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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

By Design: Celtic Artwork

Celtic art is popular today but who were the ancient Celts and what kind of art did they really create?
Celtic art is popular today but who were the ancient Celts and what kind of art did they really create?

The Celtic Moonfish blog celebrates Celtic culture, especially its folklore and folk practice. While most of us associate Celtic culture with the people of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the ancient Celts were an Iron Age people were not restricted to the islands now known as Ireland and the British Isles. They inhabited a great swath of the European mainland in places that are modern day Spain, France, Austria, and places east throughout central Europe. The Celts weren’t a homogenous entity. Instead, they were comprised of several different groups, such as the Gallaeci, Celtiberians, Gauls, Britons, and Gaels. They spoke related languages now known as the Celtic family of languages, including Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Manx, Irish, and Scots Gaelic. They also had in common religious beliefs, folk customs, and culture. Today’s post focuses on a specific aspect of Celtic culture, one that continues to this day, their artwork.

Art historians have identified several periods of development of Celtic art. The earliest (lasting from approximately 800 to 475 BC) is called the Hallstatt period, named for a region in Austria. The next major category is the Le Tène which ended with the fall of the Roman Empire and its influence on the Celtic people. Logically following this is the Post-Roman period which leads to the Medieval era and eventually to contemporary Celtic artwork. Rather than get caught up in the characteristics of each period, I will give an overview of the types of art produced, common motifs, and symbolism of Celtic art.

What Types of Art did the Celts Ce?

Stand up for Ukraine and against tyranny.
Stand up for Ukraine and against tyranny.

The Celts were masters of metalwork. In addition to iron and bronze, the Celts also frequently produced items crafted in gold. One of the types of metalwork often associated with the Celts by people today is the torc, a neck ornament made of twisted and often highly decorated metal. Some scholars believe torcs may have indicated societal status and may even have had a spiritual significance. It may have been believed to protect the wearer.

Celts produced many brooches as well. These served a practical purpose. They were used as fasteners for clothing. But brooches, like torcs, could be highly ornate and function as status symbols too. The more ornamented pieces were made of gold and studded with precious gems. Brooches often were formed into animal shapes, such as snakes or horses. Also, brooches were fashioned into heads (human or animal), often in an S-shape with a head at each end. They came in abstract or geometric shapes as well, particularly in the form of spirals or knots. The metal of these brooches was cast, punched, and frequently, engraved.

Another functional item that was often highly decorated was the cauldron. Cauldrons came in various sizes and were used for the practical purpose of cooking. But in Celtic culture, cauldrons were much more than simple pots. They represented abundance. In mythology, the cauldron often had magical properties. Dagda, a father god in Celtic mythology, had a cauldron that never ran out of food. Bran the Blessed, a god and giant, possessed a cauldron that could bring people back from the dead. Despite these two male deities, cauldrons were primarily associated with female energy which was nourishing and regenerative. Cauldrons were made of metal, usually bronze, were painted, and their rims and handles often were adorned with further artwork.

A warrior people, the Celts made swords, spears, and shields. Wood was the most common material used to make the shields but, sometimes, they were made of bronze, In either case, the shields were highly decorated works of art.

Celtic bowls and drinking vessels were usually made of bronze or pottery. The pottery was generally stylish and highly polished. It was painted or stamped with the common Celtic motifs mentioned below.

With the coming of the Christian era, the Celts developed another artwork that has become

The Book of Kells is an excellent example of a Celtic illuminated manuscript featuring both Christian and pre-Christian symbolism.
The Book of Kells is an excellent example of a Celtic illuminated manuscript featuring both Christian and pre-Christian symbolism.

characteristic of them: illuminated manuscripts. These often were of the four gospels. The pages of the manuscripts were filled with drawings of animals, plants such as ivy, and abstracted designs, usually of interwoven lines. The famous Book of Kells is a prime example of this type of artwork.

The Celts created abundant sculpture work as well. The most iconic of the sculptures are Celtic crosses, free-standing monuments of stone that dot the Irish and Scottish countryside. The design is of a Christian cross with a circle at the intersection of the wood. These crosses often have a pyramidal base and are highly decorated. Some are inscribed with ogham (a medieval Irish writing system). In contemporary times, the Celtic cross design is used in jewelry, particularly in the form of necklaces.

But the Celts created other sculptures as well. The most common subjects were deities, especially male and female fertility goddesses, and warriors. Heads were popular topics, too, as the Celts believed the head housed the soul. Finally, the sculptures often depicted animals. This artwork was made from stone, metal, or a combination of both.

Motifs and Symbols

As mentioned above, animals showed up often in Celtic art. Horses were highly valued in the culture and, so, are one of its major motifs. The bull was a common symbol as well and, sometimes, had a religious significance. Snakes show up frequently, too, as they represent wisdom. In Celtic culture, dogs and deer are guides to the Otherworld, so these make their appearance on Celtic artwork, ancient and modern. For a more in-depth discussion of animal symbolism in Celtic culture, click here.

Deities are a common subject in Celtic artwork. Among the most frequently found statues are those depicting Dagda, the father of the gods, Cernunnos, the horned god, Epona, a horse goddess and her Welsh counterpart, Rhiannon, and Brigid, the goddess of summer, who was worshipped throughout the Celtic world.

Cernunnos, the horned god, was one of the favorite topics of Celtic artwork.
Cernunnos, the horned god, was one of the favorite topics of Celtic artwork.

Warriors play a significant part in Celtic artwork. They show up in all forms. At times, the only part depicted is the head, the house of the soul.

Leaves and vines often fill up spaces and wrap around other design elements in Celtic art. This should not be surprising. The Celts respected and revered nature, believing that a spark of the divine existed in every living thing. They had a particular interest in and reverence for trees. Check out my Beware the Tree Spirit and Celtic Tree Symbolism posts for more about this topic.

The characteristic probably most associated with Celtic design today is the flowing, interwoven lines, spirals, and repeated patterns. Well-known examples of these are the Dara knot, the triquetra, the Awen, and the infinity spiral.

Associated with the oak tree, the Dara knot, in Celtic culture, the oak represents strength, nobility, and stability. The interwoven lines in the knot have no beginning or end. This symbolizes the continuous cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

The triquetra or trinity knot is a spiritual symbol. Like the Dara knot, its interlocking lines are a symbol of eternal life. Its three-fold design can be interpreted in many ways. The common thread is that three was a powerful number in Celtic culture, whether it represented the triple goddess, the balance of male and female energy, or the Christian trinity.

Another design of three, the Awen’s outside lines represent male and female energy while the middle line is the joining or balancing of the two. The spiral is another symbol of infinity and the never-ending cycle of life.

The interwoven lines of the Dara knot have no beginning or end, symbolizing the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
The interwoven lines of the Dara knot have no beginning or end, symbolizing the never-ending cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Over the centuries, the influence and popularity of Celtic art, design, and symbolism have, at times, waned. But the decrease in its presence is always followed by a Celtic revival. So, thankfully, it is still with us. It keeps coming back. Something in it speaks to human souls across cultures. And, for that, I am very grateful.

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Slan go foil!

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Apr 25, 2022

Fascinating stuff, thanks!

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