Celtic art

Celtic art

Celtic art is art associated with various people known as Celts; those who spoke the Celtic languages in Europe from pre-history through to the modern period, as well as the art of ancient people whose language is unknown, but where cultural and stylistic similarities suggest they are related to Celts. Also covered by the term is "Celtic revival" art from the 18th century to the modern era, which began as a conscious effort by Modern Celts to express self-identification and nationalism.

Typically, "Celtic art" is ornamental, avoiding straight lines and only occasionally using symmetry, without the imitation of nature central to the classical tradition, but as far as we can understand it often involves complex symbolism. Celtic art has used a variety of styles and has shown influences from other cultures.

"Celtic art" is a difficult term to define, covering a huge expanse of time, geography and cultures. A case has been made for artistic continuity in Europe from the bronze ange, and indeed the preceding neolithic, age however the 'celtic' culture is generally considered to arise in the Iron Age at around 1000BC. There are three "traditions" of "Celtic art", the first being the continental Iron age art mainly associated with La Tène culture which draws on native, classical and (perhaps via the Mediterranean) oriental sources. The second, Iron Age art in Britain and Ireland, draws on the continental tradition while adding distinctive regional styles. The third, the Celtic "renaissance" of the early Middle Ages in Ireland and parts of Britain, is also called Insular art. This third tradition formed the basis for the art of the "Celtic revival" beginning in the late 18th century.


The ancient peoples now called "Celts" spoke a group of languages that had a common origin in the Indo-European language known as Common Celtic or Proto-Celtic. This shared linguistic origin was once widely accepted by scholars to indicate peoples with a common genetic origin in southwest Europe, who had spread their culture by emigration and invasion. Archaeologists identified various cultural traits of these peoples, including styles of art, and traced the culture to the earlier Hallstatt culture and La Tène culture. More recent studies have indicated that various Celtic groups do not all have shared ancestry, and have suggested a diffusion and spread of the culture without necessarily involving significant movement of peoples.fact|date=March 2008

The term "Celt" was used in classical times as a synonym for the Gauls (Κελτοι, "Celtae"). Its English form is modern, attested from 1607. In the late 17th century the work of scholars such as Edward Lhuyd brought academic attention to the historic links between Gaulish and the Brythonic—and Goidelic—speaking peoples, from which point the term was applied not just to continental Celts but those in Britain and Ireland.Then in the 18th century the interest in "primitivism" which led to the idea of the "noble savage" brought a wave of enthusiasm for all things Celtic and Druidic. The "Irish revival" came after the "Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829" as a conscious attempt to demonstrate an Irish national identity, and with its counterpart in other countries subsequently became the "Celtic revival".

tone Age

Dolmens, or cromlechs, appear throughout the British Isles and are remnants of Stone Age culture. These structures are properly called pre-Celtic, since they pre-date the arrival of the Celtic peoples, but are notable for their potential influence on Celtic art such as the standing stones.


There are approximately 150 surviving dolmens in Wales, including the notable Pentre Ifan in Preseli, Pembrokeshire. The bluestones which form Stonehenge also come from Preseli, suggesting not only the artistic and cultural links between the lands which would become Wales and England, but also - due to the long distance that the stones travelled - that these stones might be been considered sacred by the builders. These structures are considered to be the oldest human-made permanent structures in the world, even surpassing the Egyptian pyramids in age. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/religion/sites/timeline/pages/religion_in_wales_1.shtml]

Bronze Age

Detail required on Bronze Age influences on Celtic art.

Iron Age

Detail required on Hallstat, La Tene and British/Irish traditions.

Early Middle Ages

Celtic art in the Middle Ages was practiced by the Celtic speaking people of Ireland and Britain in the 800 year period from the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century, to the establishment of Romanesque art in the 12th century.Through the Hiberno-Scottish mission the style was influential in the development of art throughout Northern Europe.


In Ireland an unbroken Celtic heritage existed from before and throughout the Roman era of Britain, which had never reached the island, and thus the 5th to 7th centuries were mainly a continuation of late Iron Age La Tène art. In the 7th and 8th centuries Irish art mixed with Germanic traditions through Irish missionary contacts with the Anglo-Saxons, creating what is called the Hiberno-Saxon style. Late in the period Scandinavian influences were added through the Vikings, then original Celtic work came to end with the Norman invasion in 1169–1170 and subsequent introduction of the Romanesque style.

In the 7th and 9th centuries Irish Celtic missionaries traveled to Northumbria in Britain and brought with them the Irish tradition of manuscript illumination, which came in to contact with Anglo-Saxon metalworking knowledge and motifs. In the monasteries of Northumbria these skills fused and were probably transmitted back to Scotland and Ireland from there, also influencing the Anglo-Saxon art of the rest of England. The product of this Celtic and Germanic fusion is called Insular art or the "Hiberno-Saxon style". Some of the masterpieces created include the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan Chalice. New techniques employed were filigree and chip carving, while new motifs included interlace patterns and animal ornamentation. The Book of Durrow is the earliest complete insular script illuminated Gospel Book and by about 700, with the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Hiberno-Saxon style was fully developed with detailed carpet pages that seem to glow with a wide palette of colours. The art form reached its peak in the late 8th century with the Book of Kells, the most elaborate Insular manuscript. Anti-classical Insular artistic styles were carried to mission centres on the Continent and had a continuing impact on Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic art for the rest of the Middle Ages.

In the 9th and 11th century plain silver became a popular medium in Anglo-Saxon England, probably because of the increased amount in circulation due to Viking trading and raiding, and it was during this time a number of magnificent silver brooches were created in Ireland. Around the same time manuscript production began to decline, and although it has often been blamed on the Vikings, this is debatable given the decline began before the Vikings arrived. Sculpture began to flourish in the form of the "high cross", large stone crosses that held biblical scenes in carved relief. This art form reached its apex in the early 10th century and has left many fine examples such as Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice and the Ahenny High Cross.

The impact of the Vikings on Irish art is not seen until the late 11th century when Irish metal work begins to imitate the Scandinavian Ringerike and Urnes styles, for example the Cross of Cong, County Mayo. These influences were found not just in the Norse centre of Dublin, but throughout the countryside in stone monuments such as the Dorty Cross at Kilfenora and crosses at the Rock of Cashel.

Picts (Scotland)

From the 5th to the mid-9th centuries, the art of the Picts is primarily known through stone sculpture, although some metalwork exists. There are no known illuminated manuscripts.

Pictish stones are assigned by scholars to 3 classes. Class I Pictish stones are unshaped standing stones incised with a series of about 35 symbols which include abstract designs (given descriptive names such as crescent and V-rod, double disc and Z-rod, 'flower' and so on by researchers); carvings of recognisable animals (bull, eagle, salmon, adder and others), and objects from daily life (a comb, a mirror). The symbols almost always occur in pairs, with in about one third of cases the addition of the mirror, or mirror and comb, symbol, below the others. This is often taken to symbolise a woman. Apart from one or two outliers, these stone are found exclusively in north-east Scotland from the Firth of Forth to Shetland. They are particularly common in Angus, Aberdeenshire, Sutherland and Orkney. Good examples include the Dunnichen and Aberlemno stones (Angus), and the Brandsbutt and Tillytarmont stones (Aberdeenshire).

Class II stones are shaped cross-slabs carved in relief, or in a combination of incision and relief, with a prominent cross on one, or in rare cases two, faces. The crosses are elaborately decorated with interlace, key-pattern or scrollwork, in the Insular style. On the secondary face of the stone, Pictish symbols appear, often themselves elaborately decorated, accompanied by figures of people (notably horsemen), animals both realistic and fantastic, and other scenes. Hunting scenes are common, Biblical motifs less so. The symbols often appear to 'label' one of the human figures. Scenes of battle or combat between men and fantastic beasts may be scenes from Pictish mythology. Good examples include slabs from Dunfallandy and Meigle (Perthshire), Aberlemno (Angus), Nigg, Shandwick and Hilton of Cadboll (Easter Ross).

Class III stones are in the Pictish style, but lack the characteristic symbols. Most are cross-slabs, though there are also recumbent stones with sockets for an inserted cross or small cross-slab (eg at Meigle, Perthshire). These stones may date largely to after the Scottish takeover of the Pictish kingdom in the mid 9th century. Examples include the sarcophagus and the large collection of cross-slabs at St Andrews (Fife).

The Book of Kells is most probably an 8th century product of an Iona scriptorium, begun there and transferred to Kells in Ireland during the 9th century in response to Viking raids, where it was completed (for other theories see Book of Kells). Elements of its ornamentation reflect Pictish influences. [James A. Graham-Campbell (1983), "Celtic art", "Dictionary of the Middle Ages", volume 3, page 223.]

The following museums have important collections of Pictish stones: Meigle (Perthshire), St Vigeans (Angus) and St Andrew's Cathedral (Fife) (all Historic Scotland), the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (which also exhibits almost all the major pieces of surviving Pictish metalwork), the Meffan Institute, Forfar (Angus), Inverness Museum, Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie and Tarbat Discovery Centre, Portmahomack (both Easter Ross) and Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, Orkney.


StoneworkStanding stones occur frequently on the landscape of Wales. Reflecting the change from Romanized Britain to sub-Roman Britain and cultural contact with Ireland, these stones juxtapose Roman capitals, half-uncials,first used in N. Africa, then spreading to Italy, Gaul, Wales, then Ireland. Unlike Irish High Cross and Pictish stones, early Welsh stones mainly employ geometric patterns and words, rather than figure representation; however, 10th century stones represents Christ and various saints.

MetalworkLittle metalwork survives from the early period of the 5th-9th centuries in Wales. However, archaeological sites at Dinas Powys have revealed various artifacts such as penannular brooches and other pieces of jewellery. Similar brooches have been discovered a site at Penycorddyn-mawr,Denbighshire, dating to the 8th century.


Some scholars suggest that two 8th century illustrated manuscripts in the Hiberno-Saxon style were produced in Wales, namely the Lichfield Gospels and the Hereford Gospels. [see Peter Lord, Medieval Vision: The Visual Culture of Wales. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2003, pg. 25; see the Wikipedia articles on the two manuscripts for further references.] In the later period, the illuminated Ricemarch Psalter from the 11th century was written in Wales and contains similar Hiberno-Saxon influences.

Celtic revivalSince the Romantic era, there has been a substantial revival of interest in all things Celtic, including the visual arts. Many painters, calligraphers, and other artists have worked with the themes drawn from ancient or medieval Celtic art, or else inspired by Celtic literary themes. Some of this work has remained very close to the style of La Tène or illuminated manuscript originals, but much of it has a distinctly new feel. Modern Celtic-themed art can be seen today in a wide range of logos, jewellery, crafts, postcards, and so on.

Celtic art types and terms

*Hanging bowl. These were created by Celtic craftsmen during the time of the Anglo-Saxon conquests of England. They were based on a Roman design, usually made of copper with 3 or 4 suspension loops along the top rim, from which they were designed to be hung from within a tripod. Some of the finest examples are found in the horde at Sutton Hoo (625) which are enameled. The knowledge of their manufacture spread to Scotland and Ireland in the 8th century.
*Carpet page. An illuminated manuscript page decorated entirely in ornamentation. In Hiberno-Saxon tradition this was a standard feature of Gospel books, with one page as an introduction to each Gospel. Usually made in a geometric or interlace pattern, often framing a central cross. The earliest known example is the 7th century Bobbio Orosius.
*High cross. A tall stone standing cross, usually of Celtic cross form. Decoration is abstract often with figures in carved relief, especially crucifixions, but in some cases complex multi-scene schemes. Most common in Ireland, but also in Great Britain and near continental mission centres.
*Pictish stone. A cross-slab—a rectangular slab of rock with a cross carved in relief on the slab face, with other pictures and shapes carved throughout. Organised into three Classes, based on period of origin.
*Insular art or the Hiberno-Saxon style. The fusion of Celtic illuminated manuscript techniques with Anglo-Saxon metalworking techniques. Occurred when Irish Celtic missionaries traveled to Northumbria in the 7th and 8th centuries. Produced some of the most outstanding Celtic art of the Middle Ages in illuminated manuscripts, metalworking and sculpture.
*Celtic calendar. The oldest material Celtic calendar is the fragmented Gaulish Coligny calendar from the first century BC or AD.


*Ruth and Vincent Megaw (2001). "Celtic Art". ISBN 0-500-28265-X
*Lloyd and Jenifer Laing. "Art of the Celts", Thames and Hudson, London 1992 ISBN 0-500-20256-7

Further reading

*Boltin, Lee, ed.: "Treasures of Early Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.: From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, Trinity College, Dublin", Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977, ISBN 0-8709-9164-7.

ee also

*History of Ireland
*Early history of Ireland
*Hallstatt culture
*La Tène culture
*List of Hiberno-Saxon illustrated manuscripts
*Gundestrup cauldron
*Celtic maze

External links

* [http://www.unc.edu/celtic/ Celtic Art & Culture] from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
* [http://uk.encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_781529542/Celtic_Art.html Celtic Art] , Microsoft Encarta
* [http://www.tattoo-designs-free.com/celtic-design.html Celtic Tattoo Designs] ,
* [http://www.freetattoodesigns.org/celtic-tattoos.html Celtic Tattoos] The influence of Celtic art on modern tattoo designs.
* [http://www.green-man-of-cercles.org/articles/origins_of_interlace_sculpture.pdf Illustrated article by Peter Hubert on the origins of interlace sculpture.]

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