Wednesday, December 6, 2017

‘The Shape of an L’: Thoughts on the occurrence and meaning of the L-shape in Early Medieval art and religion.

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St Patrick’s Bell shrine (Source)

One evening last September I posted a picture to Facebook of the back of the rather wonderful St Patrick’s Bell Shrine. This rear panel is decorated with a combination of equal-armed Greek Crosses, swastikas, and T-shaped or ‘Tau’ crosses. The blog post I wrote as a direct result of that online conversation ("Always remember to draw the swastika turning to the right": Some thoughts on swastika directionality in Early Medieval Irish Art) was (as the name implies) intended to examine the evidence for directionality of Early Medieval swastikas in Ireland or of Irish manufacture. There was a secondary aim to create a basic catalogue of the currently known examples and appeal for anyone with further information to come forward.

In the lively discussion that sprung up around the original Facebook post, a friend raised a dissenting voice and suggested that the swastika symbols were only part of the design because that’s how the Greek crosses were stacked together – purely accidental and unintentional. In his assessment of the back of the shrine he argued that a repeating pattern of Greek crosses would not fit neatly into a rectangular form and would necessitate some cutting and clipping to make it fit. His view was that these ‘offcuts’ may superficially resemble Taus, but it is no more than that. My contention at that time was (and remains) that the various craftspeople responsible for the design and manufacture of these items were extremely skilled and did not incorporate elements lightly or unintentionally. As another friend and respected archaeologist remarked “To suggest any less is to completely underestimate the sophistication of these works.” However, something he (the first friend) said at the time hit a nerve. He said “Some may resemble a tau, coincidentally, but the … L pieces of every orientation do not appear to offer any secret message.” As he is clearly and demonstrably wrong when it comes to the deliberate use of the Tau, I am unconcerned (I’m not sure he agrees with me, but what can you do?) … but it’s those pesky L-shapes. As soon as he mentioned them as being an irrelevance on the Bell Shrine I started seeing them everywhere … if one takes the view that Early Medieval craftspeople were as skilled and as thoughtful as we often claim, their inclusion of an apparently random design element must carry meaning … or perhaps they weren’t as smart as we give them credit for?

Folio 210v, Lindisfarne Gospels (Source)

After reading my friend’s comments, the first place I noticed an apparently aberrant L-shape was on Folio 210v of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Here, there are four small swastikas that form what may be best described as a rectilinear pattern overlying a writhing inhabited vine scroll motif. I hadn’t noticed it initially, but the centre portion of the page is dominated by a Greek cross. There are then four Tau crosses, one aligned to each terminal of the Greek cross. Each of the four swastikas are presented in squares that form part of this outer edge of rectilinear ornamentation. So far, so good! Greek crosses, Taus, swastikas – they’re all forms of cross and they’re all explicable in that context. Then the L’s started to bother me. There’s one in each of the four corners. If I am going to argue that all the other major motifs are explicable and carry a theological message, how can I ignore this?

Folio 27v, Book of Kells (Source)

While these are the only examples I am aware of where L-shapes and swastikas are combined, they are not the only examples of the former in Irish art. For something closely paralleled with the Lindisfarne Gospels, we can turn to The Book of Kells on Folio 27v where the symbols of the four evangelists are surrounded by sumptuous, decorated borders. The centre of the page is decorated with what may be described as a stepped Greek cross, and Taus are present at the four edges. Each of the four corners of the page bears an L-shape, with a further L-shape stacked on its outer edge.

Myklebostad escutcheon (Source)

Leaving aside the manuscript evidence, I want to turn to the evidence from metalwork, specifically the famous hanging-bowl mount from Myklebostad in Norway. Although recovered from a Viking grave of the early 9th century, the figure is thought to be of Irish manufacture, dating to the 8th to 9th centuries. The piece is distinctive owing to the oversized head with oval eyes and prominent brow, contrasting with the short, squat legs. The rectangular body is decorated with five squares of millefiori, arranged in a quincunx or saltire formation. The spaces in between are each decorated with two interlocking L-shapes.

Oseberg Mount (Source)

Also of 8th to 9th century date is the enamelled mount from the famous Oseberg burial, again of Irish manufacture. Here the central square is decorated with four L-shapes in yellow enamel. Each of the outer quadrants contains two L-shapes in yellow enamel. In each case, the two L-shapes are separated by a rectangle of millefiori glass which ‘emphasise the cruciform elements of the design’ (Youngs 1989, 61). Thus, we have an object that combines an equal-armed cross with 12 L-shapes. It may, however, be pushing the elasticity of the argument to suggest that the diagonal lines in bronze may be read as a saltire cross.

Left-hand portion of the buckle, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965)

Right-hand portion of the buckle, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965) 
One of the medallions, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965)

One of the medallions, Moylough Belt Shrine (O’Kelly 1965)

As an undergraduate in my final year, the Moylough Belt Shrine used to haunt my dreams. The late Prof Rynne lectured extensively on the piece and it made frequent appearances as an exam question. It dates to the 8th century and is largely made of bronze in a variety of forms with some silver and enamel adornments. While Rynne’s lectures concentrated on the complexities of the manufacturing process, he seems to have passed over some of the decorative elements. Or, at the very least, I appear to only recently have noticed the large numbers of Taus and L-shapes it bears. The two main areas of decoration are the two sides of the buckle arrangement. On the right-hand side a silver panel is framed with an enamelled bronze arrangement. Two corners are decorated with millefiori squares and the opposite corners hold raised glass domes. The intervening sides are decorated with a combination of Taus and L-shapes. The top and bottom edges both bear one set of interlocking L-shapes, and a panel of two Taus and two L-shapes. The left-hand edge (nearest the buckle) has two groups of two interlocking L-shapes, while the opposite side has a single panel composed of two Taus and two L-shapes. The L-shapes even continue beyond this, with two interlocking examples forming the necks of the toothed animal heads to the right of the main square. It is slightly difficult to make out in the images from O’Kelly’s publication (1965), but the two corners nearest the buckle edge are slightly raised in comparison to the surrounding decoration. In this way each of the two millefiori squares combine with two sets of interlocking L-shapes to form larger L-shapes. This feature of a raised L-shaped corner is visible on Ranvaik’s Casket (discussed below) and on the well-known Ballinderry gaming board. The opposite (left-hand) side of the buckle arrangement is very similar in composition. Here the rectangular silver panel is surrounded by the same form of cast bronze frame, decorated with millefiori and enamel. In this case, all four corners are decorated with millefiori squares, combined with two sets of two interlocking L-shapes to form four larger L-shapes. The top and bottom edges are both decorated with a series of two L-shapes and two Taus, all interlocking. The left and right edges each bear an S-shape, the exact meaning of which is difficult to ascertain. They may be interpreted as a debased form of the meandros or an S-scroll, executed in a rectilinear manner, in keeping with the rest of the ornament on the frame. Again, the necks of the two toothy animals are each composed of a pair of interlocking L-shapes. The other major decorative elements of the belt shrine are four ringed cross medallions, one attached to each of the four hinged portions. Though similar, each is unique and two of the medallions bear enamelled L-shapes. The ring of one medallion, with D-shaped terminals, is decorated with alternating squares of millefiori and interlocking L-shapes. On the second example the ring is decorated with 12 millefiori squares, singly and in pairs, interspersed with interlocking L-shapes. In both cases, 16 L-shapes are used to form eight squares.

Edge panel, Stowe Missal Shrine (Warner 1906)

Edge panel, Stowe Missal Shrine (Warner 1906)

I couldn't allow this opportunity to write about the Stowe Missal Shrine to go by without adding this magnificent 3D image (anaglyph). I'm particularly grateful to Simon Chadwick for his permission to reproduce it here (Source). 

The Stowe Missal Shrine was crafted from oak and decorated with a variety of metal plaques as a protective housing for an illuminated manuscript. While the manuscript dates to the late 8th or early 9th centuries, the shrine is of a variety of periods ranging from 1027-1033 and 1375. For many viewers, myself included, the eye is instinctively drawn to the human figures – an assortment of angels, clerics and warriors – and can easily ignore the plainer panels. On one side, set between two plaques depicting warriors, is an openwork grille, in many respects comparable to the one on the back of the St Patrick’s Bell Shrine. This example is composed of an arrangement of 12 equal-armed, Greek crosses in three rows, and 20 squares, in four rows. The border is formed of 14 Taus and each of the four corners bears an L-shape. The other grille is similar, but not quite identical, being slightly truncated. As it sits beside the panel with two ecclesiastics (one with a bell and the other holding a crozier), an angel, and a harper, it is always going to be paid somewhat less attention. Here the composition is of 16 squares in four lines, and nine crosses in three lines. The border is formed of 12 Taus, and once again the four corners are L-shapes.

Ranvaik’s Casket. © Danish National Museum

The house shaped shrine known as Ranvaik’s Casket is, to my mind, one of the most striking pieces of Irish craftsmanship from the Early Medieval period. The core of the piece is a box carved from solid Yew and decorated with applied copper alloy and tin plates. It is made in the Irish style and thought to date to the 8th century. A runic inscription saying ‘Ranvaik owns this casket’ was added in the 10th century. The front of the casket is decorated with two rectangular plates, surrounded by copper alloy openwork on a tinned background. This grille is composed of six Taus and four L-shapes. The front portion of the lid of the casket is similar, with a single rectangular plate set against an openwork grille of 12 L-shapes. Interestingly, the L-shapes at either end of the lid are paired in a way that resembles a Tau. Youngs (1989) notes that ‘the frame is thickened at each corner to give the impression of L-shaped reinforcing plates’. I would instead argue that while this may have some functional significance, this is also a decorational device, intended to strengthen and reinforce the visual symbolism of the repeated L-shapes of the grilles.

Mounts 229 (Left) & 247 (Right), Shanmullagh, Co. Armagh (Bourke 2010)

Bourke’s (2010) publication of metalwork dredged from the River Blackwater, between Blackwatertown and Lough Neagh contains several pieces germane to this discussion, though I will confine myself to only two the artefacts, where the evidence is clearest. A short, decorated mount (229) from Shanmullagh, Co. Armagh bears two sets of interlocking L-shapes as well as a rectilinear S-shape, similar to the example from the Moylough Belt Shrine. A circular mount (247), possibly from a Book Shrine, and also from Shanmullagh, has 12 L-shapes arranged around the perimeter in interlocking sets of two.

8th century mount. Unprovenanced (Wallace & Ó Floinn 2002)

I would also note an unlocalised heart-shaped shrine mount in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland (Wallace & Ó Floinn 2002, 192). It is thought to be part of the end of the lid of a tomb-shaped shrine, and dates to the 8th century. Alternating between the panels of millefiori are enamelled pairs of L-shapes. Some 16 appear to survive, but it is clear that there were further examples that haven’t fared so well.

Straid or Gleebe pillarstone at Glencolubkille, Co Donegal

Although the examples given above are mostly of metalworking, the L-shaped motif also appears, if less frequently, in other media too. The south-east face of the Straid or Gleebe pillarstone at Glencolubkille, Co Donegal, is essentially a set of three linked squares. The internal corners of these squares contain L-shapes – in false relief in the central and upper square and incised in the case of the lower example. Drumroe, Co Donegal, is part of the same general Glencolubkille complex and here too there is a pillar stone that displays three vertically linked squares. While the bottom square is left blank, the upper two have L-shapes in false relief. While the case may be made that the carving of the L-shapes are secondary to the square-centred Greek cross, I would counter that if they were not necessary they could have been removed. However, they are there and, I would argue, they are there intentionally.

Drumroe pillarstone (Lacey 1983)

While it is clear that much more needs to be done to compile a definitive corpus of the usages of the L-shape, there is ample evidence in what has been presented above to confirm that this is a relatively common motif of Irish Early Medieval art. Although the picture may change with the addition of more examples, it seems clear that the instances where the L-shape is used are usually religious in nature. Within this context, the symbol frequently occurs in conjunction with a variety of christian cross forms, particularly the equal-armed Greek cross, the Tau, and the swastika. Even where the context is not explicitly ecclesiastical, the artefacts (such as the Myklebostad hanging bowl escutcheon) are quite high status and would not be out of place on a wealthy monastic foundation.

Unfortunately, none of this brings us closer to an understanding of what the L-shape may have symbolised to the Early Medieval creators, commissioners, and users of these items. Thus, it is with no small degree of trepidation I now advance my own theory. My first inkling of how to address this issue came when I thought about the Greek term for swastika: Gammadion. It is literally a ‘cross composed of four capital Gammas, or L’s. It is attractive (for me, at least) to think of Early Medieval art being even more full of swastikas than it already is. In this scenario, every L-shape is just a quarter swastika waiting to be put back together. Theologically, the notion is rather sound if we accept that swastikas in the Irish corpus are a form of regular christian cross. However, this argument fails to stack up if we consider that many of these artefacts could easily have borne fully drawn swastikas and that there was no obvious need to break the symbol into its constituent parts. Thus, I would argue that if the L-shape is to be seen as conveying meaning of any kind, it must be a meaning that it possesses within itself and not merely as a subset of the swastika motif. I would argue that the L-shape is indeed to be taken as a Greek Gamma, but specifically in its form as the numeral ‘3’. The surviving corpus of early Irish literature demonstrates a particular fondness for the number three, including the Trecheng Breth Féne (‘A Triad of Judgments of the Irish’)(Kelly 2004). While there may not have been ‘a special Celtic cult of threeness’ it would seem likely that, where used in a christian context, it would refer to the most common and ubiquitous idea of a triumvirate – the Trinity. In this manner it may be seen as a strong religious statement of orthodoxy, affirming the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the belief that posits the deity as three consubstantial persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct persons, yet of a single essence or nature.

The two questions to be addressed at this point are the degree to which Greek may have been known in Early Medieval Ireland and the importance of Trinitarianism in the Early Church. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged, first, from the Council of Nicaea in 325AD which cemented the full divinity of Jesus. The resulting Nicene creed used the term homoousios, meaning ‘of one substance’ to articulate the association between Father and Son. These foundations were further built upon by the First Council of Constantinople in 381AD, which ruled in favour of the divinity of the Spirit. This represented the solid establishment of Trinitarianism as Christian orthodoxy, a position it still maintains. Opposing, Nontrinitarian, views were held by Arianism, but faded from its last toeholds with the conversion of the Teutonic tribes to Catholicism by the end of the 5th century. The doctrine was later revived by the Cathars from the 11th century onwards, but never received mainstream support. Commenting on the artistic depiction of the Trinity, Roe (1979, 102) notes that ‘From at least the 7th century the dogma of the Trinity and its veneration finds copious expression in Latin and Irish hymns, prayers and litanies.’ For example, she notes the Lesser Doxology carved on the cross-slab at Fahan Mura, Co. Donegal, that follows the form promulgated after the Council of Toledo in 633: ‘Glory and honour to Father and Son and Holy Spirit’. Roe continues (1979, 103): ‘Notwithstanding so much literary evidence I have failed to recognise any corresponding graphical representation other than the symbolic, be it in manuscript, metalwork or among the subjects carved on the Irish crosses of pre-12th century date [i.e. occasional Dextera Dei and images of doves] ... it is only from the early 13th century that pictorial illustrations of the Trinity come into use in Ireland’.

This presents us with an interesting juxtaposition. On one hand, there is ample evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity being a central tenet of religious faith within mainstream Christianity, including Ireland, from at least the seventh century onward. While on the other hand, there is no corresponding evidence within the artistic output of that time. Compare this to, for example, the large number of surviving representations of the crucifixion – a similarly important christian belief – and the lacuna becomes all the more stark. Seen in these terms, it appears almost inconceivable that the doctrine of the trinity wasn’t depicted in some manner. Central to the argument of whether the L-shape could have fulfilled this role as a symbol of the Trinity is the issue of how much Greek was known in Ireland during the period under review. Recent work by Moran (2011; 2012) seeks to critically evaluate the evidence for a knowledge of the language. He argues that the distinction between the study of Greek in Ireland and the knowledge of Greek among the Irish in Europe may be a false dichotomy, based on the disparity of evidence between the two positions. Instead, he turns to texts of the 16th century, such as O’Mulconry’s glossary, that preserves a significantly older text, dated to the late 7th or 8th centuries. Based on these etymological manuscripts he concludes that ‘The overall picture, therefore, points to some passive knowledge and at best very basic reading ability’. While he does not specifically identify basic numeracy, it seems only logical to conclude that an Early Medieval Irish monk who knew the Greek alphabet would also be acquainted with the basic numbers from 1-10. Interestingly, Moran (2011, 175) notes that only two examples of continuous Greek, written in Greek script, survive from Ireland sources. One of these is the well-known Schaffhausen manuscript, written on Iona and dated to, at the latest, the 8th century. While written chiefly in Insular script, it concludes with the Paternoster in Greek. The other is the Fahan Mura inscription, referenced above. It is of particular significance in this instance as it physically combines a liturgical formula referencing the Trinity together with the Greek language. It takes no great leap of academic faith to imagine that the individual responsible for commissioning this text would have had sufficient grasp of the language to count to 10.

Does any of this mean that the L-shape seen on several high status and religious artefacts of Early Medieval date was definitely a short-hand for the doctrine of the Trinity? The simple, straightforward answer is, of course, no, it does not. However, the evidence presented is particularly tantalising. We have a recurrent symbol, frequently found on high status and ecclesiastical artefacts, often in combination with clear christian symbols. I would contend that if one of these symbols has meaning then all must have some degree of meaning. Based on the similarity of the L-shape to the Greek letter Gamma and number 3, I posit that the symbolism could relate to the Trinitarian doctrine. While the evidence suggests that, like Shakespeare, Early Medieval Ireland possessed ‘less Greek’, it seems that the knowledge level would have been more than sufficient for the connection to be made. Further, it is clear that although Trinitarian belief is well attested in the literature of this period, comparable evidence within thee artistic repertoire is wholly lacking. We may never know if the Gamma, like a fortuitous Tetris block, really does fit this void, but the speculation is half the enjoyment.

Bourke, C. 2010 'Antiquities from the River Blackwater IV. Early Medieval Non-Ferrous Metalwork' Ulster Journal of Archaeology 69, 24-133.

Kelly, F. 2004 'Sir John Rhys Memorial Lecture. Thinking in Threes: The Triad in Early Irish Literature.' Proceedings of the British Academy 125, 1-18.

Lacy, B. 1983 Archaeological survey of County Donegal: a description of the field antiquities from the Mesolithic period to the 17th century A.D. Lifford.

O'Kelly, M. J. 1965 'The Belt-Shrine from Moylough, Sligo' Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 95, 149-188.

Roe, H. M. 1979 ‘Illustrations of the Holy Trinity in Ireland: 13th to 17th centuries’ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries 109, 101-150.

Moran, P. 2011 ''A Living Speech'? The Pronunciation of Greek Words in Early Medieval Ireland' Ériu 61, 29-57.

Moran, P. 2012 'Greek in early medieval Ireland' in A. Mullen & P. James (eds.) Multilingualism in the Graeco-Roman Worlds. Cambridge, 172-192.

Wallace, P. F. & Ó Floinn, R. (eds.) 2002 Treasures of the National Museum of Ireland: Irish Antiquities. Dublin

Warner, G. F. 1906 The Stowe Missal: MS. D. II. 3 in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. London.

Youngs, S. (ed.) 1989 The Work of Angels: Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th centuries AD. London.

I want to pay a heartfelt tribute to all those on social media who have repeatedly helped me with references, images, and given immense support of all kinds. I thank each & every one of you – this post is dedicated to you all! A piece of work of this kind would have been impossible without this crowdsourcing effort & I hope I've not left anyone out (any omission would be unintentional!), but here are some who deserve my thanks: Lorcán J. O'Flannery, Cormac McSparron, Colm Moriarty, Seán Ó Taidhg, Alexandra Guglielmi, Sarah Lang, Gary Sleith, Mary Fitzsimons, Michael Ardill, Helen FitzGerald, Dilean MacSearraigh, Maarten Blaauw, Stephen A Cameron, Angie Fogarty Wickenden, Carl Thorpe, Aidan O'Sullivan, Terry O'Hagan, C J NíChléirigh, David Sandford Ward, Don O'Meara, Haydyn Williams, & Annie Fernback.

In searching for the perfect title for this post, I have repeatedly come back to the lyrics from Smash Mouth’s 1999 hit ‘All Star’:

“She was looking kind of dumb with her finger and her thumb
In the shape of an "L" on her forehead”

Over the course of writing this post it began to occur to me that there may be more to this line than meets the eye. Ostensibly, Smash Mouth are mocking the woman making the ‘Loser’ sign. However, based on the current research, it seems clear that she is affirming her orthodox christian doctrine of the Trinity that holds the deity as three consubstantial persons. In describing her as “looking kind of dumb”, Smash Mouth are deliberately parodying her belief and conspicuously aligning themselves with the doctrine of Nontrinitarianism. As the largest modern christian sects that support this belief include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses, it would appear that Smash Mouth are declaring that these – or a similar Nontrinitarian denomination – are correct in their teachings and offer an authentic pathway to salvation. Not only are Smash Mouth occasional purveyors of catchy chart success, they are clearly deep-thinking theologians of the heterodox school.