Survey the Beginning of Celtic Art

From the lecture series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

“Celtic art” is an inexact term, as recent scholars are uncertain about the distinct ethnic identity of the Celts. Art historians prefer to talk about the La Tène style because of the archaeological finds in western Switzerland. Read why the ancient La Tène, or “Celtic” style of art is so distinct and fascinating.

The Castlestrange Stone at Castlestrange, Co. Roscommon, Ireland
The Castlestrange Stone at Castlestrange, Co. Roscommon, Ireland, is a granite boulder decorated with flowing spirals in the La Tène style, dating from the Iron Age period between 300 B.C. and 100 A.D. (Image: Alasabyss/Shutterstock)

The La Tène Style Defined

The La Tène style of ancient Celtic art is not a static phenomenon. There are various phases of this art style, over time and space, but to anyone besides an expert, the common elements seem to stand out more than the differences.

The Battersea bronze and enamel shield 350 B.C.
One of the most important characteristics of the La Tène style is the presence of spirals and curvilinear forms, as seen from this Battersea bronze and enamel shield (350 B.C.). (Image: Photograph by Jorge Royan /Public domain)

One of the most important characteristics is the presence of spirals and curvilinear forms in general. This artistic style is all about the curves, but it is also about dense, repeated patterns that look organic and yet are somehow extremely precise. This art style is filled with vaguely vegetal-looking forms that may or may not represent actual living plants. There is an almost modern emphasis on abstraction that has proven influential in modern art.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

When figures are depicted, they tend to be stylized instead of realistic; this art emphasizes the essential elements of figures, rather than attempting to capture them fully in three dimensions. The style also includes a persistent fascination with animal forms, though these are often mythic-looking or at least highly stylized, not in a naturalistic style at all.

The La Tène style was enormously popular in the 1st millennium B.C. It spread far and wide, eventually to parts of Britain and Ireland. Archaeologists used to think the Celts spread out from Central Europe and took over Britain and Ireland, bringing their art with them. Scholars now think it was the art, not the people, that traveled. It was similar to a prehistoric fad, one that still resonates today. Currently, many people sport tattoos that echo the classic art of the La Tène period.

One striking aspect of this art, as opposed to classical art styles, is that we find few depictions of complete human figures. The human body did not appear to have fascinated these artists the way it did the sculptors and painters of ancient Greece and Rome. With one interesting exception, there are many representations of severed human heads. Classical sources note the importance of the severed head in Celtic society, but modern scholars have increasingly come to the conclusion there was no single way in which human heads were treated across all the Celtic-speaking realms.

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The Gundestrup Cauldron

One of the most impressive masterpieces traditionally associated with the Celts is the famous Gundestrup Cauldron. The story of its discovery is interesting and speaks to the role of chance in archaeology.

In May of 1891, in northern Jutland in Denmark, some laborers who were digging peat had decided to quit work due to the bad weather when one of their shovels hit something hard. The object turned out to be a large silver cauldron with decorated plates stacked inside. These plates would have been fastened to the cauldron both inside and outside.

The outer plates depict various human-like figures who appear to be gods, since they are engaged in superhuman feats, and since the figures of animals that surround them are much smaller. Often the relative size of figures tells you about their relative status, an artistic convention that has lasted for thousands of years. The inner plates depict more complicated scenes of military life and hunting, including an image of a carnyx. The best recent estimate of its age is that it dates to around 150 to 50 B.C.

Gundestrup Cauldron
The outer plates of the Gundestrup Cauldron depict various human-like figures who appear to be gods. The inner plates depict more complicated scenes of military life and hunting, including the image of the carnyx. (Image: Nationalmuseet/Public domain)

The Gundestrup Cauldron is magnificent, but it is highly controversial. The controversy over the cauldron neatly sums up the contrast between two views of the Celts: the old view of the Celts as a distinct people with a consistent cultural identity, and the new view of them as a more fluid grouping of peoples who were open to various influences.

In the past, the Gundestrup Cauldron has always been classified as a Celtic object, mostly because the assumption is that the people who lived in this part of Europe had to have been Celts. Many aspects of the cauldron do not appear Celtic at all: it has none of the abstract patternings that is characteristic of the La Tène style, specifically, the intricate spirals and vegetal forms are not there.

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Then, there is the question of what the figures on the cauldron represent. One notable feature of the cauldron is that unlike many other artifacts made in the so-called Celtic style, it has several human portraits. Those who want to read the cauldron as a “Celtic” object will see “Celtic” gods and mythological figures.

The most famous of these figures is the man with antlers, identified as the Celtic god of the hunt, Cernunnos. Not everyone sees these figures as Celtic gods. Some art historians who look at the cauldron see more Mediterranean influences or even central Asian elements in the figures. Historians know that the peoples in Central Europe were in contact with all of those places.

The craftsmen of Central European may have taken motifs they had been exposed to and made them their own. Archaeologists can’t be sure if the people who made the cauldron were “Celts,” but the artifact’s presence in Denmark testifies to the sophistication of the society that produced and valued it.

The Celtic Narrative

Art plays an important role in the traditional narrative of the Celts. According to this narrative, the Celtic tradition was stamped out by the Romans everywhere in Europe, but they took refuge largely in the British Isles and Ireland. The Romans worked to eradicate the inhabitants of the Celtic-speaking lands in Europe. But it is too simplistic, however, to say that Celtic art “took refuge” in places like Ireland. Celtic art did not stand still even in the places where it developed in the first place, often open to outside influences, as seen with the Gundestrup Cauldron and many other artifacts.

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Scholars have tried to discern the “Celtic mentality” from the art. These efforts are suggestive but inconclusive. Celtic craftsmen adapted different motifs, techniques, and materials because they liked them, and the style then spread because other people liked it, not because they felt some kind of genetic attraction to it. Whether the art of the La Tène period was produced by the Celts or not is impossible to say, but the conclusion ultimately doesn’t matter.

The designs of this style can be worn, tattooed, or just enjoyed through the many masterpieces created that feature it, both in prehistory and today.

Common Questions About Ancient Celtic Art

Q: How is ancient Celtic art different from Roman art?

Ancient Celtic art was a hybrid of naturalism and design that was less about story than Roman art. Though it is often compared with Grecian art, there is little similarity to be found.

Q: Did Celtic knots originate in Ireland?

Ancient Celtic art has many origins, while knots began in many places. The most prominent spot for Celtic knots was in religious monuments and spiritual art during the early 8th century.

Q: Does the Celtic knot mean anything?

In Ancient Celtic art, the most obvious symbol for the Celtic knot is one of eternity, as it can never be concluded. It goes on for eternity as perhaps does life.

Q: What motiffs define ancient Celtic art?

Ancient Celtic art is largely defined by knots, animals, spirals, and foliage often repeated.

This article was updated on December 18, 2019

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