Werewolves in Cinema

Two of the most iconic transformation sequences in cinema history feature the metamorphosis from man to werewolf; The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, both made in 1981. Both sequences demonstrate a mastery of creature effects, created using prosthetics and stop motion. I prefer these earlier cinema werewolf transformations than any modern CGI versions (such as Hemlock Grove, 2013) , not only because often the final outcome is far more monstrous in appearance, but there is something more tangible about these monsters that were actually there in the room, the actor’s performance, working with the complex prosthetics, much more believable. Many claim that special effects of movies from this time have dated badly, and while that is often the case with computer generated effects, these creature effects are still powerful. There is a rawness and brutality to them that has yet to be captured by CGI. Of the two 1981 transformations, I have to admit to preferring that of The Howling, although both are visually fantastic. Of the two, the former is just somewhat more visceral, with the bubbling of the skin suggesting some horrible chemical reaction going on beneath the skin.

The Company of Wolves (1984, dir. Neil Jordan), a film adaptation of short stories by Angela Carter, portrays not only werewolf tales and transformations, but also a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Once a rural French folktale known as The Story of Grandmother, this story was transformed by Charles Perrault (17th century) and the Brothers Grimm (early 19th century), who turned it into the popular version we know today, full of moral warnings against the gullibility of young women, easily led into sin.

“…Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers transformed an oral folk tale about the social initiation of a young woman into a narrative about rape in which the heroine is obliged to bear the responsibility for sexual violation.” (Zipes, Jack, A Second Gaze at Little Red Riding Hood’s Trials and Tribulations, p.78)

Little Red Riding Hood being gobbled up by the Big Bad Wolf, illustration by Daniel Egneus, 2011

Little Red Riding Hood being gobbled up by the Big Bad Wolf, illustration by Daniel Egneus, 2011

However, The Company of Wolves presents a very different Red Riding Hood in the form of Rosaleen who, although she agrees to the Huntsman’s race, when she discovers his true identity as a wolf, quickly defends herself, even attempting to attack him with a knife and gun. Contrary to the Perrault and Grimm versions, Rosaleen doesn’t need to be recused by a man, indeed, the typically heroic huntsman has become the wolf, showing that no man can be trusted in the deep dark woods. Although afraid, Rosaleen defies the Red Riding Hood tradition of naivety and of course, being gobbled up. Curious about the wolf man, she tries to understand his nature, not turning away even as he changes from man to beast in another great transformation sequence. She may give in to a kiss with the wolf, but quickly shoots him after her exclamation “Jesus, what big teeth you have!”. This Red Riding Hood proves herself as a young woman not to be trifled with, giving up her childhood innocence, not because of lust or foolishness, but so that she may become an independent young woman, fully capable of taking care of herself.

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The Wolf in Mythology

Humankind has discovered a multitude of methods by which we can communicate, developed from the most basic of gestures and sounds, through the advent of pictorial representation in cave paintings, an ever complex plethora of languages, dialects and languages that don’t require sound at all, across all cultures in the world, each developing their own breadth of communication tools, signs, symbols, vocabulary. All this and so much more arising from this one basic instinct to understand each other and the world we live in. Today there is so much information that at times it can feel like its overloading your brain, yet I can’t deny that knowledge is a great power and a wonderful thing to posses.

Anubis, protector of the dead and embalming, Ancient Egyptian, the Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Ani, c. 1300 BC

Anubis, protector of the dead and embalming, Ancient Egyptian, The Weighing of the Heart, Book of the Dead of Ani, c. 1300 BC

One of the most interesting outcomes of this spread of knowledge and communication is the recurrence of the same symbols and signs across the world, throughout history. Very often, deities of completely different cultures, far removed from each other, can bear similarities. The world’s mythologies are full of the same tale, told a thousand different ways. One such example appears in just about every mythology, from the Babylonian Ereshkigal, the Egyptian Anubis, Norse Hel, Roman Pluto to the Japanese Izanami-no-Mikoto; deities related to death. This is but one small recurring motif in the cultures of this planet; there are so many it’s impossible to account for them all.

A motif that rears its furry head in numerous cultures across time is that of the wolf. Given that wolves are native to many countries, the spread of this motif is unsurprising, but the symbolism attributed to it is certainly intriguing. Less often than you would expect, the motif is associated with traits of actual wolves in the wild, including their hunting prowess, ability to work as pack, their intelligence, communication skills and adaptability. The focus came to be on their role as the predator, an attribute that gradually became less and less associated with real wolves and more with human fantasies of the devil and sin incarnate.


Engraving by Hendrik Goltzius for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1589, showing a hybrid wolf-man Lycaon fleeing the seated Zeus

Engraving by Hendrik Goltzius for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 1589, showing a hybrid wolf-man Lycaon fleeing the seated Zeus

Lycaon of Arcadia, Ancient Greek

Lycaon, a king of Arcadia, Greece, desired to test the omniscience of the god Zeus in a particularly gruesome manner: he had one of his sons, Nyctimus, slaughtered and dismembered for the purpose of being served to the god as dinner. Zeus, of course, saw through Lycaon’s elaborate scheme and punished the king, turning him into a wolf, as well as killing all of his remaining fifty sons with lightning bolts, Zeus’ weapon of choice. Other versions have Lycaon and all his sons instantly turned into wolves after devouring Nyctimus. Most versions share this disturbing focus on cannibalism, and the subsequent punishment from the gods. This is among the earliest known tales of a man being turned into a wolf, and is a likely origin for the werewolf. Indeed, the term Lycanthropy is possibly derived from Lycaon.

Bronze sculpture of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

Bronze sculpture of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus, Roman

Among the most famous of tales involving wolves is that of Romulus and Remus, the founders of the City of Rome. The popular myth tells of the twin boys abandoned at birth, only to be rescued by a she-wolf. The iconic image of the she-wolf feeding the two boys can be found throughout Rome.

The brothers grew to be natural leaders and set out to found a new city, however they clashed over where the site should be: Romulus wants the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus prefers the Aventine Hill. A fight soon breaks out, with Romulus emerging as the victor, but at the cost of his brother Remus’ life.

The wolves taking baby Mowgli back to their cave in Disney’s adaptation of The Jungle Book (1967)

The wolves taking baby Mowgli back to their cave in Disney’s adaptation of The Jungle Book (1967)

The theme of the feral child raised by wolves has become a popular one, as seen with Mowgli in The Jungle Book and San in Princess Mononoke. In the latter, San has rejected humanity in favour of the forest, choosing to fight with her wolf family and the boar gods against the humans of Iron Town.

Wepwawet, Ancient Egyptian 

Often confused with the jackal-headed Anubis, Wepwawet is an Ancient Egyptian wolf deity, known as the “opener of the ways”. Along with his visual association with Anubis, this can lead you to think he is another god of death, opening the way to the Underworld for the souls of the dead. However, it seems he was more of a scout, clearing the way for the pharaoh’s armies as they proceeded to battle. In later Egyptian art, Wepwawet was depicted as a wolf or jackal (or a man with the head of either animal), but even when appearing as a jackal, his grey or white fur indicated his origins as a wolf.

Fenrir, Norse

Odin and Fenrir, Dorothy Hardy, 1909

Odin and Fenrir, Dorothy Hardy, 1909

Fenrir, also known as Fenris, is a monstrous wolf from Norse mythology. The eldest child of the trickster god Loki, he is associated with Ragnarok, when it is said he will devour Odin, the Allfather of the gods and ruler of Asgard.

The Binding of Fenrir

The Aesir, fearful of the prophecies foretold of Loki’s three children, devised ways to rid themselves of the monsters and prevent the deaths of their own at Ragnarok.

They threw the serpent Jomungand into the ocean, where he encircled Midgard, the realm of humankind. Hel they sent to the Underworld, an unwise move as it only helped set up the prophecy that she would prevent the god Baldr’s release from the Underworld, the catalyst for Ragnarok and the deaths of Thor and Odin by Jomungand and Fenrir respectively.

Tyr and Fenrir, John Bauer, 1911

Tyr and Fenrir, John Bauer, 1911

Fenrir, while harmless as a pup, soon grew large and the Aesir became fearful of what would happen were he allowed to roam free. With this in mind they tried to bind him with all manner of chains, yet none were a match for the wolf’s strength. Although they claimed to only be testing his strength, Fenrir became suspicious of their actions and when they came to him with a new chain, Gleipnir, recently crafted by the dwarves of Svartalfheim, he was hesitant, only agreeing to be bound when the god Tyr placed his hand between the wolf’s jaws as a show of good faith. The trap was set and try as Fenrir might, the thin chain would not break. So, naturally, he chomped off Tyr’s hand in retaliation. Chained and helpless, Fenrir was taken to a lonely and desolate place beneath the Earth, tied to a boulder with a sword between his jaws, holding them open. Yet on the day of Ragnarok, he will finally break his chains, joining in the battle against the gods, and, as foretold, will seek out and devour Odin, only to be killed by by Odin’s son, Vidar.

(“The Binding of Fenrir”, Norse Mythology, norse-mythology.org)

(Lindemans, Micha, “Fenrir”, Encyclopedia Mythica, pantheon.org, 2002)

As previously discussed in my post on Insular art, ofttimes, Norse mythology shared some narrative similarities with Christianity, in this case, the idea of the chained beast. The poet Dante in his epic poem, the Inferno, wrote of how Lucifer was trapped in hell, half his huge monstrous body encased in the frozen lake Cocytus (Canto XXXIV). Interestingly, Fenrir is captured out of fear for what he will one day do, not for any crime he has committed, the Aesir claiming their actions are for the greater good. Fenrir’s tale is a sad one; trapped and alone for a crime he hasn’t committed, waiting for the day of Ragnarok.

This is just a small sample of the mythologies featuring wolves or beings with the appearance of wolves. For the Greeks, being transformed into the form of a wolf was a punishment for a horrendous crime, while in Norse mythology, it was the wolf being punished, but for a crime he had yet to commit.

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The Renaissance: Leonardo da Vinci and his Notebooks

Moving on from the folk knowledge and symbolism of the medieval age, came the era of enlightenment, the Renaissance. From the French “rebirth”, the Renaissance was a cultural movement across Europe that completely redefined the world, not only in the arts, but in knowledge, understanding, science and all aspects of culture. Spanning roughly from the 13th century through to the 17th century, when it came to an end due to the Reformation, this cultural phenomenon saw a great shift from the focus on spirituality and otherworldly entities to an interest in real people, everyday life and the world around us. People became fascinated with the smallest details; fashion, flowers, architecture, and a strong desire to understand how all things worked. It was an age of invention, understanding, technological advancement and wondrous artwork. The observed realities of life merged with religious icons and ancient mythologies, depicted in works of art by the most famous of artists, the Old Masters; Raphael, Botticelli, Michelangelo and, of course, Leonardo da Vinci, among so many others that have come to influence all art since.

Da Vinci's studies of cats

Da Vinci’s studies of cats

Da Vinci, the true Renaissance man, dabbled in all aspects of life and knowledge: painting, drawing, science, anatomy, mathematics, engineering and invention to name but a few. Inspired by all things in the world around him, Leonardo worked tirelessly to understand everything and observe all areas of life. His notebooks are a triumph of art, observation and scientific knowledge, displaying the depth of his intellect and artistic ability. From studies of cats to complex diagrams of muscles and vascular systems, da Vinci explored every aspect of the world he could get his hands (and eyes) on. Among the first to study dissected human corpses, he made detailed studies of human anatomy, the likes of which were never seen before and, unfortunately, would not be seen until long after his death as none of his drawings were published in his lifetime. Had they, great advances in the understanding of human anatomy and medicine would surely have occurred at this time.

“When Vasari and Sigmund Freud wrote about Leonardo, they wondered why he failed to finish paintings. The answer is that he was less interested in commissioned works than in his own quest to understand nature and humanity. It’s in his manuscripts – more like scientific notes than the drawings of other artists – that you find the record of this.”

Jones, Jonathan, “The real Da Vinci code”, The Guardian, August 2006

Da Vinci, The cardiovascular system and principle organs of a woman, c.1509-10, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Da Vinci, The cardiovascular system and principle organs of a woman, c.1509-10, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Da Vinci’s curiosity is demonstrated in the vast array of topics and themes found in his notebooks, the most famous collection being the Royal Collection, only recently on public exhibition outside of Windsor Castle. He was one of the first to question the Biblical account of the Flood, a risky business at a time when the Church held all the power. He studied the fossils of sea creatures found on mountaintops and concluded that they could not have been deposited in a forty day flood, then looked into river valleys and calculated that it would have taken great spans of time for them to be eroded. (Richter, Jean Paul, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Dover Publications, 1970 – also online)

Da Vinci: The anatomy of a bear’s toe, c. 1485-90, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A beautiful example of the breadth of Leonardo's exploration of the world.

Da Vinci: The anatomy of a bear’s toe, c. 1485-90, Royal Collection, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
A beautiful example of the breadth of Leonardo’s exploration of the world.

An online viewer of the Codex Arundel, one of Leonardo’s notebooks from 1478-1518, which the artist himself describes as “a collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place according to the subjects of which they treat.” The text is written in his typical left-handed mirror-writing and covers a broad range of topics in science and art, along with various drawings and diagrams.

“Although many other artists, inventors and scientists have brainstormed on paper, none of Leonardo’s predecessors, contemporaries or successors used paper quite like he did. The intensity, variety and unpredictability of what happens on a single sheet are unparalleled.

Behind the diversity are a series of unifying themes in Leonardo’s vision of how the world works. The dominant theme is the mathematical operation of all the powers of nature.

Every small part of nature mirrors the action of the whole, and the human body is specifically a ‘lesser world’ – lesser in scale but not in wonder and complexity. Everything is related to everything else. Leonardo saw connections where we see only differences.”

(Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment, Design”, V&A website)

Leonardo da Vinci was determined to explore all that he could see, believing that sight was the most important sense we have, and that all things could be explained by observational study. His notebooks provide evidence to the truth of this belief, as many of his studies in anatomy are still correct when compared to today’s knowledge. This is ridiculously impressive when you think about the fact that Leo was alive six centuries ago. That’s a long time for his research to hold up. His notebooks are fascinating works of art and bear the essence of the Renaissance spirit: a quest for knowledge, the pursuit of realism and a wonder for the smallest details of the world.

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Modernism: Le Corbusier

Swiss-born Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965), real name Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, is generally regarded as the single most influential figure in modern architecture. His designs and writings on the subject have formed the basis for most modern buildings ever since. Rejecting the decorative 19th century Arts and Crafts approach, he aimed to create buildings that were “machines for living in”; ones that reflected the new technological machine age of the mid-20th century.

Le Corbusier was influenced by Auguste Perret’s use of reinforced concrete as a building material, as well as Peter Behren’s views on the purity of form and function; that the building’s decoration was to be found in its shape not in superfluous and unnecessary additions. Behren’s interest in mass produced materials was also to influence le Corbusier. The fragmentation of space along with the break down of forms found in Cubist paintings was to be another influence, as well as the Purism movement, which moved even further than Cubism in its rejection of detail and its simplicity of form (everything was broken down into its simplest, geometric forms). Paintings of these movements reflected the modern machine age; something which Corbusier would seek to recreate in his building designs.

Le Corbusier's Domino House design, the model for the modernist house.

Le Corbusier’s Domino House design, the model for the modernist house.

In 1915 – 16, le Corbusier created the design for the Domino House as a scheme for mass produced housing. The simple box-like structure comprised of three rectangular slabs (the floors) with the bottom floor resting on six concrete blocks while the upper two slabs were supported by six slender columns (pilots) and the floors were connected by reinforced concrete stairs. Influenced by the cell proportions seen in the Carthusian monastery of Ema, le Corbusier had designed a simple frame for a house, one that could be easily replicated and extended as required. The supporting columns (which were to become a typical feature of his designs) eliminated the need for load-bearing walls and thus the interior was free plan, enabling the interior to be arranged as desired.

The Villa Savoye, an icon of modernist design.

The Villa Savoye, an icon of modernist design.

The Villa Savoye (1927 – 31) in Poissy exemplifies Corbusier’s Five Principles of Architecture, his design ideals that were first presented in 1926. It was constructed from concrete and plastered unit masonry and it adopted the Domino housing system. It was a shallow box-like structure raised above the ground “to get away from the dirt” by reinforced concrete pilotis (five along each side); the first of his five principles. In order to reclaim the garden space lost by the building itself, Corbusier believe houses should have flat roofs with rooftop gardens as a place for relaxation and exercise. With its frame built around the reinforced concrete columns, there was no need for load-bearing walls, thus granting the interior a free plan and demonstrating the third point. The fourth was to be found in the building’s ribbon windows, a feature common to industrial factories. These windows, along with the house’s form itself were to be its only decoration as the fifth principle dictated that the house should have a concrete façade, painted white and free from decoration. There was a truth to materials retained within the design. Corbusier never tried to disguise any or the materials or the building’s structure, indeed within each room you could look up and clearly see the beams crossing the space. Corbusier used machine made materials with precision and elegance, but the severe structure looks too harsh and unnatural against its countryside surroundings. Another interesting point to the house was that a car could drive around it, between the house itself and the pilotis and be parked in the subtle garage beneath. As with the name of the Citrohan house, this feature suggests the effect which the motor car, a paradigm of modern technology, had upon Le Corbusier.

His designs, seen as the beginning of modernism in architecture, have made a great influence upon almost all modern buildings and styles since. His works captured the essence of the modern world that was evolving around him through their purity of form and their functionalism. He has, however, been held to blame by some critics for the public housing projects (especially of the 1970s) that were influenced by his theories. They are seen as having the effect of isolating poorer communities in massive, detached high rises and breaking the ties essential to working community relations. Although Le Corbusier may have influenced these buildings, he can hardly be held responsible as his forays into social housing all worked due to their emphasis on community as well as his though-out proportion systems and the Unite d’Habitation (1947 – 52), for example, is still a highly sought-after place to live.

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Viking Age Art

Viking art is often split into six main styles dating from AD 750 – 1150: Broa (or Oseberg), Borre, Jellinge, Mammen, Ringerike and Urnes. It was not the case that the styles existed independently at individual periods, but rather the styles overlapped, often with two or three co-existing at any one time. This was a result of good communication between the different Norse regions, ensuring that developments in art and design were quickly spread over the many lands the Vikings inhabited, and it was a large area indeed, spreading out from Scandinavia to Britain, Ireland, Greenland, Russia and even the Americas (naming it Newfoundland long before Columbus ever set foot on it).

The art of the Vikings is characterised by unrestrained decoration and the most extraordinary ornamentation of everything from their iconic ships to the most mundane everyday objects. High levels of skill and impressive craftsmanship went into everything they produced, resulting in a plethora of intricately designed artefacts with an appeal still strong today.

“The sophistication and delicacy of Viking art presents a striking contrast with the stereotype of the rude and restless barbarian. Viking craftsmen excelled in woodwork and metalwork, adorning broaches, weapons, implements, and ship timbers with abstracted animal forms and elaborate patterns of interlace. Runic texts and complementary scenes were inscribed on stones and rock faces.”

Sorabella, Jean. “The Vikings (780 – 1100)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002

The Broa / Oseberg Style, c. AD 780 – 850 

Gilt-bronze bridle-mounts from Broa, Gotland. Broa Style, c. AD 780 - 850

Gilt-bronze bridle-mounts from Broa, Gotland. Broa Style, c. AD 780 – 850

This is the earliest style of what we consider Viking age art and the most popular motif to originate in this period was that of the gripping beasts. Like most Germanic art from this period in time, Viking art was often zoomorphic, however it rarely attempted a naturalistic representation of animals, preferring more abstract, stylised creatures with contorted bodies that would intertwine, often biting or gripping each other. The key feature of the Broa style gripping beast is that its paws grip the borders around it, neighbouring beasts or parts of its own body. Many of the animals also possessed flowing tendrils that would form their tails or other parts of the body, giving the compositions a flowing, natural aesthetic (source). Many artefacts in the Broa style were found in the Oseberg ship burial site and in a grave at Broa on Gotland, giving the style its name.

The Borre Style, c. AD 840 – 970

Gosforth Cross, early 10th century, Cumbria, England

Gosforth Cross, early 10th century, Cumbria, England

Like the preceding Broa style, the Borre style of Viking art takes its name from a ship burial from where a number of artefacts were excavated, this time at Borre in Vestfold, Norway. The stye continues the use of the gripping beast motif, but with a new development in the form of a ribbon-shaped body beneath a triangular, mask-like head with protruding ears, as seen in the silver-gilt pendent from a hoard found in Vårby, Sweden.

In Britain, an insular form of the Borre style developed, known as “Gaut’s Interlace”, and appears as a ring-chain motif, seen on the Gosforth Cross at St Mary’s Churchyard. The Gosforth Cross is an interesting piece as it displays how Norse mythology made appearances in Christian artefacts as a number of the scenes and motifs relate to stories of the Norse trickster god, Loki. The Binding of Loki (west side) depicts the Norse myth of Loki’s punishment after causing the death of the god Baldr. Loki and his two sons, Vali and Narfi were captured by the Æsir who changed Vali into a wolf and he tore his brother apart. The entrails were then used to bind Loki to three flat stones, the bonds becoming iron. A poisonous snake was set up to eternally drip poison onto Loki’s face.

Illustrations of the Gosforth Cross designs

Illustrations of the Gosforth Cross designs

However, Loki’s wife Sigyn sits by him, catching the drops with a basin. Yet when it is full she must leave him to face the venom, a fate so terrible his shudders cause the Earth to shake – an earthquake. The myth states that Loki will lie in bonds until Ragnarök, the end of days. The idea of the “bound Satan” has much in common with this myth, showing how religions can often intersect and show parallels. The Gosforth Cross may reside within a Christian churchyard, yet the stories it depicts tell more of the mythology of those who instigated the Borre art style that inspired the cross.

The Jellinge Style, c. AD 880 – 1000

Named after a small ornamental cup found in the burial mound at Jellinge, Denmark, thought to have been the burial site of King Gorm, dating it to AD 958. The Jellinge style is the first to not use the gripping beast, instead the artefacts are decorated with S-shaped animals featuring distinctive ribbon-like bodies, spiral hips, their heads in profile, tendrils that form “pigtails”, and curling upper lips. The S-shaped animals are frequently intertwined to form an open interlace pattern with diagonal symmetry (source). The Borre and Jellinge style overlapped timewise, leading to many examples of fusions between the styles, for example the hoard in Vårby produced a silver-gilt pendent with a beast in the Jellinge style with its head in profile, a ribbon-shaped body and sporting a pigtail, but it also displays the gripping paws of the Borre style.

The Mammen Style, c. AD 950 – 1030

Mammen style axe-head

Mammen style axe-head

The Mammen style grew out of the Jellinge style and the two have many similarities making it difficult to distinguish artefacts from each style. The name comes from a small, decorated axe-head, found in a grave in Mammen, Denmark, dating to c. 970. The axe demonstrates an interesting method of Viking decoartion in which groves were carved into the iron surface and silver wires were then inlaid into the patterns and hammered in, forming intricate silver patterns. This particular piece features a foliate pattern on one side, the other a bird. The body of the bird is thicker than the ribbon-like bodies of the Jellinge animals and us decorated with dots. It still shows large spiral hips and its wings and tail are stylised, drawn into long, curving tendrils. Atop the axe is a mask-like human face with round eyes, a large nose and a spiralling beard. The Vikings portrayed a greater range of semi-naturalistic animals in the Mammen style, with lion and bird motifs appearing alongside the Norse serpent.

The Ringerike Style, c. AD 980 – 1070

From the Mammen style, the Ringerike style was developed during the first half of the 11th century, at a time when stone monuments were becoming more common. While it is clear that it derived from the previous style, there are significant differences as animal forms are thinner and more curvaceous, no longer decorated inside. The eyes changed from round to almond-shaped and the tendrils became thinner and longer. There was also a greater use of plant motifs with foliate patterns.

The Urnes Style, c. AD 1040 – 1150

Doorway from the stave church at Urnes, Norway

Doorway from the stave church at Urnes, Norway

This was the last phase of Viking Age art, its name derived from the remarkable wooden doors of the stave church at Urnes, Norway. The style is typified as a refinement of the Mammen and Ringerike styles, featuring highly stylised animals with curvaceous bodies, their heads and feet reduced to elongated terminals. The style depended largely on an intricate interplay of graceful curving lines that would intertwine in elaborate patterns. Designs of this style were often used on runic stones, the inscription carried within the body of the animal.

Vikings in Ireland

The Vikings raided across Ireland from the end of the 8th century until around 850, attacking and pillaging many of the prominent monasteries, alongside the dwellings of the common people. Most of the beautiful illuminated manuscripts, hand-produced in the monasteries, were burned as the Vikings saw them as lacking monetary value. Eventually the Vikings settled in Ireland, establishing towns such as Dublin and Cork, their culture gradually merging with that of the native Irish people.

Detail of the Cross of Cong, 1123 - 1127 AD, Dublin, Ireland

Detail of the Cross of Cong, 1123 – 1127 AD, Dublin, Ireland

The Celtic and Viking art styles began to fuse and Irish Art thrived in the form of metalwork, stone carvings, architecture and manuscripts. The two cultures brought their own skill and knowledge of fine craftsmanship, producing beautiful works and defining an aesthetic still recognised today. The impact of the Viking influence on Irish art was most clearly felt late in the 11th century as Irish metalwork began intimidating the Scandinavian Ringerike and Urnes styles. An example of this is in the Cross of Cong, 1123 – 1127 AD. Gold, silver, copper, niello, bronze brass, enamel, coloured glass and other ornamentation cover an oak cross in one of the finest examples of metalwork and decorative art from this period in Western Europe.


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Insular Art of Britain and Ireland

Insular art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, is the name given to the style of art produced in Britain and Ireland during the Medieval Period. It is part of the larger style of Celtic art and the name “Insular” is in reference to how different the style was from that present in the rest of Europe during this period. The style originated after the Roman withdrawal of Britain in the 5th century and its beginnings are thought to lie within Irish monasteries that sought to merge Celtic art with Christian purpose. The golden age of Insular art was between the 7th – 9th centuries, before Viking raids across Britain drastically set back cultural life and ravaged many monasteries that were known for their production of illuminated manuscripts and other artworks. 

Characteristics of Celtic art include a focus on abstract, geometrical decoration, far outnumbering figurative subjects, the latter only appearing rarely and in highly stylised forms. Common designs featured are circular forms, spirals, triskeles, Celtic knots, plant forms and other curvilinear forms. There was an avoidance of straight lines and symmetry, resulting in a fluidity of form and unique, often maze-like imagery. Many of these elements would be adopted into the Insular style and merged with Christian iconography and symbolism, resulting in an interesting array of designs and images.

“Common to Celtic art over a wide chronological and geographical span is an exquisite sense of balance in the layout and development of patterns. Curvilinear forms are set out so that positive and negative, filled areas and spaces form a harmonious whole. Control and restraint were exercised in the use of surface texturing and relief. Very complex curvilinear patterns were designed to cover precisely the most awkward and irregularly shaped surfaces.”

Catherine Johns, The Jewellery of Roman Britain: Celtic and Classical Traditions, Routledge, 1996

A Celtic heritage was present in Ireland before and throughout the Roman era of Britain (the Roman Empire failed to spread to Ireland). When Christianity arrived, Irish art found influence in Mediterranean and Germanic traditions, the latter through contact with the Anglo-Saxons, which led to the creation of the Insular or Hiberno-Saxon style. This was the dominant style of art until the Viking invasion of Ireland resulted in Scandinavian influences appearing in the art late in the period. The original Celtic style work ended with the Norman invasion (1169-1170) and the subsequent introduction of the general European Romanesque style.

Book of Kells, c.800 AD, folio 7 , Virgin Mary with Child

Book of Kells, c.800 AD, folio 7 , Virgin Mary with Child

A masterpiece of Insular art and a stunning example of the decorative illuminated manuscripts produced in Britain and Ireland during the Medieval Ages, the Book of Kells is proof of sophistication even in the darkest of ages. Illuminated manuscripts were laboriously crafted and lavishly decorated, taking years to produce due to the unprecedented level of intricate detail and handwritten text. The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels based on the Vulgate text, handwritten in Latin on velum (prepared calfskin). There has been much debate as to the place of origin as the creators of the book were Columban monks from the monastery founded by St Colum on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. However, in AD 806, close to the approximate date of production, Viking raids on the island forced the monks to seek refuge in a monastery at Kells, County Meath, meaning that the Book could have been produced either at Iona or Kells, or even partially at both. Today the Book of Kells is on permanent display at Trinity College Dublin and consists of 340 velum folios, collected into four volumes. The Trinity College Digital Collection allows for online viewing of the book, and it is clear to see why it is considered such a national treasure.

The book itself is written in insular majuscule script by three different scribes in a variety of coloured inks. However, the wonder of this illuminated manuscript lies less in the written content than the decoration. The fully developed Insular style is seen in all its resplendent glory on the pages of this book as traditional Christian iconography is combined with swirling motifs, mythical beasts, stylised human and animal figures, Celtic knots and elaborate lettering, all intertwined among interlacing patterns whose creation would defy normal levels of patience. The text is accompanied by many full-page miniatures, including the oldest extant image of the Virgin Mary in a Western manuscript (folio 7).

“[S]ome pages of The Book of Kells can be best viewed as work in progress, the monks filling in gaps with elaborate coloured puzzles, snaking and looping lines, knots and interlacings. They used decoration for its own sake and colour for the delight it offered; they brought calligraphy to a fine and playful art.”

The Book of Kells by Bernard Meehan – review, Colm Tólbin, The Observer, 9 December 2012

Book of Kells, folio 27v, The Four Evangelists

Book of Kells, folio 27v, The Four Evangelists

The lavish decoration is not limited to just the major pages as throughout the text are to be found decorated initials, small figures of humans and animals often twisted and tied into complicated knots, a feature characteristic of Insular and Celtic art, and also somewhat reminiscent of the spiralling, ribbon-like animal bodies found in Viking art. The letters themselves, along with borders, are further decorated with intricate spirals and knot work, many zoomorphic in nature, giving an organic feel to the work.

The Book of Kells, folio 29

The Book of Kells, folio 29

The aesthetics have certainly been given priority over functionality as often the decoration is so elaborate as to made the text illegible. An example of this is on folio 29r, which consists of only two words, Liber generationis (“the book of the generation”), yet the letters are barely distinguishable from the ornamentation. The lib of liber is turned into a giant monogram dominating the page, while the er is an interlaced ornament within the letter b. Gernerationis is split over three lines, contained within an intricate frame in the lower right of the page. All of this is contained within a border consisting of complex spiral patterns and accompanied by stylised human figures.

The Book of Kells is often met with one of two responses; that is it wretchedly ornate to the point of excess, or that it is a great work of art, a masterpiece of craftsmanship from Britain and Ireland, dispelling the assumptions that the Dark Ages lacked culture and sophistication. The level of ornamentation may be excessive for the purpose, but it is a thing of beauty because of the time and effort that must have gone into producing such a level of intricate, complex detail.

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Early Animation Devices

The early developments in primitive animation techniques, discussed in the previous post, were certainly adventurous, yet further advances in animation would not really occur until the 19th century and Peter Roget’s theory “The Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects”, published 1824 for the British Royal Society.

“This theory referred to the phenomenon whereby the eye’s retina retains an image briefly after it has disappeared, which means that if images are flashed in rapid succession they appear to the human brain as one continuous image. If these images differ slightly, especially if they are sequential, then the images can appear to be one moving image. This discovery led ultimately to all cinema, television and animation.”

(Cavalier, Stephen, 2011, The World History of Animation, London: Aurum Press, p.35)

Roget’s theory explains how the early examples of animation work and, due to this new understanding, numerous new devices for creating animations were soon developed. One of the simplest, but no less effective, was John Ayrton Paris’ thaumatrope (1825), the basis for which is two images on opposite sides of a disc that appear to merge when the disc is spun on strings. Often the two images will be designed so as to interact in some way, the most typical example being a bird on one side of the disc and a cage on the other. When the disc is spun, the bird appears to be trapped in the cage. While a good illusion, it fails to replicate motion as only two drawings can be used. What was required to create the illusion of movement and action was a sequence of images.

A thaumatrope appears in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, 1999

The phenakistoscope was one of the earliest inventions, developed by the Belgian, Joseph Plateau in 1931.

The phenakistoscope

The phenakistoscope, doodles by me.

Often several actions were being carried out in separate concentric circles around the disc, many of which were quite complex, especially when you consider their cyclical nature. This video shows some examples of the images used with the phenakistoscope.

One of the most popular animation or optical illusion devices of the 19th century was the zoetrope. Originally named the daedalum, “the wheel of the devil”, this 1834 invention by William Horner, was soon renamed the zoetrope, “the wheel of life” by the American developer William F Lincoln. Interestingly, a primitive version of the zoetrope has been attributed to the Chinese inventor Ting Huan, and his novelty items of c. AD 180. Cavalier on Ting Huan’s invention:

“These early versions held series of drawings that rotated in the rising air when the device was suspended over a lamp, creating an illusion of movement when rotating at the right speed.” (Cavalier, 2011, p.35)

The Victorian zoetrope consists of an animation reel depicting a sequence of images that form a cycle, placed within the zoetrope wall, a cylinder with slots cut into it which the viewer would look through in order to view the animation.

The zoetrope

The zoetrope

Pixar’s Zoetrope, including an explanation of how the Victorian zoetropes worked and modern examples, including Pixar’s Toy Story and the Studio Ghibli zoetropes, made using 3D sculptures of the characters in progressively changing positions that, when animated with the use of a strobe light, creates the impression of the figures moving.

Until this point, all devices had depended on a person viewing the sequence through slits, which created a strobe effect, necessary for the illusion to work. In 1877, Charles-Emile Reynaud invented the praxinoscope.



The successor to the zoetrope, the praxinoscope consisted of a strip of images, or animation reel, placed on the inner surface of a spinning cylinder. Unlike the zoetrope, this device avoided using slits in the cylinder by having another smaller cylinder, placed within the centre of the device, with mirrors places on its outer surface. When the device was spun, the mirrors would reflect the sequence in a simpler way than before. Reynaud developed his praxinoscope into an early kind of film projector, his Théâtre Optique (1888). Although this device found popularity in Paris, his primitive hand-painted animated film strips couldn’t stand up to the early screenings by the Lumière brothers. Reynaud destroyed his machines in a fit of rage, dying in poverty a few years later.

Numerous animation devices like these were developed, right up until the early form of cinema was introduced, and animation could be filmed, one frame at a time. Although advances have left them obsolete, these devices can help to explain how animation works and, as Pixar and Studio Ghibli have shown, can still be used today.

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