Key Pattern on Pictish sculpture

A Gunning Jubilee Gift enabled an early career researcher to study Pictish sculpture at Groam House Museum and Nigg Old Church

Rosemarkie panel of key pattern

Rosemarkie panel 3.1 with key pattern at Groam House Museum (c) Cynthia Thickpenny

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s Gunning Jubilee Gift supported my travel and accommodation on a 5-day visit to Easter Ross in early June 2016, during which I conducted doctoral research on key pattern (a geometric pattern formed of straight-sided sprials, 600-1100 AD) carved on Pictish sculpture in the Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie and the Nigg Old Church. This research will appear in two case studies that are central to my doctoral dissertation (University of Glasgow), which presents a new theory for Insular key patterns on all media.  Because student finances are challenging, the Gunning Jubilee Gift made possible these crucial case studies for my Ph.D.  By aiding my research in Easter Ross, the Gift also facilitated the inclusion of some of my findings in a paper for the 30th Irish Conference of Medievalists (June 30-July 2, 2016), where I publicly presented my doctoral research for the first time and received invaluable feedback from attending Irish experts of Insular art.

In Insular studies, key pattern has been largely overlooked in favour of other patterns such as interlace and thus poorly understood. As I will show in my Ph.D., previous studies of this pattern were bedeviled by misconceptions and thus are profoundly flawed, particularly in their reliance on ideal patterns types, or printed 2-D reproductions that regularize hand-made and often 3-D originals, erasing evidence of the original physical and intellectual contexts that shaped the patterns’ creation.  My Ph.D. seeks to correct this.  Inspired by Michael Brennan’s recent research on interlace patterns, my approach offers a new, comprehensive means of analyzing key pattern via evidence from original artworks rather than templates, in order to correctly identify the pattern’s physical structures as well as the abstract, conceptual procedures governing their arrangement, and how artists deliberately manipulated both in the working process.

Therefore, case studies of individual artworks form the back-bone of my doctoral research.  My approach to key pattern requires close, first-hand examination and measurement of details often invisible in photographs of the artworks.  By funding my travel to Rosemarkie and Nigg, the Gunning Jubilee Gift thereby enabled me to identify exactly how individual Pictish sculptors from these two sites handled the form.

Pictish sculptors were unique in their prominent use of complex key patterns and the Rosemarkie and Nigg sculptures boast large fields of some of the most technically inventive key patterns ever produced. For example, the sculptor of Rosemarkie 3.1, a rectangular stone panel once part of a screen or shrine, introduced alterations to the key pattern across the main field of decoration.  Physical examination and measurement revealed that during the working process, the sculptor realized that the initial pattern would not fit inside the space available, and so altered some of its physical structures in progress in order to solve this problem so subtly that it is barely noticeable to viewers.  In contrast, the sculptor of the cross-slab at Nigg manipulated key pattern for creative purposes rather than out of necessity, introducing the relatively unusual, virtuoso effect of the ‘interpenetration of motifs’ – merging key pattern with spiral and interlace patterns across the slab.  Again, identification of how this artist transformed individual strands of key pattern into other patterns required onsite examination from a variety of angles and viewpoints not available in photographs or other reproductions.

My approach to key pattern ultimately provides a vehicle for glimpsing these two Pictish artists in the workshop and identifying their intentions for their work. The Gunning Jubilee Gift was instrumental in recovering such crucial data from these sculptures and facilitating the discovery of new information about medieval working processes in the production of complex monuments.

Cynthia Thickpenny
University of Glasgow
Celtic and Gaelic

13 July 2016

Help us to do more

Help us: champion research; stimulate discussion; enhance public understanding; and share our extraordinary heritage. Donate directly to the Society now.