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The Art and Spirituality of the Celts

Updated on September 22, 2011
From the Book of Kells. The Life of Christ.
From the Book of Kells. The Life of Christ.

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.


Torc design and intricate metal work of the Gundestrup cauldron.
Torc design and intricate metal work of the Gundestrup cauldron.

Sophisticated Society

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.


Celtic torc ring.
Celtic torc ring.

Europe

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.

The Gundestrup cauldron.
The Gundestrup cauldron.
Cernunnos, nature deity in the Gundestrup cauldron.
Cernunnos, nature deity in the Gundestrup cauldron.
Metal work from the La Tene era.
Metal work from the La Tene era.
Ardaugh Celtic art.
Ardaugh Celtic art.
Minerva, goddess of sacred groves.
Minerva, goddess of sacred groves.

Spiritualism

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.

Britain

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.


Celtic fountain.
Celtic fountain.

 Magic

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.

Celtic horses honey-trinity.
Celtic horses honey-trinity.
Albion Celtic cross.
Albion Celtic cross.

Christianity

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.

From the Book of Kells. The four apostles.
From the Book of Kells. The four apostles.
Celtic art in the missionary style.
Celtic art in the missionary style.

 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.

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    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 6 years ago from south Florida

      Fascinating and beautiful story of the Celts. Thank you. tracykarl.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Awesome, Tracy! The artwork of the Celts is so distinctive and seems to have magical properties. A lot of us are descended from that bunch! Thank you for including so many beautiful illustrations.

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      drbj, thanks! The story of the Celts is fascinating ~ and can be researched over and again and continues!

      Dolores, Thanks a lot! There is definitely magic in the art, isn't there ~ and yes a lot of us are from that bunch!! Thanks for the lovely comments.

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 6 years ago

      Tracy I really enjoyed this hub with lots of Celtic heritage I saw many familiar symbols and stories I have heard over the years. Beautiful images.

    • dkrainwater profile image

      dkrainwater 6 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      Very nice hub, keep them going. I love Celtic history.

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Billy, I'm glad you enjoyed this hub. Yes, it is wonderful to recognize the beautiful imagery, symbols and stories and to see how they live on! Thank you!

      Dkrainwater, I'm happy to know that you love Celtic history. Thanks for stopping by and for commenting!

    • JannyC profile image

      JannyC 6 years ago

      I love history of the ancient past. Enjoyed this about the Celtic very much. Ireland has such a rich history too.

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks, Janny, I'm glad to know that you enjoyed this. I love history too ~ any kind, and looking at it from the perspective of its art made the whole endeavor really enjoyable for me. Thanks for the fan mail too!

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

      Really interesting Hub Tracy

      Enjoyed reading that. The Celts have left an amazing cultural legacy to Europe

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Hi Shinkicker! Thanks ~ I'm glad you found this interesting. The history of the Celts in Scotland would be more intriguing still, but perhaps you've already covered that(?) I'm from all branches, I believe, (ha-ha):)

    • eilander1542011 profile image

      eilander1542011 6 years ago from Everywhere

      Another classic hub tracykarl99!

      I must thank you sincerely form the bottom of my heart, your writing this hub, coinciding with my reading it and certain other factors of life entangled to lead me to an extremely enlightened establishment in my FAITH. I have grown as a soul thanks to reading this hub, the Celts were truly a prosperous people, and we are lucky to have their culture to look back upon.

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      eilander, So glad this helped you. I think that writing it helped me, too. But I am continually learning about the Celts and their very complex history and culture. Isn't it amazing that these people lived so long ago; yet, we feel akin to them! Thanks for stopping by.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this fantastic treasure! I loved your Hub. I appreciate your historical research, and your writing skills are par excellence!

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 6 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, James. Given the time, I would love to write another hub about the Celts. The subject-matter is fascinating and extensive, with a splash of mystery! I so appreciate your comments:)

    • profile image

      Catherine 5 years ago

      Tracy, you made a very, very good work. It is excellent. You worked hard to do that .

      Félications de France :)

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Merci! I do appreciate your felicitations ~ it's very heart-warming coming from France!

      Merci pour bonte vous! :)

    • profile image

      Davidwork 5 years ago

      Once again, a hub on a subject that is of interest to me. (I've been interested in history and archaeology since I was 17, back in 1972).

      Very well written, and likely to make many more people aware of an aspect of history they may not be too familiar with.

    • tracykarl99 profile image
      Author

      Tracy 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Thanks again, David! The history of the Celts truly is fascinating and intriguing! History, as well as archaeology, can be explored again and again - which is a gift! I appreciate the accolades ~ :)

    • profile image

      M L Morgan 21 months ago

      Oh, I do so love the Celts. Well researched and written. Thank you, for sharing this article here with us all. :) x

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