The Art and Spirituality of the Celts
A Great Civilization
The Celts, as we have come to know them in the last century, existed thousands of years ago, from the eighth century B.C. in central Europe. Along the serene Lake Hallstatt, a placid body of water surrounded on all shores by jutting hills, these early Hallstatt Celts developed a sophisticated means of trade in mining and gathering the rich salt deposits of the Salzburg Mountains.
Beliefs about the Barbarian tribes have changed over the last century, as Austrian archeologists came upon graves near Hallstatt, which contained a bounteous store of fine artifacts. From Salzburg, archeologists followed the migratory movement of these early Celtic people all over Europe, including the southwest of Spain, through the Mediterranean and into Turkey.
Greek and Roman stereotypes depict the Celts as barbaric war-mongering brutes. But, as with all prejudices, it is an uninformed view born of some ignorance.
The Celts developed complex societies all over central and northern Europe, and they used forms of language, spoken as well as written, that the classicists did not understand.
These dynamic, Celtic people established their place in the world not only with their warrior status, but largely through magnificent drawings, carvings and metal work. Their highly skilled craftsmanship expressed itself out of a religion which had its basis in the spiritualism of nature: nature gods, mutable beings or animals, and nature itself. These themes, astonishingly, resonate back through to the Irish, Scottish and Welsh Celtic tradition as well as medieval Ireland.
The Hallstatt Celts were a worldly society of aristocratic wealth who were buried with spectacular treasures representative of the iron age culture. Gilded masks of superior design-work have been recovered. Gold torcs, or neck-rings, representative of high status were found in Northern Spain from the second to first centuries B.C..
Celtic power ranged from Bohemia and Germany to Turkey, Italy, Spain and throughout Europe and later on into Britain and Ireland. Hallstatt chieftains traded with Greek colonies along the Rhone as well as Classical Mediterranean lands.
Deities presiding over sacred waters, as lakes, were usually goddesses. Water, especially lakes, rivers and streams were very symbolic and were thought to have supernatural healing powers. People would throw weapons and jewelry into the water as sacrifices to the deities for healing or protection.
All throughout Europe the waters were powerful, spiritual sources. Many of the important rivers in Europe and the British Isles were named for their deities. For example, the SieneRiver in France was named for the deity, Sequana, and her healing sanctuary lay at the headwaters in Burgundy.
European baths derive from the Mediterranean and Celtic cultures. Bath, England, for instance, represents a connection to the culture of the bath sanctuary and the goddess Minerva, the Classical daughter of Jove; queen of fountains and sacred springs; and dispenser of cures, wisdom, protection and justice.
La Tene Art
From the fifth century B.C., exquisite La Tene art was created within cosmopolitan societies around Europe, centering in what is now Trier. Beautiful, Romano-Celtic bronze statues and superbly molded gold cauldrons, open-work bowls and spectacular brooches display all of the original techniques used in the Hallstatt and La Tene periods. Trading would remain pivotal to their survival. But, eventually, through warring with Greek, Roman and finally Germanic tribes, these Celtic cultures died out on the European continent.
Amidst wars, raids and plunder, the Celts survived in Britain, until around 43 A.D. when the Romans solidified their conquest across the English Channel. From ten B.C., chieftains hired craftsmen to carve depictions from nature into artifacts, jewelry and wares: leaves, flowers, trees and beasts can be seen molded expertly into the artistry of these Celtic treasures. Coins were eventually minted after the Mediterranean styles, and also adapted with ancient classical symbolism, including chariots, horses and, for example, Apollo Minerva. These designs were translated into the Celtic horse and shield imagery on Celtic coins.
Moreover, ornate brooches and jewelry of gold, silver-gilt and copper with inlayed enamel and millefiori glass of brilliant colors, in the early European Celtic tradition, have been found in Ireland from the eighth century.
The Celts always thought of the seas as conduits between realms, and sea life was considered to be magic. Animal deities, beginning in Europe, include the horned stag known as Cernunnos, “horned sacred one”. He represented prosperity and abundance in nature. The stag god comes in different forms, always with horns, which symbolize regenerative power. Metamorphoses of the gods is a Classical tradition which is translated through the Celtic-Germanic style of twisting, spiraling animal figures that shape-shift themselves into what has become the familiar Celtic knot of painting and illustration.
St. Patrick established Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century CE, building a missionary there for purposes of art and learning. Missionaries, over the next two centuries created inspired works of art on porous, calf skin paper to write the gospels and carry these beautiful manuscripts with them as they traveled from Ireland to Switzerland, the seat of the Celtic culture, and down into Northern Italy.
Christianity flourished in Ireland during this time, and monasteries were established in Kells, Durrow and Armagh as centers for learning and ascetic discipline. Indeed, the period from 600-800 AD is known as the Golden Age of Ireland. The manuscripts consist of the four New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, hand written in biblical Latin, a translation called the Vulgate; they are beautifully illustrated with luminous, hand-painted designs of the swirls, spirals and floral motifs that go back to the La Teine style of Celtic art.
Portions of the manuscripts were accomplished in the islands of Lindisfarne and Iona. Particular care in rendering the glorious “cross pages” imperfect became a peculiarity of perfectionism for the Lindisfarne illustrators, so as not to overstep the absolute perfection of God. The spectacular beauty of the illustrations belies the astonishingly limited palette provided for the work of these missionary scribes. Yellow orpiment was used for the luminous gold color, pink and purple from plant pigments, and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan were used to depict apostles, saints and angles with splendid beauty. The elaborate decorations were drawn with remarkable sophistication, and have been said to be the work of angels.
Mediterranean and Irish Christian traditions
These beautiful epistolary renderings of the four evangelists are depicted with Greek lettering and bordered by colorful, Celtic swirls and leaf shapes, to create a wonderful mixture of Classical, Pagan and Christian motifs. Capital letters are emphasized, to discern between texts, with meticulous detail, describing the life of Christ alongside nature deities, angels, or animal divinities.
Evangelical animal symbols of the Christian Celtic tradition stand out as divine decoration: the Peacock representing the resurrected Christ, the lion representing St. Mark, a fierce eagle for St. John, the religious symbolism of the ox for St. Luke, and a man or angel as St. Matthew.
The surviving manuscript is known as The Book of Kells. After having escaped the Viking raids and fleeing throughout Ireland, the island of Iona in Scotland and points in Britain and Whales, the monks returned to Ireland and converged finally in Kells, where much of the book was completed. Today, the book remains an Irish national treasure.