What is at the heart of the Celtic spirit?

Reflections on the Chalice Well Many Paths One Source Festival 2017

The Spirit of the Celts becomes apparent in the way that they were able to represent and depict in their art, the cosmological order and patterns at the heart of life itself.

'...it was possible for the student to cross the threshold into their world and experience it through their hands, heart and eyes'

An Exhibition of Celtic Art, curated by Tom Bree, displayed many fine examples by contemporary artists who in different media; illumination, painting, carving, basketry and ceramics presented gateways to the meaning beneath the form of Celtic art and design. Glyphs used by the early Celts, based on primal marks were the language into which the contents of the universe were poured. Spirals and keys geometrically repeat and repeat and take the viewer down and down into ever decreasing circles of being.

One of the most striking exhibits were the illuminated Manuscripts of The Gospel of Thomas, by artist Diane George. This is the first and only known illuminated example of this gospel, re-discovered in Qumran Caves in the 1940’s. During the course of a year, Diane beautifully created by a hand bound book using traditional Celtic methods and materials to bring this significant ancient text and its wisdom to life.

There is no doubt, after hearing Adam Tetlow’s inspiring talk ‘Celtic Patterns; Visual Rhythms of the Ancient Mind’ that their ability to produce work that is so finely detailed and precise indicates that they had to be a far more technically advanced and developed civilisation than we might have given them credit. Adam shared exquisite examples of everyday objects, including jewellery, carved wooden objects and stonework and surmised that perhaps the only possible way that they were able to (freehand) draw knot work so intricately, was by staring at the original drawn mark, crossing their eyes and following the optical shadow with their brush, pen or chisel. We are talking of precision to a fraction of a millimetre. Their love of decorating the everyday, displays not only a joy and an exuberant disposition but a belief that the sacred and the mundane were indivisible.

Tom Bree’s exposition of the phenomena of the Carved Stone Balls (petro spheres) which are found one radian north of the equator in Aberdeenshire, provided further evidence that the Celtic Mind had an ability to rationalize and concretize their universe beyond our previous understanding. It is surprising that some academics, in a recent televised documentary on the Carved Stone Balls, are still propounding the theory that they are projectile weapons. It is clear from Tom’s research and study that they understood the building blocks of life by their recreating the platonic solids in spherical stone form. It also becomes apparent that they were able to measure spatial relationships between the Sun, Moon and Earth with an astounding accuracy.

Each of the Festival’s workshops was an opportunity for immersion into the Celtic heart and mind through practical learning. In learning how to carve wood, stone, embroider knot work, illuminate letters, draw patterns, create the 3D geometric forms that underpinned their art, grind the colours found in the earth into pigments and weave willow into knot work baskets, it was possible for the student to cross the threshold into their world and experience it through their hands, heart and eyes.

There is something meditative about the gentle chipping of chisel on stone and wood and incredibly satisfying that with each focussed strike a beautiful pattern emerged as if from the material itself. Nick Durnan and Adam Williamson were patient guides sharing their passion and artistry and were clearly delighted to witness the voyage of discovery that their students undertook.

To this accompanying sound a table of quietly concentrated embroiderers under the tutelage of Isobel Moore, layered textiles, text and thread to produce beautiful depictions on linen of the sacred Celtic trinity knot.

Adam Tetlow and Fiona Graham-Flynn and Tom Bree led their students step by step into the beautiful artistry of knot work, calligraphy and geometry of the Celts. Many found the experience of reproducing these ancient designs, not only satisfying but moving and touching on something deep within the unconscious mind.

To some a willow basket might appear to be a simple functional object, such as one might use every day on the table in which to place bread. Under Daniel Docherty’s guidance the everyday was elevated to the extraordinary. A surprisingly rigorous approach was required, as well as collaborative assistance from a willing partner to bend and coax stripped willow through its knotting and weaving until the basket finally emerged.

David Cranswick is a fine artist who has studied how the painters of the past were such Masters of their art. Foundational was the medium they used, and the pigments from which they created their paints. A true artist had to be intimately connected to the materials with which he worked and their paints and pigments originated from the earth herself. In grinding precious stones, rock, earth, bark berry and leaf, it becomes possible to appreciate the beauty and subtlety of the colours of the landscape in which we live. In this way everything is connected; the earth, the rocks, the planets, the metals, the colours, the pigments, the light, the eyes and the hand of the artist.

David shared how on his walks he often carries with him a miniature pestle and mortar and a notebook. When he discovers a particular colour in his natural surroundings, he will grind it up and paint it into his book. In this way, he can map the colours of the land and these colours are then translated into his landscape paintings both artistically and literally.

Throughout the week, visitors were invited by Lesley Oates and helpers to collaborate in the co-creation of a traditional well-dressing. Individual petals and leaves were pressed into wet clay on a board into a design created by calligrapher Fiona Graham-Flynn. The words Mo Chroi at the bottom mean ‘My Heart’.

Lesley Oates has worked with and created essences from the Celtic Holy Wells of Cornwall and shared with participants of her workshop how they can support the healing journey.

An exploration of the heart of the Celtic Spirit could not be complete without hearing its song. Stringed instruments of Lyre (Shaun Aston’s faithfully handcrafted recreations), Harp and Guitar (Jonathan Darnell and Bryony Elizabeth) transported us with each plucked string and haunting lyric into a melodic reverie. Phyllida Anam-Aire and Noirin Ni-Rian awakened a yearning to return to a time forgotten place where we could feel connected to the other, in the heavenly and the earthly realms.

Liam O’Maonlai and Lisa Lambe’s concert stirred the soul with its poetry and depth and moved the audience to a place beyond words. For Liam and Lisa, this was a different kind of performance, the first time they had appeared onstage as a duo. On her return home, Lisa emailed Chalice Well to say “I have no words to truly say thank you for a truly BEAUTIFUL time, we would love to come back, the Well will stay with me till we meet soon.”

It became clear during this festival why Tudor Pole was right to have established one of the founding aims of the Chalice Well Trust as ‘the opportunity to experience the sacred through the arts’.

The Celtic mind and the Celtic heart are not so very different to the hearts and minds of we who walk in their footsteps. We know it too, when we remember that life is a wonder and a mystery which we can feel as we take off our shoes and walk barefoot on the earth, that can be glimpsed when we gaze upon the intricacy and beauty of its design and we can hear when we allow the call of life’s heartbeat to bring us home.

View the 'Exploring the Heart of the Celtic Spirit' gallery...

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