Many people are aware of Celtic art. Beautiful scroll-work type designs, almost devoid of linear patterns and symmetry, with origins that can be traced back some several thousand years or more, to the ancient Celts. Though little is known of the Celtic clans, how or why they truly arrived in Europe, they certainly left their influence in more ways than one – their artwork being one of the more commonly known echoes from the shadows of a long distant past.
What modern historians know of Celtic art relates to what they know of the ancient people – some facts and a fair bit of conjecture. The Celts were not known for scribing about their lives and societal infrastructure in the way that the Romans, or even the Egyptians, did.
The Celts were a nomadic people, made up of tribal factions that roamed across Europe several thousand years ago. Though there are many fine examples of their intricate art, much in the form of jewelry and stonework’s, it is still difficult to pinpoint exactly where their designs originated from.
There are various Celtic ‘ages’ that appear to make up the whole – meaning that from around 800BC onwards, the Celts started appearing on the European map, along with their earliest artistic efforts.
Celtic Art History
Initially, Celtic art history appeared around 800BC, at the start of the Hallstatt Period. Geometric configurations began to appear, designs that were based on a central point and grew out in ever increasing spiral-type designs.
Whichever way they were viewed, generally the pattern didn’t change. This is known as axial symmetry. Jugs, stone art work, precious metal torques – a Celtic neck jewelry that symbolised authority and social prominence, have been attributed to this early period.
The same patterns and designs appeared on components for chariots, sword coverings, and other small metalwork pieces. Around three hundred years or so later, the Celts had roamed across Europe and had begun settling in the British Isles, Spain, and France.
As the 4th century BC arrived and began to slowly pass, the Celts continued with their artwork, by now showing evidence of a similar design to that which was birthed around the Hallstatt period – radial symmetry.
Often the two forms were used together and can be found today on vases, torques, scabbards and a variety of other metal-works. Red enamel was also used, and slowly, the Celts evolved not only as a semi-fragmented culture but as a people capable of creating some beautiful works of art.
The Celtic designs continued to evolve, throughout the La Tène Iron Age period, which began around 300 BC. The Celts began to settle properly in Britain and over the next three or four hundred years, the Romans began to push out towards Western Europe, encroaching upon the Celts.
By 200 BC, the Celtic people had begun producing their artwork upon glass and other complex objects, due to the discovery of how to combine different materials as a means of enhancing the mediums upon which they could work.
They were no longer limited to metals and stone – they began to produce ornate, multifaceted designs upon beads, bracelets and colored glass. They continued to reproduce their artwork on metals but these were also more complex in their creation.
By the time of the first century AD, the Romans had truly conquered Britain, one of the last remaining European settlements of the Celts. Thus began the Romano-Celtic period.
One of the more widely known designs, Celtic crosses, began to appear during this period. The Romans, although a nation that usurped country after country, began to fall into decline sometime around the 4th century AD and as a consequence, Christianity began to take a hold.
From the 4th century onward, the Romans withdrew from Britain and Germanic tribes – the Visigoths, Vandals and Ostrogoths – spread across the European continent. Two new forms of jewelry appeared on the Celtic timeline: annular and penannular brooches.
Annular means ‘ring’ and penannular means ‘almost a ring.' Both were created as a means of religious and spiritual status. They were often decorative items or used as fasteners – for cloaks and other forms of clothing.
While early geometric spiral type designs prevailed, the Celts introduced new designs: angular patterns appeared, as did stylised animals and interlacing on scroll-work. Upwards of the arrival of the Vikings, between the 8th and 9th century AD, ornamental jewelry became more elaborate, more ostentatious.
The Celtic crosses existed for many centuries and are still used in modern artwork to date. Based on circular design, with the four points of the cross all being covered in intricate geometric patterns and interwoven into the ring. The work below the upper ring would be carved with related designs.
Crosses would be created as stone monuments or decorative jewelry and contemporary culture fashions the designs in various art forms: paintings, jewelry, tattoos and more.
Celtic Symbols and Modern Art
Celtic symbols, artwork, and the culture, fell into decline sometime after the Vikings arrived in Britain. They were a strong influence wherever they conquered, and the Celtic culture felt their authority much the same as any other had before them.
Still - Celtic art and culture survived in various parts of Scotland and Ireland into the 19th century. From that point, their art has experienced a form of revival, not least because the country of Ireland began to undergo a renewed sense of patriotism.
Upwards of the middle of the 19th century, there was also a growing interest in Celtic art, due to patronage from archaeologists and artists. Some of Ireland's most famous Celtic relics were discovered during this period - the Tara Brooch being one of them.
In Europe, two sizeable caches of Celtic artifacts were discovered, in Switzerland (La Tene) and Austria (Halstatt) respectively. This generated a wide European interest, and thus the beauty of the artwork of the Celts returned once again to the fore.
Currently, Celtic art is widely used and is often viewed as a mystical art form - and cherished by those that feel the closest connection - the modern day Celts of Ireland and Scotland.