Celtic Art
A brief introduction

St. Patrick's Bell Shrine - 11th century

The term Celtic and the  Celtic people themselves are both hard to define and often misunderstood and misinterpreted. It is generally agreed that the roots of the culture began to develop some 4000 years ago in northern Europe with successive waves of settlers moving into and around Britain over the next 2000 years.  It is however, the dawning of the Iron Age sometime between 700 and 500 BC that sees the loose scattered communities amalgamating into the powerful  tribal groups that we now know existed due to the written accounts of the Roman invaders. It is these people that became the Celts of legend and to whom we attribute the first coherent artistic style, known as La Tène. This form of art is characterised by abstract patterns, of spirals, stylised representation of animals and plants and occasionally the distorted forms of their gods heads. With the coming of the Romans, the Celtic tribes were organised into a form of semi-autonomous provincial governing bodies known as civitates and the artists borrowed many of the techniques and technologies that their new rulers brought with them. Artwork was applied increasingly to functional objects - brightly enamelled horse trappings and brooches both became very popular. 
After the Romans had left Britain in the 5th century and during the following Dark Ages, the invading Anglo-Saxons continued some of the Celtic art traditions in their own work, such as the bronze bowl decorated with scrolls and red enamel found in the burial ship at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. However, it was in the areas that had remained largely out of the control of the Romans, such as Ireland and the north of Britain, areas that were now Christianised, that Celtic art flourished. The great illuminated Gospels of Lindisfarne, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells all from around the 7-8th century, feature brightly coloured 

Celtic Tribal Britain at the 
time of the Roman conquest

and intricately interlaced patterning, sometimes including human and animal forms and highly ornate illuminated Latin script. Similarly, carved stone crosses of the period feature complicated panels of interlacing as well as scenes from the old and new testament. Metalwork, consisting of brooches, chalices, processional crosses and reliquaries (caskets for relics) made from gold, silver, bronze and copper with filigree interlacing and studs of enamel and crystal represent probably the culmination of the artist's skills, and continued to be made until the 12th century when the monastic tradition was replaced by the more formal Episcopal church model that was now widespread throughout Europe The golden age of Celtic art now came to a close, only to resurface again in the 19th and 20th century, as many new artists began to draw from it's rich heritage, sometimes to emulate the styles and techniques of past work, others to take it's influence and use it to create new and exciting art that carries the Celtic tradition on into a new millennium.

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