Ancient Celtic Art vs. Medieval Celtic Art

Today, when many people think of ‘Celtic art’, what they have in mind is actually medieval Irish and Pictish art. Such art has relatively little to do with the ancient Celts. The purpose of this essay is to highlight some of the differences between ancient and medieval Celtic art, and to emphasize the rich legacy of the pre-medieval tradition.

The Premise

Nowadays, it is relatively easy to find a wide variety of very affordable books offering to teach the reader the methods of construction of something called ‘Celtic art’. It is also an extremely easy exercise to find an extensive selection of beautiful ‘Celtic’ clip-art on the web. This art is not, however, as its name might imply, a universal and timeless tradition, the heritage of all Celts at all time periods. To such ancient Celts as Vercingetorix or Boudica, such art would appear as strange as Cairo’s Al-Azhar university would to Ramesses the Great. To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to look at the sharp divide between ancient and medieval Celtic art styles.

Medieval ‘Celtic’ Art

Insular-style knotwork, drawing by WP
During the early middle ages a beautiful, distinctive and sophisticated style of art developed in the British Isles. Today, this style is often referred to as ‘Celtic’ art, though scholars more correctly refer to it as ‘Insular’ art, since it was shared by the Anglo-Saxons as well as such Celtic-speaking peoples as the Irish and Picts (‘insular’ from Latin insula ‘island’, referring in this case to the British Isles). This style has amongst its most distinguished representatives such masterpieces as the Book of Kells, the Irish high crosses, the Pictish stones and the Ardagh chalice, all of which may be seen illustrated below. Insular art is an abstract style, characterized by a horror vacui (a dislike for negative or empty space) and by brilliant patterns which are either wholly abstract or consist of stylized portrayals of animals (plants are rarer). Narrative figural art is also an important part of the Insular style, particularly on Irish Crosses of the 9th and 10th centuries CE (Harbison 1990: 18). There are four main types of patterns in Insular art, as first recognized by John Obadiah Westwood in the 19th century (Nordenfalk 1987: 1). First, there are interlace patterns, consisting of interweaving ribbons laid out in a balanced and often dazzlingly intricate design. Secondly there are the ‘zoomorphic’ patterns, which are comprised of artistically altered or stylized animals, such as birds and dogs, often intertwined with ribbons like those of the interlace patterns. Thirdly, there are the spiral patterns, which are formed, as the name implies, with spirals. These spirals are made sometimes with a single but often with two, three or more coiling lines. They are surrounded by such motifs as ‘trumpet curves’ (i.e., a tapering curve) and lentoid bosses (an oval with pointed ends), and often interconnect with each other. Fourthly, there are the so-called ‘key’ patterns, which consist of strait lines forming intricate, blockish designs and have been described as ‘square spirals’. They have also been compared (superficially) to certain Chinese designs, and indeed key patterns, like interlace and stylized animals, can be found in many artistic traditions around the world. The particular form that they take in Insular art, and the fact that they are a defining characteristic of this art, make key patterns, and all the patterns here mentioned, unique.

Insular-style spiral pattern, drawing by WP
We can begin to appreciate the difference between ancient and medieval Celtic art when we realize that all of the patterns discussed so far were either not in use in ancient times at all, or were only extremely rarely and sporadically employed. The only partial exception is manifest in the Insular spiral patterns, many elements of which were derived to one extent or another from the idiom of Irish La Tène art. The derivation process, however, along with innovations, has left us a product which is unmistakably distinct from anything produced in ancient times. While it is true that the general thrust of (most) Insular Celtic art is identical to the tastes exhibited in (most) ancient Celtic art, namely, a predilection for abstraction and a dislike of vacant space, the patterns that were in use in Medieval times, and by which we nowadays identify the Insular style of art (for the horror vacui is not at all uncommon in the world and most traditional arts eschew total realism), were simply not around in antiquity. Insular art was formed under the influence of such sources (Roth 1987: 23-5) as Germanic art, Coptic art and Syriac art – cultures and artistic traditions that had not existed at the time when ancient Celtic art was first created in the fifth century BCE. Of course we must also take into account the partial heritage from the ancient Celts and the role of originality, but the end result was that a new and distinctive art style, clearly distinguishable from ancient Celtic art, had emerged.

An Insular-style key pattern, drawing by WP An example of an Insular-style animal pattern from the Book of Kells Reconstructed Pictish stone sculpture at Hilton of Cadboll, Scotland
The Kirkyard Stone, one of the Pictish stone monuments at Aberlemno, Scotland The Ardagh Chalice The Chi-Rho monogram in the Book of Kells, folio 34r
The Book of Kells, Folio 183r, modern reproduction The Book of Kells, Folio 309r Irish High Cross (after Green 1997: 28)

Ancient Celtic Art

Ancient Celtic art, drawing by WP (based on a 4th c. BCE pattern from Germany)
Ancient Celtic art, comprised of a great variety of ever-changing styles and deviant regional traditions, is perhaps more difficult to characterize than Insular art. It is normally not realistic, though some traditions of statuary and mimesis are known. It is normally characterized by the horror vacui, though minimalism is also sometimes encountered. Compass-work was used to great effect, but free-hand work was also essential and sometimes exclusive. Designs are often symmetrical but sometimes asymmetrical. Despite these variations, ancient Celtic art does, I believe, form a recognizable and relatively inclusive whole - the deviations in different directions merely serve to illustrate its versatility. I might at this point quote the definition of Celtic art offered by Aidan Meehan (Meehan 1993: 8), which I rather like: "It is not ethnic. It is classical abstract art, as accessable as classical music for instance. It is a way of making visual music rather than of telling a story." This definition could, however, apply, as I believe its author intended, to Insular art just as easily as ancient Celtic art, and, indeed to many quite foreign and different traditions from around the world. What makes ancient Celtic art distinct is the means by which the music is created, and in this sense it is in fact relatively ethnic. The visual impact of shapes is perhaps its essence.
Detail of the Agris helmet (after Green 1997: 119)
This is achieved by geometric patterns and by stylized portrayals of people, plants and animals. The geometric patterns are dominated by rounded lines, and a seemingly endless variety of swirls, curves, and other shapes, often with a vaguely plant-like appearance, form the repertoire of this sophisticated abstract tradition. Many of the patterns defy description and must be seen to gain any true impression of them. The figural representations, generally being stylized, were concerned not so much with reproducing nature as with seeing what the imagination could add to it, or with reducing nature to its essential elements. The inventory of motifs employed by ancient Celtic artists includes such patterns as spirals, peltas, triskelia, trumpet curves and their accompanying lentoid bosses, commas and leaf-like curls, beaded borders, scrolls, peltas and all manner of curling or pointed shapes, intertwining tenrdils and arabesques, lotus buds, humans and human faces, mythical creatures, boars and horses, birds, wolves and stags. A love for the stylized and the purely abstract pervades all. It is an art of shapes, whose subtelty lies in forms and lines, whether they be more purely geometrical or made to bear resemblance to living creatures. By its very nature, ancient Celtic art emphasizes visual appeal - a very suitable emphasis, since its physical context was usually decorative, however much it may have been gazed at and contemplated as ars gratia artis. Creativity is also emphasized, arguably moreso than in a tradition that attempts to capture reality.

One might perhaps go so far as to suggest that the curvaceous, plant-like forms that abstract patterns in ancient Celtic art tend to take reflect the lush, forested invironment in which the early Celtic phyche may have taken shape. If I may speculate even further, one might perhaps see something of the same mental acuity that allowed the flourishing of an oral, memory-based culture in the complex and precise geometry of ancient Celtic art, and something of the love of the obscure that shows up in early Celtic culture (for instance in poetic style) in the mysterious swirls of so many La Tène designs. Of course, such impressions are unscientific and indemonstrable, but the subjective is an inescapable part of all art.

Examples of La Tène Art (after Frey 1976: 148) Further examples of La Tène Art (after Schwappach 1976: 90) Still more examples of La Tène Art (after Schwappach 1976: 87)
Bronze and enamel harness mount (after Megaw and Megaw 1989: 222) Detail of the celebrated Battersea shield (after Green 1997: 102) A tripartite abstract design (after Green 1997: 124)
An example of ambiguity in ancient Celtic art: this piece can be understood as either a spiral pattern or a cat (after Green 1997: 128) Stylized horse (after Green 1997: 130) Stylized duck (after Raftery 1990: 31)

How Ancient is Ancient?

The Cathach, folio 19r
Not ancient at all, necessarily. ‘Medieval’ Celtic art did not develop at the very beginning of the Middle Ages (whenever one dates that to), but rather during the course of the early part of that era. Insular art emerged, in fact, in the seventh century CE. Therefore, for the first several centuries of the Middle Ages, as well as the first several centuries of Christian presence in Ireland, pagan Celtic art remained a powerful force in the British Isles. Before the seventh century, there is hardly any explicitly Christian art from the (post-Roman) British Isles other than rudimentary inscribed funeral stones (Thomas 1987: 9-10). Thus in Ireland, for example, Christianity failed to make a substantial impact upon indigenous art for centuries after its initial introduction to the island. This echoes the conversion process in general, in which the new, foreign religion and its accompanying culture were adopted gradually and with much compromise. During the period ca. 475-600, a copious quantity of pottery was imported to Ireland and Britain from the Middle East (specifically the Levant), Carthage and Alexandria, sometimes via Iberia or Gaul (Thomas 1987: 9). Some of this pottery was decorated with such motifs as crosses, fish and dolphins (Haseloff 1987: 45), and probably served as an important conduit for the transmission of new artistic motifs to the nascent Christian communities of the early medieval Brisith Isles, living in the shadow of a pagan Celtic cultural legacy.
The Cathach, folio 21r
The situation is well reflected in the Cathach, a remarkably early manuscript (late sixth or early seventh century CE; Haseloff 1987: 45), traditionally attributed to the hand of Saint Columba but whose actual scribe is unknown, which was written prior to the rise of Insular art. Alongside some foreign elements, most notably crosses and aquatic creatures, the primary motifs that enhanced its capital letters – trumpet curves, lentoid bosses, scrolls, spirals and peltas – were identical to the ancient motifs of pagan Celtic art. Even the colors with which the Cathach is ornamented - red and yellow - may may be an imitation of ancient enamelled La Tène metalwork (Roth 1987: 23). Thus, one might say that shortly before its demise, ancient Celtic art expanded into the one field it had been hitherto lacking – calligraphy. For while writing had been known to and used by certain Celtic-speaking groups since the middle of the first millennium BCE, and some of their inscriptions were certainly beautifully made, calligraphy - so far as we know - had never been a major artform, and writing had always remained sereparate from the rich traditions of the decorative arts. The Cathach represents a form of calligraphy truly in line with the La Tène tradition.

Photo Credits

Where no source is given in the caption, images on this page were found online in the public domain.

Bibliography and Further Reading

The following list includes only basic works and material that was cited in this page. I've written annotations in bold type for some of these publications.

Bain, George
1951 Celtic Art: the Methods of Construction. Glasgow: William MacLellan & Co.
[Recommended as the best introduction to creating medieval Celtic art]

Frey, O.-H.
1976 Le Premier Style de Waldalgesheim: Remarques sur l'évolution de l'art celtique ancien. In P.-M. Duval and C. Hawkes (eds.), Celtic Art in Ancient Europe: Five Protohistoric Centuries. London: Seminar Press; 141-166.

Green, Miranda
1997 Celtic Art: Symbols and Imagery. London: Calman & King.
[Light reading geared for a general audience. Very well illustrated; the text has its good and bad points]

Haseloff, G.
1987 Insular Animal Styles with Special Reference to Irish Art in the Early Medieval Period. In Michael Ryan (ed.), Ireland and Insular Art AD 500-1200. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy; 44-55.

Henry, Françoise
1965 Irish Art in the Early Christian Period (to 800 A.D.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
[An old but still useful survey of early Christian art in Ireland]

Meehan, Aidan
1993 Celtic Design: Spiral Patterns. New York: Thames and Hudson.
[Recommended as the best introduction to creating ancient Celtic art, though this is not the subject to which the book is devoted]

Megaw, J. V. S.
1970 Art of the European Iron Age. New York: Harper & Row.
[A work of sublime scholarship, indispensible for the serious student of ancient Celtic art]

The Desborough Mirror (after Megaw and Megaw 1989: 222)
Megaw, J. V. S. and Megaw, M. R.
1989 Celtic Art. New York: Thames and Hudson.
[Recommended as the best introduction to the study of ancient Celtic art. Lavishly illustrated, and contains the perfect blend of accessible and serious material - note the bibliography at the end for those who wish to take their studies further]

Nordenfalk, Carl
1987 One Hundred and Fifty Years of Varying Views on the Early Insular Gospel Books. In Michael Ryan (ed.), Ireland and Insular Art AD 500-1200. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy; 1-6.
[a fairly detailed overview of the history of the study of Insular art, in particular manuscript illumination, from the 1830s to the date of publication]

Raftery, B. et al. (eds.)
1990 Celtic Art (Unesco Collection of Representative works: Art Album Series). Paris: Flammarion.

Roth, U.
1987 Early Insular Manuscripts: Ornament and Archaeology, with Special Reference to the Dating of the Book of Durrow. In Michael Ryan (ed.), Ireland and Insular Art AD 500-1200. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy; 23-9.

Thomas, C.
1987 The Earliest Christian Art in Ireland and Britain. In Michael Ryan (ed.), Ireland and Insular Art AD 500-1200. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy; 7-11.

Schwappach, F.
1976 L'art Ornamental du "Premier Style" Celtique. In P.-M. Duval and C. Hawkes (eds.), Celtic Art in Ancient Europe: Five Protohistoric Centuries. London: Seminar Press; 61-110.

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