When the general public pictures Celtic art what generally comes to mind are pictish stones, Insular high crosses and a tie to Ireland. On the other hand when scholars refer to Celtic art the culture and artistic elements of the La Tène is generally what is considered as the basis of Celtic art. This paper focuses on a more scholarly approach to Celtic art through a discussion on external and internal influences on art, abstraction and patterns, and the cultural and religious influences on material art. One reason such a discussion can occur is due to the availability of artifacts found belonging to Celtic tribes who were able to keep their society intact until about 70 AD. The Celts were able to keep their society intact by, “[responding] eagerly to other cultures and [becoming] active transmitters, through trade, to their neighbors.” A major artistic transmission came from drawing on Greek designs that were incorporated into Celtic art.
The strongest influence of Greek design can be seen in Celtic stone temples that were of Greek design and not their own. This heavy influence was due to the fact that stone was the material that has lasted through the centuries which the Celts liked least to work in. As a distaste for the material ensued the Celts were therefore, “more susceptible to foreign influence.” Greek influence was also transmitted into Celtic floral ornamentation. In contrast to their willingness to adopt stone temple designs without deviation the same style guidelines are not applied to the borrowed use of floral ornaments. “Celtic artist took over and reproduced even the smallest details of Greek floral ornament, but they did not feel bound by the original system, but broke it down into ‘meaningless’ individual elements from which they could create something new.” This meant that the Celts developed their own artistic style based on abstraction that, “despite heavy borrowings from Scythian and Greek models” was uniquely their own. This element of abstraction within Celtic society came to a high point in the La Tène period.
The fondness for abstraction in the La Tène period resulted in the sometimes gemetocizing of patterns along with motifs consisting of, “S-shapes, arabesques, chevrons, and many others.” The abstraction of the images on Greek coinage in Celtic tribes displays a prominent example of abstraction within pictures and not purely within design motifs.
“For instance the reduction of faces to triangle forms or in the rendering of hair by straight lines drawn back from the forehead, or in the reduction of the joints of an animal’s legs to mere circles; sometimes abstraction of a more fluid type, in powerful swinging curves or wild whorls and volutes.”
The abstraction on Celtic coinage was also displayed in the beard and hair of individuals on acquired Greek currency. The use of abstraction was not the only artistic change made to foreign currency in Celtic society over the years. The artistic changes made to the Gallo-Belgic B issue reveal an important cultural aspect of Celtic society through art on coinage.
“The Gallo-Belgic B issue,” was the first coin to be released in Britain in any substantial amount. One one side of the coin the image was of a “horse drawn charioteer, on the other was the beardless head of Apollo.” In Celtic Britain the horse and chariot had been replaced by a lone horse “which was one of the most potent symbols of the Celtic world.” In his work, Visions of Power: Imagery and Symbols In Late Iron Age Britain John Credington states that the horse was culturally significant due to the role it held in inauguration ceremonies of Celtic Kings. The Celts believed for society to flourish the proper king must marry, ‘the land herself, or the local goddess of sovereignty.” The horse therefore held a special position in these ceremonies either as being explicitly involved or involved in a symbolic nature. The involvement of horses might entail, “the use of a horsewhip on a man. Or it could involve the king getting down on all fours as if in imitation of a horse.” In the initiation of King O Conchobhair the king got on all fours and allowed an ecclesiastical to climb on his back before proceeding to climb aboard the horse of the king. Speculation can be made about the role of the horse as an intermediary figure between the divine and human kind or as representation of deity. The reduction of the image on the Gallo-Belgic issue to simply that of the horse was due to cultural significance rather than merely the love of the abstract. The image of a horse on Celtic coinage continued until the Roman conquest of Britain. At about this same time a large profusion of stone heads had also been produced in Britain in large part due to the emphasis Celtic religion placed on the head.
“According to Paul Jacobsthal, ‘Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world.’ ” As part of this worship of the head, the Celts practiced ritualized head hunting on enemies. This naturally was then incorporated into their art and many simply carved heads were created as part of a head cult in Celtic religion. These stone heads often had no neck or torso and were representations of deities in head form alone. Here again abstraction can be seen the simply carved features of the head. This was because, “the Celts believed realism and mimesis of the human form was unnecessary in divine image making… [and] there may have been a conscious attempt at a kind of divine ‘short-hand’ or reduction to essentials” to make the head stand out even more.
This meant that if a neck or body was attached the torso would be virtually unmolded to make the head even more prominent. “ It has been suggested that some Celtic stone heads were produced as cult objects to be used as surrogates for actual decapitated human heads.” It has also been found that some of these stone heads had depressions in them for offerings of real human heads, other offerings, and venerative practices. These stone heads were made even after the Roman conquest of Britain but with more details and realism as Roman image making leaned more to portraiture. The stone heads with more realism were a product of the popular districts with more exposure to Roman influence. In the outlying regions traditional unadulterated methods of simple Celtic stone head making prevailed and Celtic art went through a Renaissance because of these backwater regions. This is why Celtic art and society was able to hang on for an extended amount of time and left behind a great profusion of material art
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