Many people associate Celtic art with the intricate scrollwork of interlace tattoos and throwback artwork with little or no symmetry and straight lines.
The term “Celtic art” is used to describe a wide variety of artwork from different cultures, places, and periods. Most of the Celtic artwork that has survived to this day were made from metal or stone, which has left art historians uncertain if all typical Celtic art is well-represented by what remains today.
Celtic art emerged some several thousand years ago. It is associated with the ancient Celts or those people in Europe who spoke the Celtic languages between pre-history and modern times. Celtic art is also used to describe the work of ancient cultures whose language cannot be determined but whose art and culture are similar to those of ancient people who spoke the Celtic languages.
Historians know little about these people or even how, when, and why they arrived in Europe. But their art speaks volumes about how they lived their lives.
Celtic Art Context and Beginnings
It is difficult to pinpoint when Celtic art originated, partly because the Celts were nomadic. They lived in tribal factions that spread across Europe many thousands of years ago.
What’s more, unlike the Egyptians or the Romans, the Celts were not particularly fond of writing about their lives, culture, philosophies, social infrastructure, or art. Therefore, what historians know of the Celts — and of Celtic art — is limited. Some of it is even speculative.
Still, the Celts left behind many beautiful examples of their intricate art. Most of it is in the form of stonework and jewelry.
The earliest examples of Celtic art appeared sometime during the 8th century BC, which is when the Celts may have begun to pop up in Europe. In archeology, the term “Celtic” is commonly used to describe the culture of the Iron Age in Europe from around 1000 BC until the Roman Empire conquered most of the continent. But art historians only use “Celtic” when describing art from the La Tene period, which was sometime between the 5th and 1st centuries BC, to the modern period.
What is known commonly as Celtic art is the Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland or what art historians call Insular art. This part of Celtic art is what the general public is most familiar with.
But there’s so much more to Celtic art. The Celtic art of the Early Middle Ages, for instance, also includes the art of the Picts in Scotland. Artworks from the Celtic Revival of the 1800s and the Celtic Renaissance of the late 20th century also belong under the umbrella of Celtic art.
Concepts and Styles
The early Celts appear to have derived their culture from the Caucasian Bronze Age. Through maritime trade between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Celtic culture and art were influenced by the Etruscan and Mediterranean styles. When they traveled to the Upper Danube, the Celts learned motifs from the Danubian tradition.
The Celts learned about metalwork, iron-making, and jewelry-making from the bronze-makers of the Russian Caucasus or the Levant.
Typical Celtic art avoids straight lines and symmetry. It is ornamental and often contains complex symbolism. Unlike the classical tradition, it does not aim to imitate nature.
Because the Celts traveled and traded extensively, Celtic art was influenced by numerous cultures from far-flung places around the world. The influences of other cultures can be seen in Celtic spirals, knotwork, scrollwork, patterns, human figures, and lettering. It’s also evident in how the Celts depicted plants and animals in their art.
While Celtic art has absorbed many influences from around the world and has had various iterations over many generations, what is common to all artwork we call Celtic is the delicate sense of balance in the composition and the patterns.
Celtic artists were adept at balancing the positive and negative spaces in their work, always making sure that the filled areas and the blank spaces worked together to create a harmonious whole. They used elaborate curves and lines to cover the irregularities of surfaces and the distortion of the vessels on which they drew or carved. Celtic artists practiced restraint in the use of relief carving and surface texturing.
Though the Celts produced pottery, it was more for storage and cooking and was not as elaborate as the pottery of other cultures of the period. Because the Celts were warriors and drinkers, they produced quite a lot of weaponry and drinking vessels. Many of these were decorated with elaborate designs and scrollwork.
The Celts used metal for their finer jewelry and artwork.
Beginning sometime in the 3rd century BC, the Celts started making coins. The original styles of Celtic coins were borrowed from the Greeks and the Romans. Celtic coins did not become more Celtic in design until much later.
Early Celtic art
Early Celtic art was influenced significantly by non-Celtic sources. Nonetheless, it is characterized by geometrical designs, active circular forms, and spirals. Narrative scenes were rare; their presence usually indicated non-Celtic influence.
Much of the early Celtic art that remains today is in precious metal. Large metal sculptures, apart from the Insular high crosses and Pictish stones, are rare. Though only metal artworks survive to this day, it is thought that some early Celtic art was made in wood.
Early Celtic art is thought to have begun with the Hallstatt culture. The Halstatts were a wealthy civilization that produced tools and weapons made of iron and decorative pieces made of bronze. They also made some tools and artwork in silver and gold.
Hallstatt art was influenced by the art of the Mycenaeans and other styles from the Mediterranean. Their artwork showed a tendency towards extravagance, was very geometric and included motifs of spirals, knotwork, birds, and animals. Hallstatt art showed rigid symmetry and color contrast.
The Halstatts designed their weapons and tools with both beauty and function in mind. In their pottery, the Halstatts used a polychrome technique.
Art historians consider the La Tene era as the starting point of Celtic art. La Tene art is known for its swirling curvilinear patterns and ornamental motifs.
La Tene art originated in a region that is now Switzerland. Its rise appears to have coincided with a social upheaval that drove the Celts to move northward from the Danube in Austria and the Rhine in France.
La Tene artists used plenty of vegetable and foliage motifs alongside spirals, scrolls, and trumpet shapes. They were influenced by the Greeks and the Etruscans as well as Scythian art.
La Tene artists used gold to make jewelry and accessories. Many of the La Tene pieces that survive to this day are in bronze, iron, gold, and other precious metals. Aside from jewelry and personal ornamentation, other noteworthy objects include weapons, sculpture, drinking vessels, cauldrons, bowls, and trumpets.
The modern Celtic Revival or Celtic Twilight was a period that saw renewed interest in Celtic culture and art in the mid-19th century. The Tara Brooch, a Celtic brooch discovered in 1850 and exhibited internationally, was one of the artifacts that stimulated the rise of the Celtic Revival.
The Celtic Revivalist Movement led to a resurgence in the popularity of brooches as well as of Celtic motifs in architecture. It also made Celtic grave markers, and Celtic crosses hugely popular, including among those who were not of Celtic heritage. Jewelry-makers and metalworkers began creating pieces that mimicked Celtic-style pieces like the Tara Brooch, the Clarendon Brooch, and the Knights of Templar Brooch.
During the Celtic Revival, Celtic design motifs and emblems like the round tower, the shamrock, the harp, geometric designs, whorls, interlaced birds, and knots became fashionable. In architecture, interlace became a standard style in architectural decoration, wall stenciling, and stained glass.
During the Celtic Revival, artists, architects, and designers used motifs from the early periods of Celtic art, particularly Insular art from the 6th to 9th centuries. During this period, the “vegetal” art of the late La Tene period influenced what would become the Art Nouveau movement.
Notable Celtic Art
Book of Kells (9th century)
The Book of Kells is a medieval manuscript Gospel book containing the four Gospels from the New Testament as well as various other texts, tables, and illustrations. It was written in Latin in a Columban monastery sometime around 800 AD.
The book is named after the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, Ireland, which was its home for many centuries. Some historians theorize that it ended up there after a Viking raid on the monastery in Iona, Scotland, where it was created. The Book of Kells is on display at the Trinity College Library in Dublin.
The illuminated manuscript is notable for its extravagant ornamentation and intricate illustrations. The style of the book is a combination of Christian art and Insular art. Interlaced patterns, curvilinear motifs, Celtic knots, and geometric designs in vibrant colors appear alongside human figures, mythical beasts, and other traditional Christian symbolism.
Though many of the artworks in the book have been damaged by rubbing, the book remains in good condition for its age. Experts say that based on the absence of some key artwork and gaps in the text, around 30 folios from the original book have been lost.
Muiredach’s High Cross (9th—10th century AD)
Muiredach’s High Cross is a free-standing Christian cross that dates back to the 9th or 10th century. It is located at Monasterboice, the remains of a Christian monastic site, in County Louth, Ireland.
The high cross is an example of early medieval stonework. Muiredach’s High Cross is one of three standing crosses at Monasterboice. Together, these are often referred to as Ireland’s best contribution to European sculpture.
Muiredach’s High Cross is made of sandstone. A single sandstone block makes up the main shaft of the cross. The base of the cross and the capstone on the top of the cross are made from separate blocks of sandstone.
The high cross is carved all over with biblical themes and figures. The cross is divided into panels, with each panel depicting a specific biblical scene, story, theme, or figure/s. Archaeologists have identified 124 figures on the cross, 119 of which are in costume.
Some panels feature interlace patterns and geometric shapes instead of biblical themes. The carvings are well-preserved, with clothing, weapons, and other details still recognizable. Still, some groups have raised concerns over the condition of the sculpture, suggesting that Muiredach’s High Cross should be brought indoors to protect it from decay.
Staffordshire Moorlands Pan (2nd century AD)
The Staffordshire Moorlands Pan is an enameled copper-alloy pan without handles or a base. Originating from the 2nd century AD, it bears inscriptions referring to Hadrian’s Wall. It is considered to carry great national and international significance.
Decorated in the Celtic style, the round pan features polychrome enamel inlay, a raised foot-ring, and a beaded rim. It originally had a handle, which would have been flat. The outside of the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan features a band of curvilinear ornamentation in vibrant red, blue, yellow, and turquoise.
Aside from its functional role, the Staffordshire Moor Pan may have served as a decorative item or a souvenir, perhaps for someone who had served at Hadrian’s Wall. This would explain the inscriptions.
Notable Celtic Artists
Thomas Augustin O’Shaughnessy was a Celtic Revival designer who created stained glass designs inspired by Celtic art. He is often referred to as the creator of some of the best examples of Celtic Revival design in architecture in America.
O’Shaughnessy designed and installed some of the stained glass windows at the Old Saint Patrick’s Church in Chicago. He also made interlace stenciling for the interior of the church.
The Scottish painter John Duncan was a prominent Celtic Revival artist who worked with various mediums, including stained glass. He created numerous Celtic and symbolist paintings that he exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute and the Royal Scottish Academy. Some of his best works are The Glaive of Light (1897), Tristan and Isolde (1912), and Hymn to the Rose (1907).
ArtEncyclopedia.com. (n.d.) Celtic Art. Retrieved from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/cultural-history-of-ireland/celtic-art.htm
BritishMuseum.org. (n.d.) Technologies of Enchantment: Early Celtic Art in Britain. Retrieved from https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/research_projects/complete_projects/technologies_of_enchantment.aspx
Encyclopedia.com (n.d.) Celtic Art. Retrieved from https://www.encyclopedia.com/literature-and-arts/art-and-architecture/art-general/celtic-art