The history of Celtic art in Continental Europe

Celtic Art 'Detail of a bronze decoration from a wooden bucket (1st BCE) from a rich necropolis in Aylesford, Kent, England.
Celtic Art 'Detail of a bronze decoration from a wooden bucket (1st BCE) from a rich necropolis in Aylesford, Kent, England.
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The Celtic art of Continental Europe didn’t arrive in the British Isles until around the fifth century BC, but it soon became popular. So much so, in fact, that this distinctive visual language survived in these islands long after it had died out everywhere else, writes Venceslas Kruta

The roots of Celtic settlement in Great Britain probably go back to the arrival of groups of the Bell Beaker culture in the second half of the third millennium BC, as do those in the rest of central and western Europe. However, there were certainly later arrivals who grafted onto a population that was without question already largely Celtic or Celticized. The oldest record of the two great islands on the western side of Europe, Hibernia and Albion – modern Ireland and Great Britain, called Eriu and Albu in old Irish – is said to be in the tale by a Carthaginian sailor called Himilcon. Around the end of the sixth century BC or early in the next century, he sailed up the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, confronted the dangers of the sea fogs, haunted by sea monsters, and after four months, arrived at the islands he called the Oestrymnides, probably off the south coast of Armorica, whose inhabitants traded with the British Isles. About two centuries later, when Alexander the Great had invaded as far as the Indus, Pytheas, a Greek from Marseille, undertook a voyage, which is said to have taken him far beyond the Columns of Hercules (Gibraltar), as far as the legendary countries of the North, which were good sources of amber and tin. He recounted the tale of his voyage as far as the shores of the Baltic and perhaps even Iceland (Thule), in a lost work entitled On the Ocean. Greek and Latin writers cite the story, often with incredulity. Pytheas identified the peninsula of Ostimioi, probably the Osismii, which in the time of Caesar covered the area that is now the Finistère region. Its name meant “the furthest away” in Celtic, in other words the “people at the end of the world”. After sailing past the western shore of this large peninsula, Kabaïon cape (pointe du Raz or de Penmarc’h) and the island of Ouxisama (Ouessant), he sailed towards the great islands that he was the first to name as prettanikai (British), and sailed along the coasts of Great Britain. He travelled along the south coast, westwards, from Belerion cape (the Lizard?) and then turned north, between Great Britain and Ireland, as far as the Orkas islands (Orkney Islands). On the return, he sailed down the east coast, along a promontory he called Kantion (Kent), almost opposite the mouth of a Continental river (the Rhine), where the coast abruptly changed direction and turned westwards in the direction of the tin deposits of Cornwall near the cape Belerion, which he had already identified. The names of places and of peoples mentioned in these two accounts confirm beyond any possible doubt the ancient roots of the Celtic origin of settlement in the British Isles.

However, it was not until Caesar’s expeditions, in 55 and 54 BC, that the islands were finally recorded. In Gallic Wars, he describes the local people as follows: “The interior of Britain is peopled with inhabitants who, according to oral tradition, call themselves natives of the soil; on the coast live the peoples who came from Belgium to pillage and make war (almost all of them bear the names of the cities from where they came): these men, after the war, stayed in the region and became colonists.” Clearly, the natives are descendants from the Celtic or Celticized people, encountered by Himilcon and Pytheas, while the bellicose immigrants from Belgium came from incursions into the British Isles by warrior groups, who criss-crossed Europe in the first decades of the third century BC. After they returned from the great expedition in 280 BC, these warrior groups settled in various regions, including the north of what is now France and its surrounding areas. Celtic art does not appear to have been emulated in the British Isles in the fifth century, except perhaps in the stamped pottery from Armorica, an ornamental technique diffused from northern Italy. This was despite early contact between the islands and the Continent, based mainly on the tin trade, but also encouraged by the proximity of the Thames estuary. A few influences from the Continent, most likely from the Champagne region, reached the Thames estuary, and even upstream of London, in the middle of the fifth century, but do not appear to have brought any significant elements of Celtic art. The Celto-Italic fashion of the following century has only a few, probably late echoes. Unfortunately, as is often the case in the British Isles, the objects in question are difficult to date, because it is rare to find them in contexts that can be firmly dated. The currently known works from the British Isles show the significant role played by the arrival of groups led by the military elite in the formation of local art, which brought Celtic art to its high level of advancement. Indeed, the works that are most representative of early British art, for example the shield from the river Witham or some Irish scabbards, are close to the high-status weapons that warriors took on their travels during the first half of the third century BC, mainly from the area around the Danube, and then spreading throughout Europe. Other characteristic objects – particularly sorts of fibula, torque and bracelet – confirm that the islands rapidly assimilated this wave of novelties. The themes seen on the objects brought by the newcomers were already familiar in the British Isles. The fact that they were celebrated in pictures fully corresponded with the fondness of the local elite for showing off their esoteric knowledge.

In this way, the language of images created on the Continent was a great success in the islands and had after-effects, which extended the principles and even developed some aspects. This was particularly true for designs created with compasses, which achieved an unparalleled complexity and richness on British mirrors. We can see the people’s fascination for the interlinking of flowing lines, for curves and reverse curves derived from the adaptation of the foliate scroll and other plant motifs. There is here a set of subtle allusions, where abstract and representational art meet: a few alterations convert a palmette into a sketch of a face or a mask, which wavers between being a man and an animal. Part of a foliate scroll converts into a silhouette of an imaginary bird. The image is a symbol of an enchanted forest, haunted by friendly or malevolent monsters, by fleeting indefinable shadows, by strange beings, owing as much to the observer’s whims and sense of humour as to their creator’s imagination. The horse’s head mask from Stanwick illustrates the complete mastery of this virtuoso language of multi-purpose images, whose only Continental equivalents after the third century are on coins. The Roman conquest of Great Britain, which began under the Emperor Claudius in the year 43, was never completed, and Ireland retained its independence. Even in regions subjected to Roman rule, traditional art forms were not abandoned. This can be seen in works such as the Paillart harness-plate, found in a Gallo-Roman site in the north of France, indicating its late date. The plate combines a skilful and rigorous design with compasses, with the use of coloured champlevé enamel, in red and yellow in this case, but blue also appeared on other objects. The special meaning of red has already been suggested in relation to coral. It is possible that other colours also held a meaning that went beyond the purely decorative. The mastery of enamelling by Celtic craftsmen was so renowned that Philostratus of Lemnos, a Greek sophist in the imperial period, describes it when discussing white, yellow, black and red: “It is said that the barbarians who live next to the Ocean know how to pour these colours onto red-hot copper where they fuse together, take on the consistency of stone and preserve the designs that have been drawn there.” Although it was influenced by ornamental Roman art, the later work of the islands retained the originality of Celtic art long after it had died out on the Continent. So in later years, the work inspired the imagery of Christian art at the dawn of the Middle Ages that the missionaries from Ireland and Scotland would take to the Continent.

This is an extract from Celtic Art by the French archaeologist and historian Venceslas Kruta, published by Phaidon, price £39.95. The book spans the entire Celtic world, from Ireland to France, Italy to Hungary, the Czech Republic to Germany and Austria, and features art and artefacts made between the fifth century BC and the eighth century AD