THE ANCIENT CELTS
Celtic Art: Coins
Coinage, an important feature of Celtic
culture, is of interest for the degree of social development it reveals
and for the economic and historical evidence it provides. Displaying outstanding
artistic skill, often of remarkable aesthetic quality, possessing obvious
sociological and religious significance and also a mythological character
which is beginning to be recognized, Celtic coins, and particularly those
of the Gauls, amply illustrate the degree of cultural development over
a period of more than three centuries. Their varied technical and artistic
characteristics are due to the fact that they were produced by many tribes,
numbering around a hundred in Gaul, with the addition of many others in
the rest of Celtic Europe (although not all of them minted coins), which
possessed neither national nor political unity.
OF THE CELTS
For the history & development
of the iconography, zoomorphic
patterns and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
The minting of coins, invented and developed by the Lydians of Asia Minor, by the cities and islands of Greece and by Asia in the seventh century BCE, was adopted by the Celts around the end of fourth century BCE. It spread from Gaul throughout the whole of middle Europe (except Ireland) from the third century until the end of the first century BCE on the mainland and until the second and third century AD in Britain. Most of the coins, melted down for the purpose of reusing the metals, have vanished. However, a large number buried in the ground at the time of various invasions have been discovered in the course of agricultural activities, building work and archaeological excavations. Some of these hidden treasures have yielded as many as 10,000 coins. Other coins have been found in rivers where they had been thrown as tribute to some god. Many coins are in private collections and in the hands of dealers, while the richest coin collection in Europe, containing approximately 15,000 Celtic coins, the majority of which are Gaulish, is housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. We may well wonder how many millions of such coins were minted originally.
ART IN IRELAND
EVOLUTION OF THE
The coinage of Greece, Etruria and Italy, brought back by conquerors, mercenaries and merchants, served as prototypes for the coins of the Celts. First they were made of gold, then of silver (particularly in the Danubian region) and finally, in the first century BCE, of bronze which varied in quality. The subjects, taken from the Classical models which initially were very few in number, were gradually transformed, and through a process of amalgamation and metamorphosis not only new interpretations but also new motifs and subjects appeared. These generally consisted of representations of plant life but also of a few select animals: horse, bull, bird and reptile. The obverse of the coin, the noble side, was dominated by the idealized face of Apollo which probably became that of the chief, no less idealized, but increasingly simplified and almost merging into the decorative elements. On the reverse side, the original two-horse chariot became a horse led and not ridden, and it was soon provided with a human head and sometimes with large, open wings. Mythologically-based Celtic themes appeared on the coins, for example, the wolf devouring the moon and the sun and then regurgitating the vegetation, which may be interpreted as restoring life to the universe. As the size varied according to weight and value, so the subjects were adapted, without being over-simplified, by the skilful engraver. The tendency towards abstraction gradually came into its own.
With the exception of the latest coins minted, which were cast in double moulds, the strip of metal or "planchet" was placed between two deeply incised bronze dies which, on being struck by a hammer, left their imprint simultaneously on the two faces of the coin. The outline of the coin nearly always remained irregular. It is estimated that some 700 coins could be struck without changing the dies. The subject depicted on the new dies was the same as that shown on those which had been worn down but, since it was cut by hand, it revealed small differences. Gradually the image became deformed, and misdirected hammer blows could cause part of the image to be omitted from the finished coin. Those who used these coins, which initially were made not only for the treasuries of chiefs and druids but also for the payment of prestigious acquisitions, ransoms, mercenaries and reserves, gradually grew accustomed to these changing forms. These coins did not display the technical perfection of Greek coins nor the almost mechanical regularity of those produced by the large Roman workshops, but on the other hand they were characterized by an inadvertantly acquired changeability which enabled the artist to indulge in a kind of imaginative freedom.
In many cases the image was encircled by
a slightly raised smooth or dotted line the diameter of which varied between
1 and 2.5 or 3 centimetres. The cutting, which required great skill, must
have been done with the help of a magnifying glass, although we possess
no evidence of its form nor indeed of its existence. The study of the
subjects represented on the coins as works of art had been considered
to be impossible due to the excessively large number of incomplete or
unreadable images, and due to the frequency of irregular hammer blows,
which meant that parts of the narrative were altered. However the collaboration
of the numismatist and the draughtsman made it possible some years ago
to develop a reliable method which reveals an image often intact. The
numismatist analyses the struck images in order to identify several coins
produced from the same die using the Colbert de Beaulieu method,
while the draughtsman then traces an exact copy in the form of an outline
drawing of the enlarged incomplete image. Finally, the different exact
copies are superimposed and automatically an image which closely reproduces
the complete imprint is revealed. This is how the two unblemished images
of the coin of Vercingetorix with its inscription were obtained. Thus,
henceforth, by tracing an enlarged photograph while checking it under
a binocular microscope against the coin itself, a perfect image may be
acquired which may well never have been seen by anyone since it was cut
on the die and impressed on the coinage blank. Finally, it is possible
to publish enlarged photographs of exact copies which often reveal details,
undetectable when the small coin is set before the naked eye or even photographed.
Drawings, the method preferred by Paul-Marie Duval, are the key to a fuller
understanding of Celtic coinage.
The Striking of Coins
Examples of Celtic Coin Art
Object: Gold Coin, 2nd/1st century BCE
Object: Gold Coin 2nd/1st century BCE
Object: Gold Coin, 1st century BCE
Object: Small Gold Coin, Early 1st century
Object: Gold Coin, 2nd century BCE
The image is complete and only one copy is known. A female charioteer stands on a chariot only the wheel of which is shown. In her left hand she holds the reins of a moving horse and in her right hand a kind of wand. Beneath the horse is a monstrous mollusc, which appears to be seeking to grasp the steed in its tentacles. In front, attached by a strap to the horse's breast, a decorated standard floats in the air along with two ornate cords. This is the standard which is meant to frighten the enemy horses. The woman, bare-breasted, wears a short, puffed-out skirt.
Object: Gold Coin, Early 1st century
Object: Electron Coin (Gold and silver
alloy), Early 1st century BCE
Above a human-headed, winged and galloping horse, two small severed heads attached to leafy cords form a large symmetrical motif. Beneath the horse, a standard displaying a boar in caricatured style and a heraldic eagle is represented. Everything expresses power and the human-headed horse, a creature of Armorican mythology, along with the standard, symbolize the supernatural strength of the chief's horsemen, who had the coin made.
Object: Electron Coin, Early 1st century
Object: Gold Coin bearing the name of
Vercingetorix, 52 BCE
Object: Gold Coin, Early 1st century
Object: Coin, 1st century BCE
Object: Gold Coin, 2nd century BCE
For more about the history of Irish
culture, see: Ireland Visual Arts.