Celtic Art: Coins
History, Coinage Designs of Numismatic Arts & Culture.

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For a guide to the historical
connections between Ireland
and the civilization, culture
and heritage of the ancient
keltoi traditions, see:
Iron Age
Celtic Art: Early Style
Hallstatt Culture
La Tene Culture
Celtic Art: Waldalgesheim Style
Celtic Art: Late European
Turoe Stone
Celtic Metalwork
Broighter Collar
Petrie Crown
Gundestrup Cauldron
Celtic Art: in Britain/Ireland
Celtic-Style Christian Art
Ardagh Chalice
Derrynaflavan Chalice
Tully Lough Cross
Moylough Belt Shrine
Tara Brooch
Cross of Cong
Irish Monastic Art
Celtic High Crosses of Ireland
Lebor Gabala Erenn
Medieval Irish Arts
Celtic Arts Revival

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. The varied technical and artistic characteristics of this metalwork 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.

However, their artistic value is enhanced by this diversity and also by the use of different metals and by the adoption of varying techniques. The exceptional importance of these Celtic coins lies in their having been produced by a vast ethnic group in which it was not common practice to use writing, (which was the preserve of the druids), except for dedications, epitaphs and commercial purposes (eg. potters' accounts). In the final period of coin manufacture, however, inscriptions occur comprising a name, generally that of the issuing authority. Thus, these coins, through their images, resemble an extremely varied set of miniature Celtic art.

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:
Celtic Designs
Celtic Spirals
Celtic Interlace
Celtic Knots
Celtic Crosses

For facts about the craftsmanship,
artistry and artisanship for which
the Celts were justly famous, see:
Celtic Weapons Art
Celtic Jewellery Art
Celtic Sculpture.

Illuminated Manuscripts
Making of Illuminated Manuscripts
History of Illuminated Manuscripts
Cathach of St Columba
Book of Durrow
Lindisfarne Gospels
Echternach Gospels
Lichfield Gospels
Book of Kells

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.

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.

For a chronological list of dates
and events in the development
of painting, sculpture, ceramics
and metalwork, please see:
History of Art Timeline.

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 art of Celtic coins, when studied methodically, reveals the success obtained from the amalgamation of subjects, metamorphosis and abstraction. It is the only ancient art imbued with an expressionistic spirit which, at a remove of two thousand years, recalls the painting of the modern era.

The Striking of Coins

The coin starts as a strip of metal and the main image is engraved on a bronze cupel which is affixed to an iron "die" and is set on a wooden block. The secondary image engraved on the other side is fixed in a mobile iron die held in the hand. The strip of metal is inserted with tongs between the two dies, one immobile, the other mobile. The two sides are thus imprinted at the same time by a single hammer blow. If the blow is inaccurate the image may well be incomplete; then the dies crack and must be changed. Whenever the images are engraved anew the result is always slightly different. There are coins which have been struck in a double mould from poor bronze in batches of ten and although the image is complete it is far less precise.

Examples of Celtic Coin Art

Object: Gold Coin, 2nd/1st century BCE
Location: Armorica, France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Only one copy is known and the image is incomplete at the top. A huge wolf turns its face towards the sun and the moon, which it is either about to devour or has just spat out. From its rear end a leafy branch emerges while beneath it an eagle with unfolded wings is depicted poised on a snake. Above the wolf is the trace of a sloping palm and on the right, unexplained emboss occur which may refer to a Gaulish legend, expressing the end and the rebirth of a happy period, perhaps of a reign.

Object: Gold Coin 2nd/1st century BCE
Location: Armorica France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

This coin struck with a complete image is one of the masterpieces of Gallic coinage from Brittany. On a galloping horse sits a bird of prey, which lets a ball fall from its beak. Beneath the horse, a fearsome imaginary sea monster can be seen along with a snake, which perhaps has a protective role. Below these animals are three meaningless letters which are reminiscent of the inscription "Philippou" on the coins of the father of Alexander the Great. The coinage of the latter served as models for the Gauls of the central Celtic territory as is attested to by the fact that the reverse side of their coins usually depicted a horse, based on the two-horse chariot of the "Philippi".

Object: Gold Coin, 1st century BCE
Location: Perigord, France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

The image with a beaded border is complete but lacks a few details, such as the tip of the back right paw. A wolf, mouth open and tongue protruding, is portrayed outside the forest, symbolized by a tree. Under its raised front paws the presence of the entire head of a bull symbolizes the wolfs usual prey. The wolf had considerable importance in Celtic art for it was the most common enemy, along with the snake, in these heavily wooded regions.

Object: Small Gold Coin, Early 1st century BCE
Location: Armorica France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

Only one copy is known of this coin. A winged supernatural mare is portrayed with a large human head and an excessive number of udders, which are placed all the way along the belly, like those of a sow, a bitch or a female cat. Beneath the mare is a winged colt, only the head, neck and parts of the back and the breast of which are visible. Above the wing and behind the tail appears what may be a shadowy being, very incomplete. Everything here is unreal, legendary, marked by an inventiveness that leaves no scope for naturalism.

Object: Gold Coin, 2nd century BCE
Location: Middle Loire, France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

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 BCE
Location: Armorica France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

This gold coin belongs to a series of different dies where the secondary elements of the subject vary. A naked woman, wearing a short cape, is depicted astride a galloping horse. In her right hand she holds a lance and in her left an oval gallic shield. In front of the horse is a palm branch with a cord while below is Jupiter's six-pronged thunder-bolt. This is perhaps a superhuman representation of the Gallic female warrior, naked like certain Celtic warriors for reasons of heroic provocation, and protected by the Celtic god of lightning (Taranis). A desire to glorify the Gaulish cavalry and its victories (note the palm) explains the portrayal of such a subject.

Object: Electron Coin (Gold and silver alloy), Early 1st century BCE
Location: Armorica France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

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 BCE
Location: Armorica France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

A human-headed horse racing along is surmounted by an enormous bird of prey, open-clawed and with wings outspread. An object in the shape of a cross attached to a sort of chain floats in the air before and around the human head. This object is a substitute for the standard which would be out of place here since there is no rider to hold it. Beneath the horse is a banner decorated with the image of a bull. The human-headed horse or mare is an Armorican creation and symbolizes the supernatural power of the horsemen, specified here by the standard.

Object: Gold Coin bearing the name of Vercingetorix, 52 BCE
Location: Auvergne, France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

The coin is slightly incomplete in the upper part and the hair is poorly rendered. The reverse side shows a rearing horse. This coin is an idealized portrait of a young chief, intended to represent Vercingetorix, the great chief of the Gauls, whose name is inscribed in its Celtic form: "VERCINGETORIXS". Twenty-seven coins exist in this series, two of which display the helmeted head broken, and eleven of which are from the same die. The style is not Gallic but modelled on the coinage of Greek princes. These twenty-seven coins, which can be dated to 52 BCE, constitute the last gold coinage of the Gauls.

Object: Gold Coin, Early 1st century BCE
Location: Metz region, France
Museum: Cabinet des Medailles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

The only known copy, this coin was clearly too small for the die, for the image is incomplete around the edge. The incomprehensible geometric image represented is an artistic transformation of a head, perhaps a woman's head, inspired by the coinage of Tarentum and of Belgic Gaul. Various successive distortions make it possible to recognize the stylized curls of the crown at the top and, in the middle, the modified shape of the ear. The engraver, following his own inspiration, produced an abstract composition with separate elements of the human head. Frequent in the north and south-west of Gaul, this creative work attests to the Celtic attraction to abstract art.

Object: Coin, 1st century BCE
Location: Ribnjacka, Yugoslavia
Museum: Archeoloski Musej, Zagreb

Imitating a coin of Alexander the Great, this coin, completely intact, is known only from this one copy. A man, apparently naked, is seated either on a stool decorated with a curved pattern, or possibly on a broad-backed chair. A type of long, curled plume decorates his headdress and his left arm is raised, while his hand although closed, probably holds an unseen object. His right arm is bent and he holds a long rod, perhaps a weapon, which passes behind his body. Seven elements emerge from the background. At the top of the coin is a thick ring. To the top left, a vaguely triangular motif appears and located slightly lower, to the right, is an object shaped like a yoke with spherical terminals. Below, in front of the man's knees, a small sitting dog looks at him while in front of a dog's face is a plant-like motif composed of three balls. To the right, behind the mans head, a semi-circular motif with a spherical shape at the top is represented and at the bottom, behind the seat, is a semi-circle, the ends of which may have extended beyond the edge of the blank. Here and there are spherical apes with no apparent role.

Object: Gold Coin, 2nd century BCE
Location: Amiens region, France
Museum: Cabinet des Medaiiles, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

This coin, completely intact, is known from two copies made from the same die, one in Paris and the other in London. Above a rectilinear ground line formed by an inset containing the deformed letters of the name "Philippou", two walking horses are represented one carrying a horsewoman, naked but for a belt and a short cape, riding astride. Depicted as a triumphant warrior, she brandishes in her left hand a shield and a kind of long palm-leaf, clumsily rendered, and in her right hand a large torc. Behind the horse, a snake is to be seen with its head pointing downwards. To the left, at the edge of the coin is a stylized plant ornament not easily interpreted. The horsewoman has a schematised round face and a mass of curly hair with a parting down the middle.

• For information about the ancient cultural history of Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic coins, see: Homepage.

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