Ancient Celtic Art

The art of the Celts is generally associated with ornamental artistry that is comprised of repetitive patterns, spirals, knots, foliage, and animal forms. Celtic art is essentially easy to identify because of these recognizable features, but the Celts themselves are more difficult to define. Celtic people are associated with a wide geographical area and their traditions are rooted in various cultures throughout long stretches of time.

By 800 B.C. Celtic art was evident through much of Europe. This continental style of Celtic art, while less sophisticated than later styles, came to rise during the Iron Age. Its designs often show axial symmetry. Often, functional objects like belt hooks or wine vessels were the mediums for early Celtic-style decorative work. This art era, which would come to be known as the Hallstatt period, witnessed the carving of jewelry, beads, statuary, and even tableware.

As Celtic art traditions continued, their style became associated with people of La Tene culture. While La Tene culture developed from the early Iron Age peoples of the region, it shows a marked Mediterranean influence. Celtic traditions became ever more widespread in areas like the British Isles by 500 BC and stretched as far east as the Black Sea. Artistry grew more sophisticated and embodied more classical Mediterranean features. There was certainly a Greek influence and Roman too which is not surprising given the proximity of the competing groups. Metalwork continued to employ telltale Celtic designs that were richly symbolic. Also, the use of red enamel began to appear in various items like amulets and vases.

The Celtic art of Ireland is particularly noteworthy, however, since it remained relatively untouched during the Roman Empire. Its practice of La Tene-style artistry evolved to incorporate Scandinavian influences. Intricate and symbolic silverwork was a popular form of British Isles art. Some famous Celtic art treasures of this area include the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch. Also, certain regions and their people, like the Picts, added their own particular stamp to Celtic art traditions. As time progressed in the British Isles, Filigree work developed a high sophistication and the illumination of texts obtained near legendary status as in the famed Lindisfarne Gospels.

Celtic art often merged with new influences such as Christianity as evidenced by extremely decorative Celtic crosses such as the tenth-century Muiredach’s High Cross. As more Irish monasteries were created, the need for more decorative objects grew. For this reason, Celtic art is frequently associated with Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles, though its rich history also encompasses large tracts of continental Europe. The Middle Ages witnessed a dramatic Celtic Renaissance in Ireland known as Insular Art which is also typically placed under the umbrella of Celtic art. Yet, no matter where Celtic art is found, it tends to employ similar traits like animal ornament, geometric shapes, key patterns, and interlocking loops—designs that are unmistakably Celtic.