Celtic-Style Art of the Roman Empire
Roman-Celtic Style of Decorative Arts and Metalwork: Hallstatt, La Tene.

4. Ancient Rome: Celtic Art Styles


Introduction: Hallstatt Culture
Celtic La Tene Culture
Culture of the Celts
Gundestrup Cauldron
Spanish Culture
Gallic Culture
Iron Age Developments


The peoples who inhabited Germany, Gaul, Spain and Scandinavia did not possess traditions of culture and civilization of a Western Mediterranean type before the Roman occupation. Contacts, however, were not lacking either with Italy or the Middle East regions. They experienced the art of Greece and then later that of the Etruscans. During the Iron Age, the main culture of Central Europe was known as Hallstatt Culture, after an Austrian centre in which a necropolis, rich in objects dating from that epoch, was excavated. Hallstatt culture lasted between about the ninth and fifth centuries BCE, and left primitive objects containing motifs of the ancient Danubian tradition mixed with Mediterranean and Etruscan influences. It represented the first cohesive Celtic culture.

Celtic La Tene Culture

In the region of modern Switzerland a more evolved culture developed between the fifth and first century BCE: this is called the La Tene style of Celtic art, after a site on the Lake of Neuchatel where many important finds have been made. The civilization of La Tene was born from a fusion between the Hellenic-Etruscan influence and works coming from the Danube zone and others of a more Eastern origin, derived from the Scythians. The Scythians lived in the Middle-Eastern steppes of Southern Russia, in Kuban and in the Crimea. They developed their own civilization about the seventh century BCE and produced precious metalwork and ornaments of great artistic interest: gold and bronze worked in relief, figures of animals interpreted with lively imagination, clasps and breastplates decorated with complicated ornamental motifs - all their work demonstrated a feeling for an elegant and stylized line. The most typical productions of the Scythian people came from the sumptuous tombs of Kuban, where the bodies of the princes were luxuriously surrounded with pieces of golden furniture and golden ornaments. Also from the epoch of La Tene were buckles, bracelets and bronzes of a fairly evolved workmanship. The acquaintance with Greek and Italic production is evident in pottery as well as in sculpture, but there is no trace of any painting.

Culture of the Celts

It is almost certain that the peoples who produced the civilizations of Hallstatt and La Tene were Celts, belonging to that group of barbarian peoples originating in the Upper Danube and widely distributed in Europe, who had settled in many parts of Italy and in Spain and the Balkans. Their taste for geometrical decoration was accompanied by a tendency, in portraiture, towards an expressive and realistic style - although this contained certain fanciful characteristics and sometimes verged on caricature. Typical products of the Celts consisted of objects in metal, jewels, coins, buckles with animal motifs, and enamels. The Mediterranean zones of the Celtic occupation, particularly France and Italy, reveal a greater maturity and nobility of expression than the areas of the hinterland; this was because of their numerous contacts with the Greco-Etruscan world. In architecture the Celts absorbed the Greek models, especially in the temples they raised to the various deities. But, like most peoples subject to frequent migrations, the Celts have left far too little trace to make a thoroughly documented appraisal possible.

Gundestrup Cauldron

The Celts reached Britain and Ireland in the third century BCE as part of their expansion to the north - although they never reached Denmark, which was occupied by a people of Teutonic stock. Celtic art, however, managed to penetrate even this region either through imports, war booty or, more rarely, by the work of isolated artists who had emigrated to the north. One of the most beautiful works of Celtic craftsmanship has in fact come from Denmark: the great silver Gundestrup Cauldron found in a bog in Himmerland, Jutland. The sides and the base of the cauldron are decorated in relief with mythological and ritual scenes and with figures of real and imaginary animals. The variety and richness of the decoration makes the object a truly exceptional piece. The highly developed quality of the execution and the stylistic details raise the question whether the receptacle may not originally have come from the Middle Danube, where several tribes of Celtic stock lived who were particularly skilled in the working of silver.

Spanish Culture

The Celtic migrations reached Spain in two waves (the first about 1000 BCE, the other about 600 BCE) and brought many Hallstatt elements into the existing Iberian cultures, as can be seen in certain types of weapons. The Hallstatt elements were merged with others of local origin, and to them, at a later date, were added yet others from Phoenicia and Greece. This complex blending of different cultures did not in fact produce many works of outstanding interest. Among the better known and more unusual objects is the Chariot of Merida, made of bronze and dating from the first century BCE. It takes up the familiar motif of the chariot that, in its various interpretations and different ritual functions, has always been popular with the ancient civilizations, from Crete to Scandinavia. The Roman conquest of Spain tended to obliterate the more original Iberian traditions and founded in their place an imperial type of Roman art that was by and large similar to that produced on Italian soil.

Gallic Culture

The Gallic civilization developed as part of the Celtic world and shared characteristics of the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures. The Gauls were themselves groups of Celts who had occupied Gaul about the 7th century BCE. (It was the Romans who called them Gauls, whereas the Greeks called them Galatians.) In the Hallstatt period, a dominant feature of their civllization was their weapons - especially swords with long blades - and pottery with geometrical decorations. In the fourth century, corresponding to the La Tene period, their works still include many different types of bronze and iron weapons, pottery turned on the wheel, enamels, and bronze plate.

When the Roman occupation had extended over the whole of Gaul, local styles were changed profoundly and artists applied themselves to following Roman models. Many forms of art in the Gallic region between the first century BCE and the Christian era, have since been termed Gallo-Roman, because they contained elements that the local inhabitants had learnt from their conquerors. However, even in those objects that most clearly reveal Roman influence, there remains sufficient rugged expressiveness and lack of restraint for such works to be properly classified as original examples of provincial art.

Iron Age Developments

The Iron Age developed in Northern Europe through its contact with Celtic civilization much later than in the Central Southern regions. Echoes of the Mediterranean cultures had already arrived in the Scandinavian peninsula during the Bronze Age from the Eastern routes of Persia, the Caucasus and from Siberia. This explains the many Eastern-looking ornamental motifs that have been found in gold, silver and bronze plate, also in shields and weapons.

Although the Celts never occupied Scandinavia or Denmark, they sent their products there and spread the taste for weapons and buckles decorated with fantastic and geometrical designs, and for heavy gold jewellery, and representations of animals, which, although stylized, were vivacious and expressive. In the first centuries of the Christian era, aspects of Roman civilization reached the North indirectly through the peoples of Central Europe, and also by means of certain contacts that appear to have been made between the Roman emperors and the chiefs in those regions. This is revealed in some precious objects of Roman craftsmanship discovered in Danish tombs. However, these contacts did not make any noticeable mark on local production.

Next: 5. Christian-Roman Art.

More Resources
For more articles about visual art in Ancient Rome, see:

Roman Architecture (c.400 BCE - 400 CE)
Early Roman Art (c.510 BCE to Augustus 27 BCE)
Hellenistic-Roman Art (c.27 BCE - 200 CE)
Late Roman Imperial Art - Late Empire Period (c.200-400 CE)
Roman Sculpture (c.55 BCE onwards)
Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome

• For a detailed chronology, see: Timeline, History of Art.
• For more about Celtic-style artforms in Ancient Rome, see: Homepage.

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