of the pure Irish style. Where, we may ask, could this newly arrived artist have learnt the principles of the old Celtic art. It seems much easier to adopt the alternative supposition that this cross was a very early effort of Gaut, who in his later works acquired,a style of treatment somewhat less stiff, and also modified the forms of two or three Runes in accordance with the later fashion. Hence I adhere to the opinion that the more archaic art and the more archaic alphabet point to an earlier rather than to a later date.

Professor Boyd Dawkins raises a question of greater interest and importance. He boldly denies that the peculiar interlaced ornament which characterizes the oldest of the Manx crosses was of Irish or even of Celtic origin, and he affirms that it is , distinctly Germanic or Teutonic.

The question is a question of evidence. I have studied all the works to which he refers, and a good many more. I find the ornament in question conspicuously absent from the more ancient Teutonic monuments, and, when at last it makes its appearance, I cannot discover a single instance of it which can be shown to be earlier than the conversion of the Germans by Irish missionaries ; while, on the other hand, there are numerous examples from remote Celtic lands, belonging to a period at which no Germanic influence could conceivably have reached them.

This interlaced ornament is found in MSS. written in Ireland during the VIlth Century, in a form so perfect and elaborate as to imply a considerable period of antecedent evolution. It cannot be pretended that any unlettered German tribe could have had intercourse with Ireland at such an early time. Crosses with interlaced knotwork are found not only in the Isle of Mann, which was free from Teutonic influences, direct or indirect, but in remote parts of Ireland, in Skye, in Iona, in inaccessible Hebridean Isles such as Barra, in Aberdeenshire, in Ross-shire, in Perthshire, and in the whole Pictish land north of the Clyde and Forth, precisely in those regions where the influence of the Irish missionaries was supreme, and where no Germans had penetrated, while such crosses are curiously infrequent in the Teutonic districts of Scotland, south of the Clyde and Forth.

The conversion of the Picts by Irish missionaries began as early as 563 A.D., when the monastery at Iona was founded by St. Columba. The art of the crosses at Iona Is the same as the art of the crosses in Ireland, and the Irish art could hardly at that time have been obtained from the uncivilized pagan tribes of Germany.

On the other hand it is easy to explain the occasional occurrence of interlaced ornament in Germany, whose civilization was due to Irish missionaries who established themselves there at a very early period. The conversion of the pagan Suevi began in 589, when the great monasteries of Luxeull and Anegra,y in the Vosges were founded by Columbanus, who was born in Leinster. The monasteries of Bobbio in Lombardy, of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and of Wurtzburg in Germany, were founded soon afterwards by Irish missionaries, and were centres for the spread of Irish Christianity and Irish culture among the rude pagan tribes. Thus, if this interlaced ornament was of Irish origin it is easy to account for its occurrence on Teutonic monuments of the VIIth and following centuries, but, if it was of Germanic origin, it is difficult indeed to explain its presence at the same date on Irish MSS. of exquisite perfection, or to understand how it comes to be found on the crosses of Iona and the Hebrides.

A word as to the specific cases which Professor Boyd Dawkins brings forward in support of his theory. The Taplow broach, on which he relies, is not earlier than the VIIIth Century, if so old, while the blending of Scandinavian and Celtic ornament shows that it must have belonged to a Viking chief, and be later than the establishment of the Scandinavian settlements in Ireland. It proves nothing, or rather what it proves is the other way. The ornament on objects found in early AngloSaxon graves consists of small sunk panels, of spirals, and of a peculiar zigzag ornament, quite distinct from the interlaced Irish work. The genuine Teutonic ornament is seen on the Westphalian urns figured on plate xxxi of the Horwae Ferales, and also on the AngloSaxon urns in plate xxviii., figs. 4-7. So also with the early Burgundian finds from graves at Charnay, figured in Budot's book. In all these cases the interlaced ornament ought to be found, if it was of Teutonic origin, but it is absent.

In the collection at the British Museum the oldest dated object with interlaced ornament from any AngloSaxon grave is proved by the associated coins to be later, how much later we cannot tell, than the year 814, a time when Irish ornament is not unfrequent in English MSS., such as the Gospels of St. Cuthbert or St. Chad.

The broach from Tuscany figured in plate xxvlll of the Horae Ferales is of late date, and of Celto-Scandinavian style, with interlacing zoomorphic ornament.

At Chur, in Switzerland, there are stones with panelled interlacements in the Irish style, but the church to which they belonged was built in 1178, long after the establishment of Irish missionaries in that region.

If the interlaced ornament of the Manx crosses did not originate in Ireland, its source must be sought, not in any Teutonic lands, but in the old Roman Mosaic, the patterns of which may have been introduced, as were the elements of the Irish uncial writing, from Southern Gaul, perhaps as early as the time of St. Patrick. But I am inclined to believe it was of independent growth, as it differs in some important respects from the interlacements of the Roman Mosaic; and it bears, to my mind, distinct traces of being a survival from a not very remote prototype, executed in some other material, either osier twigs or rushes.



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HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001