Celtic La Tene Art Styles: 350-190 BCE
ART IN IRELAND
EVOLUTION OF THE
THE ANCIENT CELTS
The weapons and jewellery discovered in Celtic burials in Italy are good illustrations of this new style, the main elements of which were foliage motifs, especially tendril scrolls. Hence one of its names: continuous foliage pattern. It is also known as the Waldalgesheim Style, after an important archeological site in Germany.
A feature of this prevailing trend in the fourth century BCE was the adoption and transformation of motifs of Greco-Etruscan origin. The most striking examples are the two ceremonial helmets discovered in France-at Agris and Amfreville-sous-les-Monts-both found outside the area of expansion of Celtic art in the fifth century BCE. The strong Italic influence on the transalpine Celts is clearly apparent, too, in a series of painted vases found in Champagne (France), dating from the fourth century BCE and probably produced in the same workshop. Their curvilinear decoration was executed, as on Greek and Etruscan vases, by blacking out the field and leaving the pattern in the colour of the clay (the "red-figure" style). This early attempt was followed a little later by a second series, found in Champagne, comprising ceramics in the "black-figure" style. See Prunay Vase, pictured left.
DESIGNS OF THE CELTS
The emergence of this new foliage pattern in the fourth century BCE is evidence of the assimilation and interpretation by the Celts of the ornamental repertoire of classical Greek art, one of the foremost elements of which was the Greek or Etruscan palmette and its composite forms, with tendril scrolls. Fibulae discovered in Switzerland are closely akin to the Mediterranean prototypes, but the famous gold torc found at Waldalgesheim differs considerably.
La Tene Art: "Plastic Style"
The most important innovation of Celtic art in the fourth century BCE, which became one of its main features, was undoubtedly the process known as plastic metamorphosis. This type of representation is ambiguous since the foliage pattern conceals, and at the same time evokes, a human face (often caricatured), a mask, or animal heads. It therefore represents a fleeting vision, in other words, it may be interpreted in two ways.
As a result of the movement of the Celts
between the different regions of non-Mediterranean Europe and northern
Italy, and their successive migrations eastwards to the Carpathian Basin,
the fourth century BCE decorative style spread rapidly. The engraved decoration
of a fine piece of pottery from Armorica in France, showing an elegant
interpretation of the frieze of palmettes, reflects the influence of Greco-Etruscan
motifs at the western confines of the Continent. The decoration of an
iron spearhead found in Hungary is very similar to that of the Waldalgesheim
torc. The spread of this style seems to have followed Celtic expansion
not only eastwards, but south-eastwards too and the fine gold torc with
continuous tendril scrolls, found at Cibar Varos (Bulgaria), is the earliest
evidence of the presence of Celts in Thrace.
By the first half of the third century BCE the Danubian Celts had become a dynamic force through the absorption of heterogeneous elements from territories extending from the Atlantic to the Carpathian mountains. All these movements to and fro are reflected, inter alia, in the diffusion of scabbards decorated with heraldic pairs of fabulous animals-dragons, griffins and birds of oriental inspiration, which probably originated in Italy. These works are to be found throughout the whole of the Continental region covered by the Celts, from Normandy in the west as far as Transylvania in the east, from around Warsaw in the north to Belgrade in the south, not to mention northern Italy. To complete the picture, similarly decorated scabbards have been discovered in the River Thames (England).
This new trend in the Celtic world explains the remarkable development of the middle Danube region during the third century BCE - one of the finest periods in Celtic art. The Danubian scabbards decorated with spirals of delicately intertwined foliage and other elements of plant or animal life, forming a continuous pattern of curves and counter-curves, represent a new style known as the "Hungarian Sword Style". It was brought to perfection in the scabbard found at Cernon-sur-Coole (France), the closest parallel to which was discovered at Drna (Czech Republic). The motif most characteristic of these scabbards - the crested head of a fantastical bird - also appears on a fibula found at Conflans (France), which bears witness to the virtuosity of the Celts in the working of iron.
The "Hungarian" and "Yugoslav" sword scabbards display new and unexpected variations on foliage motifs. The complicated interlacings are sometimes associated with animal elements, here only distantly related to the prototypes which can be observed on items decorated in the continuous foliage pattern of the fourth century BCE. In some cases, the pair of fabulous animals fuses with the decoration typical of the "Hungarian" swords. It will be noted that towards the end of the third century BCE, foliage and floral patterns become geometric to a certain degree. The "Swiss Sword Style" represents a contemporary trend comparable to the "Hungarian Sword Style", but with marked differences. The decoration is less abstract, as may be seen from the La Tene scabbard on which three animals in slight relief are depicted in a fanciful way with incised tendril scrolls planing a secondary role in the composition. Even the running scrolls of tendrils on the "Swiss" swords are closer to the Italian prototypes than to the Hungarian variety. The importance of a symmetrical composition is another noteworthy feature of the "Swiss" swords.
La Tene Iconography and Designs
The emergence in Central Europe of the
Plastic Style, one of the most original manifestations of early Celtic
art, was also due to the eastward shift in the centre of gravity of the
Celtic world. A few rare objects scattered between the middle Danube region
and south-west France give some idea of the refinement of the products
of the Celtic workshops. The gold torc and bracelets are sumptuous works,
especially the bracelet found in Aurillac (France) with its striking profusion
of flowers, buds and leaves. The Lasgraisses torc is made up of flowers
interlaced in a double torsade and this ornament was probably inspired
by Hellenistic jewellery.
The Plastic Style was brought to perfection in bronze ornaments, chiefly pairs of anklets, but also bracelets, some hundreds of which originated in Bohemia and Moravia. Their decoration, based principally on S-motifs, triskeles and combinations of these forms, along with the yin-yang as an innovation, is often in very high relief - in some cases almost fully in the round. The composition of the most baroque specimens gives the effect of an exercise in solid geometry. The purpose of this plastic form elaborated during the third century BCE was not merely decorative. Certain motifs constantly recur throughout the Celtic world. The human face, expressive and sometimes caricatured, appears among S-motifs and knobbed spirals on parts of chariots unearthed in area extending from France to Bulgaria. The openwork decoration of the Brno-Malomerice specimen, with its plastic vituosity, lends an eerie character to the human masks.
The ornamental repertoire used in Celtic art of the third century BCE is not lacking in incredible monsters or in real animals. The birds of prey that adorn the rim of a cauldron found at Bra are stylized and at the same time highly expressive. They undoubtedly served the same purpose as the griffin handle-ring on the cover of the vase found at Brno-Malomerice (Czech Republic). The drinking-horn in the form of a dragon, found in Hungary, is particularly interesting as the animal motif which harks back to the Hellenistic Ketos or sea monster.
The art of the Carpathian Basin during the third century BCE was open to Balkan influences and it owes its filigree and granulation techniques, little known in the western La Tene regions, to the Thracian-Illyrian cultural sphere. The most striking example is the hoard unearthed in Szarazd-Regoly (Hungary), which illustrates the Celto-Illyrian cultural amalgam. The fashion for bronze jewellery decorated with imitation filigree flourished shortly before the middle of the third century BCE, inspired by objects found commonly throughout the Carpathian Basin and in Moravia. The bracelet discovered in Chotfn (Czech Republic), a masterpiece in this style, gives the illusion of true filigree-work.
The influence of metal vases of Hellenistic
origin introduced new forms into the ornamental repertoire of eastern
Celtic pottery. One type of Danubian kanthar (third century BCE), imitates
Greek prototypes and it was during the same period that kantharoi with
theriomorphic and anthropomorphic handles first appeared. Vessels on which
a human figure serves as a handle evoke Etrusco-Italic models. The kantharoi
represent one of the most original aspects of the art of the Celts of
the Carpathian Basin.
Examples of Waldalgesheim-Style Celtic Art
Object: Gold Torc Filottrano, 350-300
Object: Bronze Drinking Service, 350-300
Object: Helmet, 4th century BCE
Object: Helmet, 4th century BCE
Object: Iron Helmet, First half of the
3rd century BCE
Object: Pillar Statue, Late 4th Century
A sandstone pillar statue depicts the left forearm of a human figure. Below, on the four sides, are curvilinear compositions.
Object: Iron Scabbard, 3rd century BCE
The scabbard is ornamented with the so-called 'dragon pair' decoration, which consists of two opposing S-motifs, or lyre with a schematic representation of dragon heads.
Object: Iron Sword, Mid-3rd century
Object: Iron Scabbard Fragment, 3rd
Object: Iron Chape, 200 BCE
Object: Iron Chape, 200 BCE
Object: Iron Scabbard, 200 BCE
Object: Bronze Scabbard Decoration, 200
The decoration on this and related scabbards displays elements similar to those found on Hungarian swords, including the use of birds heads. But distinctive to the scabbards found in the British Isles is their emphasis on compass-aided design, all over patterning and somtimes cross-hatching.
Object: Shield Boss, 200 BCE
One of the terminal roundels of the shield, this boss bears engraved ornament, which is dominated by typically insular hairspring spirals and sprung palmettes, comparable to that found on Irish scabbards.