Celtic Art

Alongside language and religious practices, another common feature of Celts throughout Europe is the art they produced. The History of Celtic styles and influences can be separated into various eras. The Hallstatt era is considered to be at the root of Celtic Culture, the La Tène era is considered the prime period of Celtic artwork, and the Celtic Revival represents the more modern interpretation of Celtic art history.

Hallstatt Culture

Originating in Austria from roughly 800 to 475 BCE, Celtic art has its roots in the Hallstatt culture. Although it might have its origins in Austria, this culture eventually spread throughout central Europe, encompassing Slovakia, Western Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Southern Germany, Switzerland, Northern Italy, and Eastern France. It was from this period that the Celts developed their own unique culture and styles, derived not only from the Caucasian Bronze Age but also from their interactions with maritime traders through the Black Sea and Mediterranean basin, incorporating styles and techniques from the Etruscan as well as Mediterranean cultures. They eventually settled in the Upper Danube, absorbing the local ancient Danubian motifs along the way.

A pair of “antennna swords” made c. 1050-800 BCE during the Hallstatt Period in Late Bronze Age Europe. Bronze, Hallstatt culture. Found near Lake Neuchâtel, present day Switzerland. (Laténium GNU)

The Hallstatt culture centred on the ornamentation of utilitarian items (weapons, chariots, armour, personal accessories), together with the creation of high quality jewellery (brooches, rings), often employing fine techniques, contrasting colourwork and extravagant patterns. Hallstatt artists tended to break up smooth surfaces, and often employed colour contrast for effect. Motifs include bird shapes, probably from Italy, spirals, animal designs (zoomorphs), knotwork and fretwork, but few plant patterns. Figures frequently were set out in pairs, exemplifying a general concern with rigid symmetry.

Bronze Vessel (c.550 BCE) Example of Late Hallstatt Joanbanjo CC BY-SA 3.0

La Tène Culture

The La Tène period (broadly 5th to 1st centuries BC) is most easily recognized by its swirling curvilinear patterns. The time period is named after the site near the village of La Tène in Switzerland, where archaeologists and geologists excavated artwork from its discovery in 1857 up until 1885.

It is fortunate for archaeologists that the era of cremation came to an end around this period, making way for burials. This in turn has resulted in more burial sites and subsequently, more personal and household objects being stashed away with the dead, allowing for excavators to discover them in years to come. Without these invaluable treasures of buried artefacts, we would know very little of the Celtic civilization that we are fortunate enough to know today.

About 350 BC Musée d’Angoulême – This impressive piece of art was buried in a cave in Agris, western France. The entire cap, neck guard and cheek guards were all cluttered with lavish gold tendril and leaf design. Together with the gold, red coral inlays provide n effectual contrast.
Kunst der Kelten, Historisches Museum Bern. Rosemania (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As well as metal, this era was known for artists that worked with gold, specifically for personal adornment such as jewellery. Most of the pieces that still exist today were made from iron, bronze, gold, and other metals. Ivies and foliage were common motifs within the scrollwork to be found on objects such as weapons, sculptures, and vessels like bowls.

The Celtic Torc

The Snettisham Great Torc (150 BC – 50 BC)- Gold alloy torc with ornamented terminals. The torc is made from just over a kilogram of gold mixed with silver.  British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The Celtic torcs was a common form of jewellery, worn around the wrist or neck and were made from bronze, copper, silver, and gold, and these would reflect the noble status of the individual.

Their hair was of gold, their clothing was of gold and light stripes brightened their cloaks. Their milk-white necks had gold collars around them, a pair of Alpine spears glinted in each warrior’s hands, and their bodies were protected by tall shields.’

Virgil, Aeneid, VIII. 659–62

Clearly the torc was a significant part of the Gallic warrior’s dress. So important, in fact, that some Gallic warriors wore only the torc. For religious reasons these warriors, called gaesatae, went to war naked. 

In the Roman military torcs came to be used as a symbol of rank and achievement, finally being incorporated into the military decorations of the Roman army.

Celtic Shields

Celtic warriors normal shields were large and oval or rectangular in shape made of wood and leather with buckles in metal with a central boss for added strength. The Celts also produced magnificent bronze shields which were most likely for ceremonial purposes and display.

The Battersea Shield is one of the most significant pieces of ancient Celtic Art found in Britain. The decoration is in the typically British Celtic La Tène style, consisting of circles and spirals. There are 27 small round compartments in raised bronze with red cloisonné enamel.
British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Celtic Cauldrons

Cauldrons held a special place in Celtic culture;  they were used in the customs of the dead and in sacrificial and consecration rituals.

The Gundestrup Cauldron is a gilded silver bowl found in Gundestrup in Denmark in 1891 CE. Kim Bach (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

In Strabo it can be read that the priestesses of the Cimbri killed prisoners of war by cutting their throats and bleeding them into a bronze cauldron.

these priestesses would meet with the prisoners of war throughout the camp, and having first crowned them with wreaths would lead them to a brazen vessel of about twenty amphorae; and they had a raised platform which the priestess would mount, and then, bending over the kettle, would cut the throat of each prisoner after he had been lifted up; and from the blood that poured forth into the vessel some of the priestesses would draw a prophecy

Strabo, Geographies Book7, Chapter 2, Para 3

mong the most spectacular objects are “cult wagons” in bronze, which are large wheeled trolleys containing crowded groups of standing figures, sometimes with a large bowl mounted on a shaft at the centre of the platform, probably for offerings to gods; a few examples have been found in graves.

Celtic Sculpture

Early Celtic stone and wood sculptures focus on the human form, especially heads without bodies. Such works usually represent gods and heroic warrior figures but are often abstract with typical facial features being lentoid eyes, a bulbous nose, and swept-back hair.

The “Mšecké Žehrovice Hero” (also known as the “Mšecké Žehrovice Head”) is a late 2nd Century BCE or early 1st Century BCE limestone bust of a Celtic warrior. Miroslav Zachoval (CC BY 2.0)

Celtic Brooches

The ancient Celts were particularly fond of creating ornate brooches and pins. Needed for the practical function of holding clothing together, brooches soon developed from plain bronze and iron fibulae into highly ornate status symbols and amulets worn by men, women, and children. Earlier brooches might take the form of animals, especially horses and snakes but also human heads, bells, and drums.

Braganza Brooch

British Museum (CC BY 4.0)

Celtic Pottery

Celtic pottery vessels are very often elegantly curved in form and may be dark in colour or red with black decoration. Early vessels copied those items made in bronze. Despite their simplicity, vessels were well-made and highly polished.

Celtic Pottery British Museum (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Decline of Celtic art

From roughly 200 BCE to 100 CE, during the last days of the La Tène period, all Celtic tribes were absorbed into the Roman administration by Roman Legions. Britain too was met with the same fate, although Ireland alone had managed to avoid Roman domination of the area.