Celts
art and identity

24 September 2015 –
31 January 2016

#Celts

Organised with
National Museums Scotland

Supported by

In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

Celts
art and identity

 

24 September 2015 – 31 January 2016

 

#Celts

Organised with
National Museums Scotland

Supported by

In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

Art

What is Celtic art?

2,500 years ago, the peoples that the ancient Greeks knew as the Celts expressed their shared beliefs through similar abstract art styles which were used across northern Europe, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Objects decorated with sinuous organic forms and fantastic animals were used for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare. These designs were rich with hidden meanings, many of which remain mysterious to us now. They were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey a shared identity. The development of this Celtic art style contrasted strongly with the increasing realism being used by the ancient Greeks around the same time.

Circular bronze shield boss with a pair of stylised birds. Dredged from the River Thames near Wandsworth, London, 300–200 BC. Drawing by Craig Williams.

Celtic art continued in Roman Britain, transforming and taking on new influences. In the exhibition you’ll see objects made using typically Roman forms and technologies, such as multi-coloured enamelling, but decorated in characteristic Celtic motifs. Local people, invaders and settlers coming to Britain from around the Roman Empire used these older abstract designs on new types of objects to express Romano-British identities.

Beyond the frontier, communities in northern Scotland were affected by the conquest in a very different way. The exhibition also presents the new types of objects they created once they found themselves the neighbours of a powerful empire, such as distinctive jewellery which emphasised their difference from the Romans.

 

Illustration of Wandsworth Shield

Romano-British bronze and enamel pan with the names of forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Staffordshire Moorlands, England, c. AD 150. Bronze, enamel. Jointly owned by the British Museum, Tullie House Museum and Stoke Potteries.

Massive-style brass armlet. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, AD 50–150. © National Museums Scotland.

Bell shrine containing an iron hand-bell thought to have belonged to St Cuilean. Glankeen, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. Bell: AD 600–800, shrine: AD 1100–1200.

 

 

The Celtic art style was further reinvented in early medieval Christian monasteries in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The distinctive languages, art and objects used by these communities set them apart from the Anglo-Saxons to the southeast, and also from the rest of Europe.The rare manuscripts and striking stone crosses in the exhibition show how the older Celtic curves were combined with Anglo-Saxon designs such as knotwork and interlace, creating a fusion that was altogether new and different. Creating these elaborate and time-consuming works of art was itself an act of religious devotion.

St Chad gospels Vellum AD 700–800. Used by permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral

As the Industrial Revolution changed life throughout Britain, people became increasingly fascinated with the Celtic past and traditional crafts. By Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, a creative Celtic revival was underway. Ancient Celtic art styles were rediscovered once again, and what it meant to be Celtic was reimagined. Celtic Revival art became particularly important in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The exhibition shows Celtic-inspired art and design such as a poster from the influential Glasgow School of Art, an exquisite Liberty tea set and vase by Manx designer Archibald Knox, and beautiful paintings by Scottish artist John Duncan.

 

Pewter tea set designed by Manx jeweller Archibald Knox for Liberty, London, 1903.

Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Lithograph ink on paper. 1894. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2015.

‘Prince of swords’ card from the Druid Craft tarot, illustrated by Will Worthington. Tarot deck produced by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, authored by Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm. Image © Will Worthington.

Many Celtic influences can also be seen in contemporary art, design and culture, in everything from tattoos and tarot cards to jewellery and graphic novels.

‘Tattoo #4’ by Glenn Malone is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.