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Monday, May 4, 2009

This is “KNOT” Celtic Art? What does the term “Celtic Art” mean to you?

Many people refer to Celtic art in the belief that the term relates to a homogeneous form of art. However, it is important to recognize that it was actually quite varied and that it changed over a considerable period of time. For instance, an object that was made around 500 BC would have been somewhat different from something created around the birth of Christ.

To add further complication to the name, today there appears to be a great deal of political correctness concerning what actually constitutes being Celtic. There are numerous descriptions of the currently very popular “Celtic knotwork”, “Celtic interlace” or “Celtic Christian art”, a form that consists of the complex interweaving of lines, curves and geometric patterns, as well as minutely detailed “Celtic letters”. Such work relates to the substantially later Christian art style and illuminated gospels from Ireland that was produced in the 6th century AD by Saxon Christian monks. Although it is very attractive, it is quite different from the art produced by the ancient Celts who actually left few written records. Such art did, however, arise in the context of existing artistic traditions with roots firmly embedded within ancient Iron Age artistic design.

The label is also frequently applied to the elaborate spiral, concentric circle, and curve designs and motifs that were carved into the rocks by earlier Neolithic megalith builders in Britain. Prehistoric megalithic art can be found in many parts of west and northwest Europe (particularly in Ireland, Brittany and Iberia) and the practice continued into the Bronze Age. Like early Celtic art, it tends to be highly abstract, with relatively few representations of identifiable objects (for instance, the decorated stones in the chambered tomb at Newgrange even boasts a triple-spiral image). However, megalithic art existed long before the Celtic culture had even arrived.

Nowadays, we also see a great deal of jewellery and even tattoos being produced in distinctive and extravagant knotwork style that incorporates animal shapes. There are numerous websites offering Celtic clip art with “gripping beasts”. These, however, show strong Viking influence and are certainly not Celtic in its original sense.

“Early Celtic art” is essentially used to represent a group of distinctly decorated artifacts found across a great part of Europe during the later Iron Age and early Roman periods (although it also continued to influence other artistic designs). This art relates to the Hallstatt (around the 8th century BC) and, later, La Tène (5th Century BC) styles, which are named after two sites of major Celtic archaeological finds, in modern-day Austria and Switzerland, respectively. Celtic peoples north of the Alps transformed imported classical designs from Italy and Greece into something new. The fusion of formulaic classical design with indigenous Celtic patterns led to wonderful abstract art with intricate curvilinear motifs. La Tène art was basically an extension of the Hallstatt stylized figurative style, but it included bolder and more abstract designs. Four main styles that were identified by Paul Jacobsthal in his classic Early Celtic Art (1944) are now generally accepted for the La Tène period: the Early Style, the Waldalgesheim Style, the Plastic Style, and the Sword Style. Celtic art has been found on various objects from household utensils and jewellery to warrior equipment. It is present primarily on metal artifacts but also on some pottery, and only occasionally on stone. For more information, please click here.

The term “Celtic art” is without a doubt problematical to define, as it seems to encompass a vastness of time, geography and cultures. I realize (and am delighted) that today’s artists interested in Celtic art need to add their own creativity and interpretation into producing something that is attractive for today’s market. But should the term Celtic art really be applied to this more modern phenomenon or should it be reserved solely for the ancient Celts? Ought there be a more appropriate term to use for later representations that will still acknowledge its connection to ancient Celtic forms? Or is the term better applied to all art – both old and new - that has some relation to its ancient form? What do you think? Comments are very welcome.


  1. Your actual celtic art was circles and swirls. This knotwork comes via Ireland/Scotland via the Vikings afaik, so it is Viking art, not Celtic. By calling it Celtic we are being cultural hijackers.

    Whenever I think Celtic I think la-tene style, not this stuff.

  2. Thank you for your comment. This piece of art comes from Dover Publications so-called "Celtic Letters and Ornaments".) Coming from the field of archaeology & heritage, I obviously also associate the term Celtic art with the Ancient Celts, (Hence, I decided to apply questions marks to the graphic). However, it seems very difficult to get a consensus on this particular issue.

  3. "Celtic Art" is just a popular trade mark, there are some styles all Celtic ones and all different ones. The right and academic words to talk about Celtic art are Hallstatt and La Tene for the Iron Age styles, and Insular Art for the Middle Age styles.


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