Sunday, September 21, 2008
Haunting Image from the Past
The first time I saw a photograph of this ring, it resonated somehow in my soul. It was a mystery I had not solved, as I could not recognise the images but it was powerful nonetheless.
Even now, I have not solved this mystery. The ring probably was a seal ring, which means that, like an intaglio, it is the gaps between the metalwork that create the shapes. Most intaglio seals are deciphered easily but this one eludes me. Celtic
designs are among the most convoluted and sophisticated, including animal forms that twist and turn and double back upon themselves. This design appears to be Celtic in its inspiration, but what does it represent?
There are gods with fishtails. It is difficult for me to see the image in the spaces rather than the lines, but it appears to me that either a fishtail or a series of waves is included in this design.
Was it a personal or tribal icon, a fanciful artist's vision or simply a random combination of shapes like the counterfeit coins that were produced throughout the Roman Empire and later, throughout the Islamic Empire, shapes that no longer held significance to their copiers but somehow had achieved the status of official icons over the years?
In the lands conquered by the Arabs, native governments often issued coins that imitated Arabic but in fact were gibberish as the shapes were distorted or ordered without knowledge of the significance of each letter. Earlier, before the Roman Empire ceased to be, native tribes in Western Europe created their own coins in imitation of imperial Roman coins with the same result on occasion.
To me, however, this seal is very Celtic rather than being derivative at all. It may have been created at the time when Rome still held dominance over Europe but it possesses the fluidity and sophistication of Celtic art. Roman seals tend to be very simple in their lines. They are based on certain fundamental designs that could create a human form in a couple of small dots and lines. They are amazing in their own way but very different from this ring. In the previous post, I included some photographs of Roman seal rings as well as the seals themselves.
Actually, I have an old Celtic coin from the 1st Century that is similar in style and has been described as depicting a standing bear with, on the other side of the coin, a mounted warrior. To the uneducated eye, it looks like nothing so much as an artwork by a Cubist like Picasso, but once I studied it, I began to be able to discern the forms both of bear and warrior. It never 'leapt' to the eye, though.
One viewer of this ring design declared it to represent a man holding a tree. I could see that as well. If the 'tree' could be translated to 'club', it could be a depiction of Hercules or some Celtic version of the hero. Looking at the design when the ring is turned a different way, one can see an animal, perhaps a stag with antlers. It is all very perplexing and fascinating. What is it in me that wishes to solve the mystery definitively? Why can't I perceive it almost as I would an ink blot design to change and transform with every viewing?
There is another part of me that wonders if objects can serve as repositories of spiritual power, carrying blessings or curses rather like the Hope Diamond. What does it mean to wear a ring engraved with the form of a deity that one does not serve personally? Some would declare instantly that this is why many religions prohibit 'graven images' of 'false gods'... Does that signify a belief of some kind in those 'false gods' and their power??? To transform a 'false god' into a demon or devil actually confirms belief in the existence of that deity.
One day I hope to be able to look at this ring and see the original intention as clear as crystal etched upon the slate of my soul. Does it represent a deity or mythical creature, an animal or animals, or something quite different? I see many forms but none of them definitive. It may be a trivial mystery but it is one that nags at me to solve it.
Later: How subjective vision is! Imagination takes a leap and the mind follows to fill in the gaps. There are many Byzantine rings that have similar forms as this. Knowing that, I chose not to credit that possibility. It could be lettering rather than any animal or plant design. I had thought this particular ring to be different from the pseudo-Arabic seal rings found throughout the Empire, but perhaps I am wrong and it is nothing more than another calligraphic name ring or a poorly copied prayer.