Celtic Art: A Brief Introduction

Celtic art is, by and large, an under-discussed and misunderstood subject.

Jul 6, 2024By Rachel Sweeney, MA Art History, BA History & Art History

introduction to celtic art

 

“Celtic art,” makes for an interesting category in art history. It is plagued by the issues of the stickiness of the term “Celtic,” and by the fact that their “art” was primarily functional rather than being of purely aesthetic interest. This article will address these issues and will articulate the key aspects of the Celtic art style. One of the most important aspects of viewing Celtic art is understanding how Celtic people may have thought of naturalism. In the modern view, naturalism and realism are the standards to which art is held because of long-held conventions from the Renaissance. Celtic people, however, did not view the world the same way.

 

Phases of Celtic Culture(s)

Strettweg Cult Wagon, c. 6th century BCE, Hallstatt, Steiermark, Austria. Source: World History Encyclopedia

 

An understanding of Celtic art is aided by an understanding of who the Celtic peoples were. The term “Celtic” is a broad umbrella term used to describe various peoples living across the European continent from the Iron Age through late antiquity, with some identifying Celtic peoples as far back as the late Bronze Age. The umbrella terminology “Celtic” was adopted to group these various peoples according to similar linguistic and cultural practices.

 

Historians generally regard what is now Hallstatt, Austria as the cradle of Celtic civilization, placing the Hallstatt culture as the first commonly recognized “phase” of Celtic culture. “Hallstatt culture” generally refers to the period c. 1200-450 BCE, and to Celtic peoples living in central Europe.

 

The Hallstatt culture was based on farming, though their metalwork was very advanced. As such, much Celtic art from this period depicts farm animals and farming tools. Historians believe that there were sharp class distinctions during this period, drawing evidence from the graves of elite chieftains. Occasionally, historians have included the Urnfield culture as a predecessor to the Hallstatt culture, which is a central European grouping that dates to c. 1300-750.

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Detail of Celtic sword and scabbard, c. 60 BCE, Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

The next, and most prolific, phase of Celtic culture was the La Tène culture. This period refers to the people living in central and western Europe, with some movement up into Ireland and the British Isles during the later centuries. It dates to around 450 BCE-50 CE.

 

Gaul was a locus of culture during this period, though it is generally characterized by exchange in and around the Mediterranean region. This period is also the best-documented phase of Celtic culture, as ancient Greek and Roman writers recorded their accounts of the Celtic people as they moved across the continent. These accounts cannot be taken as entirely truthful, as they were often biased and some were merely hearsay, but they offer a glimpse into what the Celtic people were like in the absence of written sources from their perspective.

 

Lastly, the Romano-British phase of Celtic culture refers to the people living in the Ireland and the British Isles during and immediately after the time of Roman occupation from c. 50-410 CE. This phase generally includes the material produced by the Brythonic Celtic tribes. This culture arose as a fusion between the Celtic Britons and the Roman culture that was brought to the islands, but its art is defined by a clear reflection of the pagan Celtic belief system.

 

Material Culture vs. “Art”

Basse Yutz Flagon, c. mid-5th century BCE, La Tène, Basse Yutz, France, Source: The British Museum

 

Much of the literature that currently exists on Celtic peoples and their objects is from the field of archaeology. The objects produced by Celtic peoples, consequently, are often classified as “material culture” rather than “art.” Though art is certainly one aspect of material culture, Oxford Reference defines the latter as “the objects produced by human beings, including buildings, structures, monuments, tools, weapons, utensils, furniture, art, and indeed any physical item created by a society.”

 

It is implied that material culture is, first and foremost, functional. “Art,” as a concept, is often assumed to be produced for purely aesthetic reasons rather than functional ones. It is made to be admired. The line between material culture and art is blurred with Celtic art; most, if not all, Celtic art, is functional. That these objects would have been aesthetically pleasing was only a secondary aspect of their production. They were, however, a good way for local artisans to display their skills in metalworking and sculpting.

 

Unlike art from other cultures and periods throughout history, which may have been preserved in private collections, Celtic art has also predominantly been discovered by archaeologists in the ground at domestic settlements called oppida, religious sanctuary sites, and in elite graves. Some objects, like the Battersea Shield, have been found deposited in natural places like the River Thames. The circumstances of these discoveries offer further evidence that these objects were almost always used in some capacity at the time of their production, whether as functional objects (i.e., the Basse-Yutz flagons, one of which is pictured above and which was likely used to hold and pour wine) or as votive objects (objects deposited specifically as religious offerings).

 

Primary Characteristics of Celtic Art

Battersea Shield, c. 350-50 BCE, La Tène, Battersea, London. Source: The British Museum

 

As mentioned above, Celtic art was typically made from metal or stone. These materials were often locally sourced, particularly those used for votive depositions. Occasionally objects made from locally sourced material were used in elite graves, though these graves also often featured objects that were imported. Both the ability to commission goods from local artisans, and to import materials, were signs of wealth.

 

Celtic art from the Hallstatt Period was typically very plain, not often adorned with other precious materials, and frequently depicted the most central aspect of Celtic life during that time: farming. If a human figure was portrayed, they were depicted without attention to proportions or the conventions of naturalism. More than any other phase of Celtic culture, La Tène Celtic art is characterized by swirling, vine-like motifs, whorls, and triskeles. The ornament on Celtic objects from this period is more delicate than on Hallstatt objects and signifies a slight turn toward aesthetic interests.

 

Inside of the Gundestrup Cauldron, c. 150-1 BCE, La Tène, Himmerland, Denmark, Source: Nationalmuseet København Danmark.

 

The human figure was most often depicted in the context of Celtic headhunting and head collecting during the La Tène Period. Celtic practices of headhunting and head collecting were recorded by their ancient Greek and Roman neighbors. These authors asserted that it was a common Celtic practice to behead their enemies in battle and keep severed heads as trophies for generations.

 

Though these accounts were often biased, there is archaeological evidence to support that this practice existed as a component of the Celtic religion. It was believed that severed heads could be used to harness divine power. Many depictions of humans from this period exist as disembodied heads, related to this practice. Though these depictions are not entirely “naturalistic,” there were clear attempts to render these heads as somewhat lifelike—and they were often life-size—to make them individual rather than carbon copies of one another, and to render them according to stylistic trends of Celtic male hair and facial hair patterns.

 

Celtic Art and the Natural World: Ornament

Desborough Mirror, c. 50 BCE-50 CE, La Tène, Desborough, England, Source: The British Museum.

 

One of the defining aspects of Celtic culture was their relationship with nature. Much of Celtic religion was oriented around the natural world. According to John Sharkey, a scholar of Celtic history and spirituality:

 

“In common with most nomadic tribes, the Celts on their wanderings through Europe had no pantheon of gods but were at one with the elements and the Great Spirit. Wherever they settled, their poets and seers commingled local deities and others from Greek and Asian legends, suitably altered, to do battle against their own almost human warrior heroes; so all the ancient gods and residue of rites and folklore connected with them became part of an ancestral dream-world that was essentially Celtic” (Sharkey, 1975).

 

Many of these local deities included indwelling spirits that animated things like trees, rivers, and lakes. In Celtic belief, offerings, and sacrifices to natural resources were necessary for the well-being of the surrounding land.

 

Enameled bronze plaque from Celtic harness, c. 1st century CE, Santon, Norfolk. Source: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

 

It is only fitting that much of the ornament on Celtic art appears to have been inspired by the natural world; Hallstatt art often reflected the culture of farming, and La Tène art featured designs reminiscent of vines, other foliage, and the currents of moving water. Though not much is recorded about the process of making these objects and their designs, perhaps the act of producing the ornament on La Tène objects would have been contemplative for the artisan.

 

The materials that they were working with—metal and stone—would have been sourced from the natural world, so the act of imbuing them with designs inspired by nature may have reflected appreciation for the landscape. It also may have represented an acknowledgement that these objects were made from the landscape, and to the landscape they would return through the act of burial or ritual deposition in places like rivers and lakes.

 

Representations of Gods in Celtic Art

Detail of Cernunnos on the Gundestrup Cauldron, c. 150-1 BCE, La Tène, Himmerland, Denmark, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

As Celtic peoples did not have a clearly defined canonical pantheon of gods like their ancient Greek and Roman neighbors did, consistent representations of the Celtic gods are rare. It is even rarer to see depictions of Celtic gods and goddesses that appear to have been made by Celtic hands; several surviving examples of this imagery actually come from Roman Gaul and Roman Britain. The Romans utilized a practice called syncretism, in which they commonly incorporated deities from other cultures into their own pantheon of gods after they had conquered a people. While it is unclear whether the Romans who lived in Gaul and Britain would have consistently worshiped Celtic gods, they certainly knew of them and acknowledged them.

 

The image shown above is a detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron, one of the most famous works of Celtic art. It is a rare image of a god believed to have been crafted by a Celtic person. The god depicted is Cernunnos, “the horned god,” a god of beasts and wild places. He is shown both wearing a torc and holding one. Torcs (also spelled torq or torque) were neck-rings made from precious metals that were worn by elite members of Celtic society during the Iron Age and which acted as symbols of wealth and power. High-ranking warriors also would have worn them. Shown here surrounded by animals and even gripping a serpent by its neck, this image represents not only Cernunnos’s power, but the reverence that Celtic people likely had for him.

 

Representations of Humans in Celtic Art

Mšecké Žehrovice Head, c. 150-50 BCE, La Tène, Mšecké Žehrovice, Czech Republic. Source: Arkeonews

 

Representations of humans in Celtic art, though not as common as non-figurative, natural motifs, were more pervasive than representations of god-figures. Representations of human figures were rare in Hallstatt Period art, though there are a few surviving examples. Typically, these humans were rendered simplistically, as shown in the above image of the Strettweg Cult Wagon.

 

One surviving example of a somewhat complex Hallstatt depiction of a human being is the statue of the Hirschlanden “warrior,” discovered in 1962 and believed to date to the late 6th or early 5th century BCE. This statue is often compared to a very early La Tène statue known as the “Prince of Glauberg,” c. 5th century BCE, which is a life-sized sandstone statue believed to depict either a warrior, a prince, or both. Both figures include the full body of the figure that they depict, which is rare in extant figurative Celtic art.

 

Much more common in Celtic art are sculpted heads. Archaeologists most frequently date sculpted heads to the La Tène Period. Coinciding with the practice of headhunting, these heads appear at various types of settlements as objects of ritual focus.

 

The Mšecké Žehrovice, shown above, was found in a Celtic domestic settlement in Bohemia (the Czech Republic), in an enclosure and surrounded by animal bones; evidently, a space for ritual practice. Other sculpted heads, like the nest of trophy heads found at Entremont in France, have been found at sites that were exclusively for ritual practice and were likely venerated alongside real, human heads.

 

Trophy nest of heads, c. 2nd century BCE, Entremont, photo by Michel Wal, Aix-en-Provence, France, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Celtic sculpted heads, importantly, are disembodied and individualized. That these figures were portrayed only through their heads, and not with an accompanying body, emphasized the Celtic belief that the human soul was contained in the head. Some of these figures are more identifiable than others—the Mšecké Žehrovice head, for example, is believed to represent either a warrior or a Druid, who would have been an important and high-ranking member of the community.

 

The Entremont heads, however, are not identifiable beyond the fact that they likely represent warriors from an enemy tribe. Regardless of their lack of identifiability, the figures in the Entremont trophy nest are still individualized. They have different expressions on their faces, different hairstyles, and different facial hair patterns. While Celtic sculpted heads may not be as “naturalistic” as much of the contemporary figurative art emerging out of Greece and Rome, there was still a clear attempt by Celtic sculptors to depict real, human people.

 

Rejecting “Naturalism:” How the Celts Saw the World

Garniture de Roissy, “La Fosse Cotheret,” Dragon Dome, c. 3rd century BCE, Roissy-en-France, Source: Ministère de la Culture, France

 

One of the most important things for the modern viewer to understand about Celtic art—which often looks strange and as though it lacks any attention to proportions or realism—is that Celtic artisans were not looking at naturalism and aesthetics in the same way that their Greek and Roman neighbors were. Many of the conventions of naturalism that have been applied to Western art since the Renaissance Period were adopted from a look back to ancient Greek and Roman art, and they have shaped standards of beauty in the Western world.

 

Much of Celtic art prioritized symmetry in depictions of the natural world, rather than adhering to what the eye may have seen. Animals, for example, were depicted in symmetrical planes with each side of the body shown in the same position. Any attempt to represent movement would have disrupted the symmetry. In representations of humans, eyes were the dominant facial feature, as they were thought in Celtic belief to be windows to the soul.

 

French anthropologist Georges-Henri Luquet explained this phenomenon as a contrast between the “visual realism” of naturalistic representations from antiquity and the “intellectual realism” found in children’s drawings and archaic societies. Though Celtic peoples were not entirely “primitive,” and much of Luquet’s terminology is now outdated, his theory can be applied to explain that Celtic artisans depicted the surrounding world as it could be interpreted, rather than how it is seen. Therefore, while Celtic art may not be as “naturalistic” as ancient Greek and Roman art, it represents Celtic cosmology and the idea that Celtic peoples were intertwined with the natural world and the Great Spirit.

 

Bibliography

 

Luquet, G-H. (1930). L’art Primitif. Bibliotheque d’Anthropologie.

Olivier, L. (2020). In the eye of the dragon: how the ancient Celts viewed the world. In T.F. Martin & W. Morrison (Eds.), Barbaric Splendour: The use of image before and after Rome (pp. 18-33). Archaeopress Publishing Ltd.

Pennick, N. (1996). Celtic Sacred Landscapes. Thames and Hudson.

Sharkey, J. (1975). Celtic Mysteries: The Ancient Religion. Thames and Hudson.

Author Image

By Rachel SweeneyMA Art History, BA History & Art HistoryRachel holds an MA in Art History, a dual-degree BA in History and Art History, and a certificate in Medieval Studies. Her research so far has focused on Celtic art and early medieval art of Ireland and the British Isles.