Celtic Art and Design

Celtic approach to design proved resilient.  It flourished for over a thousand years, outlasting the Roman Empire.  These Celtic people appear to have originated in southern Germany, Bohemia and eastern France but, eventually they spread much further afield, occupying territory between the Iberian peninsula and Britian in the west and Asia Minor in the east.
The earliest recognizable forms of Celtic art have been classified as `La Tene'.  The La Tene culture has been defined as an amalgam of native European, classical and oriental trends.  It has been further subdivided into four different `styles' , although these overlap chronologically and are prey to considerable regional variations.  The four categories are: 'Early Style' (emerging after c.480bc), 'Waldalgesheim' (after C.350bc), 'Plastic' (after c.290bc) and 'Sword style (c.190bc).
The development of Celtic art echoes the fortunes of its peoples.  Thus, the inventiveness of the Early Style coincided with the period of the great Celtic expansion, and the most fruitful contacts with the classical world occurred when their armies were on the offensive (e.g. around the time of the sack of Rome in c.370bc and the raid on Delphi in 279bc).  Conversely, the continental La Tene style began to degenerate as the Roman legions and Germanic tribes began their push westwards.  At this stage, artistic change was imposed rather then created.
Among the Celts, there was a marked preference for abstract, geometric patterns. Initially, these were disciplined and repetitive, often featuring imported motifs - the lyre-scroll, the lotus bud, the palmette, the tendril - but they evolved into dynamic, free-flowing designs.  The decorative impulse extended to the portrayal of human and animal shapes, where sinuous stylizations took precedence over any concern to represent natural or individual features.
The greatest achievements of early Celtic art were in metalwork and stone.  The smith held a special place in society.  He was accorded elaborate burial rites and was allowed greater freedom to move between differend tribes.  There were also craft-Gods, typified by the Irish triad of Goibhniu, Luchta and Creidhne, who forged magical weapons which always found their mark.  These metal working skills were geared towards the production of ceremonial arms and armour, the trappings associated with horse and chariot riding. ornamental mounts for a variety of vessels and items of jewellery, such as torcs and brooches, Sculptors, meanwhile, concentrated on the human form, creating a range of grim-faced, stylized heads that were designed to strike fear and awe into the beholder.
Our appreciation of Celtic art is hampered by a scarcity of written records.  It is from their enemies that we can learn most about their customs and practices.  It is from classical authors that we can read of the Celtic taste for brightly emblazoned shields, of their insatiable love of gold.  How chieftains like Boudicca wore torcs as a status symbol.
Some information can be gathered indirectly from archaeological finds.  From the flagons and utensils left at burial sites, we can deduce that the Celts believed in an after-life which involved feasting, while the presence of wheels - common symbols of the sun - in some tombs indicates the existence of a solar cult.  Other grave goods denote rank rather than ritual.  Members of the noble class were occasionally buried in chariots or carts, along with objects such as golden torcs and engraved mirrors.  Other objects like glass beads of a game resembling ludo, are more surprising.
A lot can be learned from the votive offerings which the Celts made.  Ceremonial items were deliberately deposited in rivers.  The latter were revered as a source of life and many owe their present names to their Celtic protective spirits (e.g. the Boyne, which derives from the goddess Boann).  Bogs were a focus for ritual activity. The Gundestrup Cauldron, was carefully dismantled and placed on a flat, plainly visible dry section of peat bog, the fact that is was not removed may have something to do with the darker practices that took place.  Evidence of human sacrifice has been found in marshy sites at Tollund in Denmark and Lindow Moss in Cheshire.
One aspect of Celtic belief which was reflected more closely in their art was an interest in metamorphosis.  Literary confirmation of this can be found in the dozens of Welsh and Irish legends, where gods and heroes were transformed into birds, wolves and boars.  Metalworkers took delight in exploiting these ambiguities.  A lot of designs which appear at first to be abstract, on closer inspection contain rudimentary faces.  Historians dubbed this the 'Cheshire style'.  Often these features provide insights into the Celtic way of life.  It has been suggested that Celtic mirrors were hung upside down after use, many of them have cats' faces on their handles, which can only be discerned if they are seen from this angle.  Celtic fascination with shape-shifting persisted into the Christian era, when it offered a creative outlet for the inventive powers of the Gospel miniaturists.   
The major find of the Gundestrup Cauldron demonstrates beyond question that Celtic art was not purely ornamental.  The lack of comparative material has made its iconographical details difficult to read.  Despite the wealth of literature the only general point of agreement among critics is that the cauldron did not originate in Denmark.  Some authorities have noted stylistic affinities with the work of Thracian silversmiths, suggesting that the vessel may have been produced in an area around present-day Romania or Bulgaria. The problem is in ascertaining how the cauldron made its long journey north.  Other scholars have maintained the item was assembled in Celtic Gaul, and it may have been plundered by German mercenaries serving with Caesar's army, perhaps from one of the druid centres in the territory belonging to the Carnutes but neither of these theories sheds a great deal of light on the icongraphy.  The principal attempts to interpret this have used the 'Tain Bo Cuailnge', an Irish epic written many centuries later, as a starting point. 
Britain was at the outer fringes of La Tene culture.  Signs of Celtic influence can be traced back as far as c.300bc, when the 'Arras' people in Yorkshire performed chariot-burials comparable to those on the continent.  Echoes of the Waldalgesheim and Plastic styles have been detected in certain native artefacts, whether these were based on imports or derived from local, settled workshops is hard to determine.  Celtic culture must have been deep-rooted by the time of the Roman invasion, as it survived the occupation and underwent a rising again, after their garrisons were abandoned.  The extent to which native craftsmen were influenced by the invaders is disputed.  The taste for decorated pins and penannular brooches appears to have blossomed during the period of occupation.
The purest Celtic tradition survived, in the Irish and Pictish territories, which had always remained beyond the reach of Roman control.  This was to gain particlar significance in the following centuries, as Europe was gradually converted to Christianity.
The spreading of the gospel in this area began in the fifth century.  In 431, Pope Celestine 1 appointed Palladius as the first bishop of Ireland, but his ministery was overshadowed by that of St. Patrick.  According to legend, It was he who challenged King Laoghaire at the sacred site of Tara and silenced the druids with his teachings.  St Columba was also active in Ireland for a time, founding monasteries at Derry and Durrow, before embarding on his mission to Iona in 563.  On the mainland, the two decisive expeditions were led by St. Augustine (597) and St Aidan (635) who established bases at Canterbury and Lindisfarne respectively.
These missions did not owe their success to manpower alone.  Vestments, relics, liturgical vessels and books were sent from Rome to aid in the conversion process.  Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels were exceptional.  The majority of the books produced in monasteries would have been for scholarly study or practical everyday use.  Few communities had the time or the resources to expend on such lavish and intricately decorated tomes.  
The great Gospel books were designed as showpieces, Confirmation of this can be inferred from the inscription at the end of the Lindisfarne Gospels.  This places the date of the manuscript very close to 698, when St. Cuthbert's body was transferred to an impressive new shrine and pilgrims would have flocked to visit it.  An ideal time to dazzle visitors with a majestic new version of the Scriptures.  The more spectacular Gospel books were treated with the same reverence as holy relics.  Special shrines or 'cumdachs' were designed to house them and there was widespread belief in their talismanic properties.  Bede related how scrapings from Irish manuscripts were used to treat snakebites, while popular superstition suggested that the Book of Durrow had the ability to cure sick cattle.
The monastic artists were the heirs of a long and largely undiluted Celtic tradition of craftsmanship.  In their exuberantly decorated initials and their ornamental carpet-pages, they could employ the extravagant spirals, the bestial heads and the animal interlacings that had featured on pagan metalwork for centuries.  This was fused with early Christian imagery, which the monks adapted from the books that were sent from Rome.  The illuminators appear to have followed their models quite closely.  In others, most notable in the Book of Kells, there was a true marriage between Insular and continental forms.  
The Gospel books represent the tip of a considerable iceberg.  The growing Church must have required many other lavish articles for use in its services or for display in its new foundations.  Many of these vanished in the Viking raird, but the surviving items confirm that the superlative standards of Celtic metalwork were maintained.  The Derrynaflan and Ardagh hoards have supplied us with the finest liturgical equipment from this period, while minutely engraved crozier-heads and processional crosses date from just slightly later.  A number of reliquaries have also survived.  Usually, these were small, inlaid caskets, fashioned in the shape of a house.  They were designed to be portable, as relics were traditionally taken out of the monastery and displayed to the lay community in times of crisis.  The design was certainly not rigid, as shrines in the form of a bell, a belt and a human arm are all still in existence.  The Celtic tradition also persisted in the field of sculpture, typified by the elaborate high crosses that were set up in many monastic enclosures.  The finest examples date from the ninth and tenth centuries and their carvings of Biblical scenes provide an interesting comparison with the Gospel miniatures
The Norman advance into Britain and Ireland eventually engulfed the Celtic tradition, although certain aspects of its style were absorbed to Romanesque artists.  Since then, there have been frequent Celtic revivals. 
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments on this claddagh ring blog need to be approved before they are published.