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Celtic Autumn Leaves by foxvox

Celtic Art - A Look In History

Written by KovoWolf for projecteducate

 There is something so unique and so humbling about Celtic art that we can immediately recognize it when we see it, though it is difficult to truly describe as a single 'medium'. With intricate designs, swirls, and beautiful knotwork however Celtic art is also a medium that you can recognize when you see it. Because Celtic art covers a huge expanse of time, geography and throughout various cultures, it can present some difficulty when trying to term or define what Celtic art truly is.

Celtic art and culture date back as far as the 8th century B.C generally refers to the culture of the European Iron Age from around 1000 BC onwards, until the conquest by the Roman Empire. The Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland, which produced the Book Of Kells and other masterpieces that are well known today and can be associated with "celtic art".

In this article I will be focusing on the beginnings of Ancient Celtic art and on the different kinds of art and variations throughout time.  

What Is Celtic Art?

"Celtic art is the art associated with the peoples known as Celts; those who spoke the Celtic languages in Europe from pre-history through to the modern period, as well as the art of ancient peoples whose language is uncertain, but have cultural and stylistic similarities with speakers of Celtic languages.

A case has been made for artistic continuity in Europe from the Bronze Age, and indeed the preceding Neolithic age however archaeologists generally use "Celtic" to refer to the culture of the European Iron Age from around 1000 BC onwards, until the conquest by the Roman Empire of most of the territory concerned, and art historians typically begin to talk about "Celtic art" only from the La Tène period (broadly 5th to 1st centuries BC) onwards.[1] "Early Celtic art" is another term used for this period, stretching in Britain to about 150 AD.[2] 

The Early Medieval art of Britain and Ireland, which produced the Book of Kells and other masterpieces, and is what "Celtic art" evokes for much of the general public in the English-speaking world, is called Insular art in art history. This is the best-known part, but not the whole of, the Celtic art of the Early Middle Ages, which also includes the Pictish art of Scotland.[3]   

Celtique by emilieleger

Both styles absorbed considerable influences from non-Celtic sources, but retained a preference for geometrical decoration over figurative subjects, which are often extremely stylised when they do appear; narrative scenes only appear under outside influence.[4] Energetic circular forms, triskeles and spirals are characteristic. Much of the surviving material is in precious metal, which no doubt gives a very unrepresentative picture, but apart from Pictish stones and the Insular high crosses, large monumental sculpture, even with decorative carving, is very rare; possibly the few standing male figures found, like the Warrior of Hirschlanden and the so-called "Lord of Glauberg", were originally common in wood. 

Also covered by the term is the visual art of the Celtic Revival (on the whole more notable for literature) from the 18th century to the modern era, which began as a conscious effort by Modern Celts, mostly in the British Isles, to express self-identification and nationalism, and became popular well beyond the Celtic nations, and whose style is still current in various popular forms, from Celtic cross funerary monuments to interlace tattoos.  Coinciding with the beginnings of a coherent archaeological understanding of the earlier periods, the style self-consciously used motifs closely copied from works of the earlier periods, more often the Insular than the Iron Age. Another influence was that of late La Tène "vegetal" art on the Art Nouveau movement.

Typically, Celtic art is ornamental, avoiding straight lines and only occasionally using symmetry, without the imitation of nature central to the classical tradition, often involving complex symbolism. Celtic art has used a variety of styles and has shown influences from other cultures in their knotwork, spirals, key patterns, lettering, zoomorphics, plant forms and human figures. As the archaeologist Catherine Johns put it: "Common to Celtic art over a wide chronological and geographical span is an exquisite sense of balance in the layout and development of patterns. Curvilinear forms are set out so that positive and negative, filled areas and spaces form a harmonious whole. Control and restraint were exercised in the use of surface texturing and relief. Very complex curvilinear patterns were designed to cover precisely the most awkward and irregularly shaped surfaces".[5]

The Beginning

Art historians have categorized Celtic art into four basic periods. Those being Hallstatt, La Tène, Early Christian, and Late Christian or Insular. The Hallstatt Period of Celtic Art was named for a site in Austria that contained a quantity of Celtic works of art created during the iron age in approximately 800 BC. Objects included decorated vessels, ornamental weaponry, jewelry, and horse accessories. The ornamentation in these objects where mostly that of geometric patterns based on Greek and Oriental motifs.

Triskel - Oak spirit by delfee

Interestingly enough Celts weren't known for writing things down until later and so they passed their traditions through history by word of mouth and later through their artwork and symbolism. As mentioned above, one beautiful example of this is the Book Of Kells.

The symbolism of Celtic art usually represents or explains how they felt about the universe, life, death and the result of changing seasons. These where very important to the Celts and to those who lived off the land. It reflects the human spirit, the ambitions, desires, aspirations and fears. Perhaps why we, as appreciators of art, can find some sort of personal connection with these beautiful pieces. The beautiful weave of knot work and intricate details that make Celtic art really stand out above the rest.

"The number three was sacred to the ancient Celts, symbolic of life, death, and re-birth which was a matter of fact to them. They worshipped a triple-aspected goddess, the Morrigan, seen as Morrigan, Macha, and Badb. Many of the ancient burial mounds contain 3 chambers, and their art often used configurations of three, a common ancient symbol being the triscele. The triple aspect of the mind, body and spirit is still represented today in many religions."[5]


A Brief Timeline

History of the Celts and artwork

Image credits and content goes to

Hallstatt - 700BC - mainly geometric designs. Hallstatt styles are almost tribal feeling with the geometric designs. Maze type designs and repeated patterns make even simple designs feel complex. As these designs date back to the Bronze age, they are perhaps the most "elemental" feeling of all the styles.

La Tene - 450BC - floral and geometric designs, often designed using compasses and french curves. In this era we see a development of wonderful swirling spirals, cleverly hidden faces and animals are often disguised within the art. Art Nouveau takes a lot of it's design elements from this era. Some examples would be the Holcomb Mirror, Wandsworth Shield, and the Battersea Shield.  La Tene styles are large amounts of spiral and leaf shaped designwork. Shapes of faces and animals may appear and disappear depending on how the design is viewed. Very organic.

Early Christian - 400AD - The spiral is now becoming more uniform, animals and people begin to appear in more recognizable forms. Near the end of this period (600 AD or so) we see an emergence of knotwork interlace, which is to become a defining example of Celtic artwork. Examples would be the Book of Durrow, and the finds at Sutton Hoo.

Late Christian or Insular - 750AD-1000AD - What is considered as the height of Celtic art is reached in works of gold, silver and vellum with jewelry such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Kells manuscript. Complex designs flourish with tiny interlaced animals mixed with spirals and knotwork.

Different Styles Of Celtic Art

Throughout The Ages

Image credits and content goes to

Knotwork Interlace - this is probably the most commonly identified kind of Celtic art. Basically it looks like strands of woven or braided strips that bend and weave amongst themselves. The knotwork panel may be made up of a single strip weaving through itself, or any number of strips. One of the common designs in interlace would be what's normally called the Trinity Knot, which has 3 outer points or petals, and any amount of weavings occurring within the center.

Spirals - spirals may occur in double, triple or quadruple swirls. Spirals are typically joined to one another in either an "S" or a "C" type format. A relative in the spiral family would be the triskel, sometimes called the triskelion, which has 3 arms or curls radiating from a common center.

Spirals usually reflects personal spirit, and an individual's attainment of balance in the inner conciousness and outer self. May also represent the cosmos, heavens, and water (waves). A common spiral type pattern would be the Triskel, thought to represent the Holy Trinity or the Triple Gods/Goddesses of the ancient Celts like the Trinity Knot (above).

Zoomorphics (animals) - typical animals would be the hound, snake, bird (usually either an eagle or peacock), the salmon, and lion. Dragons do not often appear in ancient Celtic art, although Pictish art may show dragons and modern made dragons can also be found in Celtic art. The animals are usually twisted upon themselves, with tails ears and body parts weaving in and out other parts, much like regular knotwork interlace.

Animals usually represented:
Hounds - loyalty
Lions - nobility, strength
Snakes - rebirth (Dragon or serpent designs may be interpreted the same as snakes)
Birds - purity (peacocks) or nobility (eagles)
Salmon - knowledge
Bull - strength
Boar - ferocity, strength

Maze and Step Patterns - maze patterns (also called Key Patterns) look almost like angular spirals, and may range from a few simple turns to complex labyrinth type designs. Step patterns appear to be made up of combined lego type blocks, joined to form tile-like images.

People - men and women are both depicted in Celtic art, with various hairstyles and clothing. Usually their hair and limbs are knotted up much like the knotwork interlace designs. People are drawn either in a full front manner or in perfect profile, never in partial profile.

Art Feature

Creation's Equanimity by CeltiaArtSpiral Patterns by SiluanHunting Games by ZawArtKnotwork Stag Spirit n Vegvisir by Ash-Harrison
celtic viking 5 by roblfc1892Celtic (insomnium) Dragons by FeivelynCeltic Dragons 2 by FeivelynCeltic Snakes outlines by Feivelyn
Mammen Beast All Done by one-rook
Celtic Werewolf by Illahie
Bound together, forever by Illahie































  4. Ancientpeoples
  5. - Art history - Celtic Art
  6. The History and Meaning of Celtic Art


Written by KovoWolf for the Art History Project

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Add a Comment:
christiano2211 Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2014   Traditional Artist
thank you very much!=P (Razz)  for sharing this educational journal Reading 

congratulations ! for your great job Reading Emote 
KovoWolf Featured By Owner Jan 19, 2014  Professional General Artist
My pleasure, glad you enjoyed it! :hug:
savithri Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2014
Thanks for sharing ..good read. 
KovoWolf Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2014  Professional General Artist
Glad you enjoyed it :)
KindCritic Featured By Owner Jan 16, 2014  Student Writer

This could not have come at a more perfect time. I'm learning about literature in England from BC to 1770 AD. The Book of Kells is what we're covering tomorrow.


KovoWolf Featured By Owner Jan 16, 2014  Professional General Artist
xXCamper61Xx Featured By Owner Jan 16, 2014  Student General Artist

KovoWolf Featured By Owner Jan 16, 2014  Professional General Artist
xXCamper61Xx Featured By Owner Jan 17, 2014  Student General Artist
i just love the celts
KovoWolf Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2014  Professional General Artist
Me too :)
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