Early Medieval Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland: A Curator’s Perspective

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Gundestrup Cauldron. Silver. Gundestrup, northern Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. © The National Museum of Denmark.

Martin Goldberg, Senior Curator, Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums of Scotland

The British Museum’s successful exhibit, Celts: Art and Identity, will be moving to Edinburgh in the New Year to showcase its splendid display of Celtic art, culture and daily life at the National Museum of Scotland between March 10 – September 25, 2016.

This was an ambitious undertaking; the partnership between the Museums of Scotland and the British Museum allowed the exhibition to expand beyond what either institution could have accomplished on its own. It’s enabled the museums to bring a much larger, diverse display to visitors, covering an impressive 2,500 year period.

Martin Golberg, Senior Curator at the National Museums of Scotland, travelled to the British Museum to give audiences perspective on the various pieces in the exhibit as well as an introduction to what constitutes “Celtic” art.

“Celtic”, as we know it, has many meanings and has changed significantly over time. Goldberg asked, ‘What connects objects like the Gundestrup cauldron and Victorian Celtic paintings like, Edward Atkinson Hornel’s (1864-1933), The Druids Bring in the Mistletoe?’ The Gundestrup cauldron was made between the 200 BC – 300 AD. It is currently on display at the British Museum as part of the Celts exhibit. What’s interesting about the piece, according to Goldberg, is that it wasn’t made in what we traditionally think of as a Celtic part of the world. It was discovered in Denmark in 1891, yet it is considered a Celtic piece. Fast forward 1,800 years and in, The Druids Bring in the Mistletoe, the figure in the front of the painting is holding a Bronze Age gold lunula, harkening back to a Celtic past. This painting was part of the popular Celtic Revival (Celtic Twilight) that occurred during the nineteenth century. The image paints a romantic picture of the Celts, one that we are used to seeing; it marries pieces of the ancient Celtic past with Victorian notions of what it meant to be “Celtic”. The two pieces, the cauldron and painting, seem worlds apart yet are identified under the same umbrella as “Celtic”. How did this come to pass?

Martin Goldberg, Senior Curator, Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums of Scotland talking about Celtic art at the British Museum. Photo by

Martin Goldberg, Senior Curator, Scottish History and Archaeology, National Museums of Scotland talking about Celtic art at the British Museum. Photo by

What is Celtic About Early Medieval Insular Art?
Are there any attributes that unify Celtic Art? Goldberg stated, “One thing that does link Celtic Art is a fascination with fantastic creatures. It ties together these very disparate art styles”. Insular Art, from the Latin word insula, meaning ‘island’, covers the early Christian period from approximately 600 – 900 AD, and was particular to the British Isles and Ireland. Insular Art brings different elements together, and even extends as far as the Mediterranean. Prehistoric Celtic Art is called La Tène (Late Iron Age 450 BC – Roman Conquest 1st century AD) and Early Medieval Celtic Art was called Ultimate La Tène/Insular Art. Given the extensive chronology involved in the exhibit, how can we classify a piece as “Celtic”? Is it the spirally stuff or is it the Interlaced Art that we see emblazoned across everything from jewellery, tattoos, mugs , to clothing? Interlaced art was popular in the seventh century when the Christian and Celtic fusion occurred. In terms of where Celtic art was produced, during the Iron Age, it was found across Europe. In the Roman period, Celtic art retreated. In the Early Medieval Period, with Anglo Saxon settlements developing, Celtic art retreated further. Why? One way of looking at this phenomenon was that it didn’t necessarily retreat, but the decline reflected changing variants of Celtic art. Goldberg identified four different types; each period being dramatically different from the others:

Stages of Celtic Art
– A Connected Europe 500 – 150 BC
– Impact of Rome 150 BC – 250 AD
– The Christian World 250 – 900 AD
– Rediscovery and Revival 1500 – 1900

If you compare Christian with Roman art, you see a substantial change in materials: paint, colour, letters, words, manuscripts are all features of Early Christian art. This is a change from the torcs and intricate metalwork of Iron Age Celts. “Metalwork persists but it specifically used for religious pieces, like the Monymusk reliquary (750 AD). You start to get incredible carved stone sculpture.” If the materials changed significantly over time, how do we connect these periods under one Celtic banner? Some motifs that crossed the boundary from Roman to Early Christian art were spiral triskeles, and s-curves. The term triskele comes from the Greek meaning, ‘three legged’. The trickle is found in Iron and Bronze Age pieces but was also used throughout the Early Medieval period and contrary to popular belief, the Romans didn’t kill it off, it changed through the social and cultural fusion occurring in Roman Britain. Goldberg said, “Insular fusion in Celtic art pulls together the the artistic heritage of British and Celtic art from the seventh to the ninth century; it paints a picture of a changing world as Britain and Ireland become Christian.”

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Hunterston brooch. Silver, gold and amber. Hunterston, south-west Scotland, AD 700–800. © National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Interestingly, even though interlace was enthusiastically embraced by artists in Britain and Ireland, Goldberg doesn’t consider it a specifically Celtic marker; it’s seen in places like Germany and as far afield as Egypt. Goldberg brought up an example of that fusion with the Hunterston Brooch (700 AD). It’s typically presented as a Celtic brooch because it contains animals imagery and interlace, and was most likely made in Ireland, but the techniques used have more in common with Anglo Saxon art, like the famous belt buckle from Faversham, England. There were definitely exchanges in processes, materials and motifs that were transforming Britain and Ireland in the seventh century. The Hunterston Brooch demonstrates that, ‘It’s a little snapshot of the various influences coming together and reflects what is happening in society at the time.’

Important Connections in Celtic Art: The Victorian Period
What is Celtic about early medieval insular art? How do we define it? These distinctions go back to the origins of the term Celtic. Sir Daniel Wilson (1816-1892), a Scottish archeologist, was given the task of organising the Scottish collection in the 1840s. Goldberg became interested in Wilson’s work because he wanted to know about the origin of the term Celtic in art. Wilson used the term Celtic to denote early Irish Christian art, and he was the first to make the connection between art in Northern Britain and Ireland. However, Wilson made a mistake: he believed the fundamental thread through all Celtic Art was interlace. Unfortunately, Wilson didn’t put the connection together with earlier periods such as Roman, Bronze and Iron Age pieces. Not long after Wilson’s discoveries, English archeologist and entomologist, John Obadiah Westwood (1805-1893), published his findings on Celtic art in an archaeological journal in 1853. He was interested in the same type of art that Wilson called Celtic, however, he went one further, he took notice of the material related in metal work and extended the Celtic influence back into prehistory. He also made the connection between Prehistoric and Early Christian Celtic art. Westwood made links to the bigger picture and made one important discovery: The spiral motif was non-existent in Wales and Anglo Saxon England. Westwood was taking a stab at characterising regional differences in sculpture. For him, spiral motifs were the key markers of Celtic art. Insular fusion was used by everyone in creating Christian art, it was a universal element. Spiral Art, however, is regionally restricted. The differences tell us that something else was happening in Britain and Ireland, and that the division of art was along ethnic lines: Picts, Gaels, Celts and Anglo Saxons.

Goldberg concluded by suggesting that we can’t rely on an overly simplistic definition of Celtic art. Our modern perceptions have been informed by Victorian definitions of what it means to be Celtic; Celtic art encompasses more than just interlace and spiral motifs. We need to remember that the Celts span a 2,000 year period that is rich with varying expressions a Celtic identity that changed over time. He hopes the collaboration between the National Museums of Scotland and the British Museum for the exhibit will challenge and broaden our ideas of what constitutes Celtic art.

~Sandra Alvarez

Click here for more about Celts: Art and Identity 

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