Making key pattern in Insular art: AD 600-1100

Thickpenny, Cynthia Rose (2019) Making key pattern in Insular art: AD 600-1100. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Key pattern is a type of abstract ornament characterised by spiral shapes which are angular rather than curved. It has been used to decorate objects and architecture around the world from prehistory onward, but flourished in a unique form in Insular art (the art of early medieval Britain and Ireland, c. AD 600-1100). Ornament of many kinds was the dominant mode in Insular art, however, key pattern has remained the least studied and most misunderstood. From the 19th century, specialists mainly have relied on simplified, line-drawn reproductions rather than original artworks. These ‘correct’ hand-made details, isolate patterns from their contexts, and in the case of Insular key pattern, de-emphasise its important physical structures. This resulted in misunderstandings of key pattern’s structure and an inability to recognise evidence for medieval artists’ working processes. Postwar art historians and archaeologists then largely abandoned study of ornament structure altogether, in critical reaction to this earlier method. For two centuries, academics have overlooked the artists’ role in pattern-making, and how their creative agency is reflected in patterns’ internal structures.

In response, this thesis presents a new, artist-centred method for the study of Insular key pattern, which adapts Michael Brennan’s pioneering approach to Insular interlace (a different pattern), to suit key pattern’s distinct structure. Close examination of objects and monuments, rather than idealised ‘types’, has revealed how Insular artists themselves understood key pattern and handled it in the moment of creation. The core of the thesis is an analysis of key pattern’s structural properties, i.e. its physical parts and the abstract, often mathematical concepts that Insular makers used to arrange and manipulate these parts, in order to fix mistakes, fulfill specific design goals, or invent anew. Case studies of individual artworks support this analysis and demonstrate how key pattern is a vehicle for accessing Insular artists’ thought processes, as they improvised with the pattern’s basic structures for maximum creative effect. For the first time, this thesis also places Insular key pattern in its global context, via comparative analyses of key patterns from other world art traditions. This investigation has confirmed key pattern’s origin in prehistoric basketry and weaving technologies and explains why Insular key pattern’s geometric complexity remains unparalleled. The adaptation and expansion of this new analytical method for key pattern also proves its applicability to any type of ornament from any culture, making it immediately useful to art historians and archaeologists. This thesis therefore represents a larger paradigm shift that brings ornament study into the 21st century.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: This doctoral thesis was funded by the University of Glasgow's College of Arts PhD Scholarship. This single PDF file contains both volumes (volumes 1 and 2) of the doctoral thesis.
Keywords: art history, archaeology, ornament, design, Insular art, early medieval art, pattern, Celtic Studies, Celtic Revival, key pattern, abstract art.
Subjects: N Fine Arts > NB Sculpture
N Fine Arts > NK Decorative arts Applied arts Decoration and ornament
N Fine Arts > NX Arts in general
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Humanities > Celtic and Gaelic
Supervisor's Name: Forsyth, Dr. Katherine
Date of Award: 2019
Depositing User: Miss Cynthia Rose Thickpenny
Unique ID: glathesis:2019-41009
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 13 Feb 2019 15:50
Last Modified: 05 Mar 2020 21:18
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.41009

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