Inverurie’s Pictish horse

Bain was always looking for connections between the insular art of the British Isles and artistic styles beyond our shores. He knew that elements could be seen in the designs used in Roman, Greek and earlier classical worlds. Here, he seeks to connect the study of a Pictish horse’s head with one from Knossos, Mycenae (in today’s Crete). There are around 2,000 years between the two.

Both are incised into smooth, flat surfaces. One is on a large granite slab, the other a small clay tablet. Both horses seem to have braided manes. Only the horse from Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, has a defined jaw line and muscles. The curved lines enabled the Pictish craftsman to show the horse’s form.

Bain comments that in Celtic art ‘the leg-joints and rib-forms of the animals in ornamental rendering have spiral terminal treatments’. Here, as on other Pictish stones, these spirals are simple scrolls. In the Book of Kells scrolls are also used. Some therefore wonder if a Pictish scribe might have had a hand in the creation of the great book.  Bain was very drawn to the Inverurie slab and used adaptations of the Pictish horse in other designs of his.

Interlaced man and beasts

Bird, serpent, beast and man fill a small square on a page in the Book of Kells, created over 1200 years ago. Bain made this large detailed drawing so his students could see the skill of the original scribe. He even shows the original size of the drawing so that the amount of enlargement is clear. It looks as if it is about 20 times that in the manuscript. The monk who created this complex image did so without the use of a magnifying glass or artificial light. It was too dangerous to use candlelight in a scriptorium. 

The scribe used interlacing to connect the figure to the entwined creatures in the design. He also interlaced the man’s long golden hair, with a strand wrapping around his waist like a belt. But this isn’t just art. The beast makes the letter C, the man forms the letter I. They are part of the Latin words IN PRINCIPIO (‘in the beginning’), the opening words of St John’s Gospel. Grappling with the beast represents the Christian message that good will overcome evil.

Bain’s notes around the artwork show that he wanted his art students to understand its intricate craftsmanship. He encouraged them to think for themselves and share ideas as to the meanings of the images.

See: The Book of Kells, TCD MS58, folio 292r, Trinity College Dublin (detail centre left)

A magnified brooch

The Tara brooch is an amazing treasure of Irish early medieval art. It is 8.7cm in diameter with a pin over 25cm long. Made of silver, covered in gold, it is decorated on both sides. On this face the metalworker decorated the brooch with interlace and animal designs in incredibly fine, gold, filigree wire. There are also amber, enamel and glass settings.

It is not clear why George Bain drew this magnified interpretation of the Tara brooch. It may have been for use with students or to illustrate one of his lectures. Perhaps it was his research before creating the greetings card that features this piece. The accuracy suggests that he must have worked from a drawing or photograph of the brooch in a reference book.

As often in his teaching aids Bain provides a guide to the actual size of the original.  His marginal pencil annotations are also interesting as they illustrate his working methods. The detail of the beast’s head to to the left of the brooch is a particular example.

A favourite Pictish cross-slab

This drawing by Bain seems to follow his initial exploration of the Rossie Priory cross-slab design. He sets out a very detailed, interpretive copy of one side of the Pictish sculptured stone. However, his illustration does have an error. Bain mirrors the knotwork design immediately to the right of the central boss of the cross. In reality the two designs are different.

It seems his attention is once again very focused on the continuous line of the knotwork decoration. HIs notes in the margin emphasise this. So it is incongruous that in its totality the knotwork actually isn’t a single line. Bain points out where the two ends of the line appear on either side of the cross. He would use this ‘feature’ when he came to create a greetings card design based on the cross-slab.

Carpet page of knotwork

This large drawing is one of Bain’s numerous posters, produced as teaching or lecture aids. It focuses on the various knotwork panels of a page in the Book of Durrow. Near the top left corner Bain fully colours a small part of the design. By spreading apart the interlaced strands he highlights the saltire cross at the centre of the knotwork motif.

The same knotwork motif is repeated eight times at a larger scale in the centre of the page. Three differently shaped crosses are highlighted in white, one above the other down the middle. They reflect the Christian trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Bain’s script, along the right side, highlights a link between the Book of Durrow and St Columba. It refers to an inscription on folio 247v, implying that the saint created the book of gospels. Nowadays it is thought that the name of Columba was added much later.

The religious community that held the Book of Durrow at the time must have changed the original text. Presumably it wanted to show a direct link to the greatly revered St Columba. The original word me (referring to the book’s scribe) was scraped or worn away and overwritten with Columba.

A Pictish cross-slab

This huge drawing of the front of the Nigg Pictish cross-slab by George Bain is a magnificent artwork. But what is not clear is his purpose in creating it. We don’t think he used it as a teaching aid. Perhaps Bain was spurred on by a 1944 publication that included drawings of the stone. He certainly notes that there are errors in them and in other illustrators’ work. Perhaps he was trying his hand at correcting their errors.

Even so, Bain hasn’t created a wholly accurate record of the cross-slab. Instead, we think he also wanted to illustrate the design of the stone so that he could attempt to predict what was on its missing parts. His notes in the margin show he was very happy to have come up with a solution based on a continuous line.

See: Diack, FC ‘The inscriptions of Pictland. An essay on the sculptured and inscribed stones of the North-East and North of Scotland’ edited by Alexander, WM & Macdonald J in Third Spalding Club, vol 13 (1944) and
Petley C 1857 ‘A short account of some carved stones in Ross-shire’ in Archaeologica Scotica vol 4

When in Rome

This is something of a puzzle. What are the parallels that George Bain sees in these designs from Rome and the British Isles? There is a simple interlaced border at the top of the main subject but he doesn’t really connect it with the other drawings.

Perhaps Bain is interested in the pair of peacocks facing each other? This is in a mosaic at St Maria in Trastevere, Rome. There is another pair in his extract from a folio in the Book of Kells, although they’re looking backwards. But why does he also draw the two saints and lions from the top of the Nigg cross-slab in Easter Ross?

Nevertheless this another superb example of Bain’s illustrative skills.  It is also one of a small number of drawings that refer to designs from the Roman period.

A wintry corner of interlace

George Bain was extremely interested in the use of continuous line interlace borders. He saw the same design used in Romano-British mosaic floors. So he copied elements of certain mosaics into several of his teaching aids.

This example is from part of a mosaic at the Chedworth Roman villa in Gloucestershire. The border around ‘Winter’ uses a single continuous line. He explains the technique for achieving this in a four sided interlace border on another poster. The principle is based on having an odd number spacing on just one side of the design. But he doesn’t give the specific solution for creating triangular shapes.   

Romano-British interlace

George Bain recognised the importance of the single, continuous strand in borders and panels. He works out how to create this effect by applying ‘odd number’ spacing to just one side of a design. Here he shows two examples. Both are based on an interlace border on a mosaic at the Chedworth Roman villa, Gloucestershire.

Bain felt that Pictish artists and designers used the continuous line to symbolise eternity. This is a fundamental belief in Christian and other religions. In this drawing he links the interlaced line with pre-Christian philosophies. Here, he quotes the classical writers Virgil and Pythagoras to support his theory.

Knotwork cross corrected

At first glance this is copied from the portrait page of St John’s Gospel in the Book of Kells. The cross is centre-left in the frame around the evangelist. Looking closely at a photo of folio 291v you will see three different designs within the four crosses on the page. Those top and bottom are the same, with four sets of vertical knots. Those to the left and right have five knot sets, but they flow in different directions across the arms of the cross.

Bain’s drawing is very easy to read. It is this simplicity that helps us to understand why he gives it the title ‘Correct order’. He has corrected the scribe’s original design to make it perfectly symmetrical. But even Bain has made a mistake with the altered knot. He has had to use white correction fluid on it.

See Book of Kells TCD MS58 folio 291v Trinity College Dublin

Knotwork cross developed

Bain was clearly fascinated by the designs within the four crosses around St John in the Book of Kells. He records how to draw the pattern in the centre-left cross in Methods of Construction. He then ‘corrects’ the design in the other poster in this set. But in this drawing Bain takes the original design one step further.

He adds in an extra set of loops in the knotwork strands forming the cross shaft. This gives the cross the appearance of being made up of five linked squares. The note at the bottom ‘compare with Ulbster Cross’ explains why he made the adaptation. The cross he is referring to is also made up of five knotworked squares. It must have been the inspiration for the re-working of this one from the Book of Kells.

Collieburn’s key pattern

Bain studied this Pictish sculptured slab so that he could take up the challenge of creating part of its missing sections. We don’t know if he visited the private museum at Dunrobin Castle to study this part of the cross-slab. If he didn’t, he may have used the main reference book by Allen and Anderson as his source.

Perhaps he was drawn to this large sculpture because of the size and depth of the carving. The key pattern and knotwork discs are so three-dimensional. But he clearly didn’t see a need to make an exact copy of the surviving design. The incised dividing line along each interlaced strand is missing.

Bain loved to create his own patterns based on Pictish geometric forms but he hasn’t done this here. He hasn’t attempted to suggest what the rest of the carving could be. He could have got some ideas from the complex panels on the Rosemarkie cross-slab.

Allen JR & Anderson J 1903 The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland page 51-2