Celtic Design and History

he original Celtic peoples flourished more than 2000 years ago. They created a style of design rich in symbols and motifs, which has been handed down to present generations through illustrated manuscripts, carved stonework, exquisite jewellery and beautifully ornamented religious artefacts.

he Celtic peoples were a series of tribes linked by culture and language. They were supra national, traded and co-operated with each other. The tribes included amongst others the Iceni, Gauls, Galations and Celtiberians. During the Roman period many of the Celtic peoples were pushed into tough and less hospitable areas and became known for their hardiness, resourcefullness and ability to survive in adverse circumstances. Whilst the Central European Celtic strongholds were subdued by the Romans, the culture survived laregly unchanged in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and parts of France. The Celts were widely respected for their metal working and artistic skills.

re Christian Celts believed that water was the dwelling place of various beneficial spirits. The belief was widespread throughout the Celtic kingdoms and led to a substantial number of rich archeological Celtic shrine sites associated with lakes.

ith the advent of Christianity, many of the designs rooted deep in Celtic culture were incorporated in Christian Celtic art. This led to magnificent illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, The Book of Durrow, The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Durham. Many Celtic Crosses carved from stone date from this period and have survived to the present day. The crosses show regional characteristics. The Irish crosses for instance tend to have larger bases and heads than the Welsh or Cornish examples. The Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois is an excellent example. The cross is finely carved with detail of the Last Judgement. It also includes Ciaran and Diarmuid, the founders of Clonmacnois. The Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice has carving to represent Doubting Thomas and the Arrest of Christ. The crosses often carried classic Celtic knotwork, animals, trees or symbology and occassionally scenes from everyday life. Many of the finest examples of Celtic metalwork were made for the Church. The Clonmacnois Crozier (a Bishops Crook), the Soiscel Molaise (a book shrine) and the shrine of St. Patrick's bell are beautifully decorated with knotwork and Celtic motifs and include precious and semi-precious gems. The pieces are on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

uch of Celtic design is based upon intricate interlaced patterns, sometimes with knotwork and spirals. Some is dated to as early as 700 BC during the Iron Age, (Hallstatt "C") but most sources identify the La Tene culture (480 BC) as start of the Celtic expansion. La Tene is a site in Switzerland (next to Lake Neuchatel) where a large number of Celtic objects have been found. Because this site was occupied over a long period it has provided an important view on Celtic life. As in most cultures, Celtic design has been through fashion and change. Historians have divided Celtic design into four main headings :

Early Style : emerging around 480 BC. Utilises geometric motifs drawn from Greek or Oriental influence.

Waldalgesheim : after about 350 BC. Named after a princely chariot grave. Developed from Early style but generally more intricate and detailed.

Plastic Style : after about 290 BC. Animals and humans are incorporated into designs, often in stylised and three dimensional form.

Sword Style : after around 190 BC. The period marked a change to more abstract designs, often based on previous styles, but flatter and more drawn out in form.

 An ancient Celtic "Lanulla" or neckplate is so named because of its resemblance to the shape of a crescent moon. It is a derived design from the Celtic torc, which is a twisted wire shape also of crescent shape, often rich in decoration. The torc was a badge of rank and power, worn by Celtic Kings. During the later Celtic period the torc was worn by both sexes. Classical writers reported that Boudicca, feared Queen of the Iceni, wore a golden neckring into her battles with the Romans. The Snettisham hoard, discovered in the Iceni area of Norfolk, contained one of the largest cache of torcs yet found. The use of the lanulla design, with a rich variety of decoration was widespread and incorporated also within smaller items, such as brooches. Celtic examples of the design have been found in Killarney, Elisreid, St.Germain and Goldsborough.

 

An early Celtic Chalice.

A Celtic gold button-like fastener.

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