Celtic Jewellery Art
The Celts' passion for golden trinkets and fine jewellery, as well as their talent for goldsmithing, is well documented. Classical authors talked with ill-concealed cupidity about the riches of 'Gallia aurifera' (gold-bearing Gaul), while still implying that it created a dangerous flaw in the psyche of its people. Strabo, for example, wrote scathingly about their "childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists, and their nobles adorn themselves with dyed garments sprinkled with gold. It is this vanity which makes them so unbearable in victory and so downcast in defeat ..."
The most prestigious item of jewellery was the torc. This was a heavy metal collar, probably of Eastern origin, which fulfilled a number of functions in Celtic society. Among the princes and chieftains, it was a sign of wealth and status. Lavish examples have been found in early Hallstatt and La Tene burial sites, particularly in female graves. This may mean that fathers passed their torcs down directly to their sons, perhaps as a badge of leadership.
Torcs also had strong ritual associations. Celtic deities were invariably shown wearing or holding them, as the images on the Gundestrup cauldron and surviving stone-carvings confirm, and they were often used as votive offerings. Further hints of their supernatural powers can be found in The Cattle Raid of Cooley, an early Irish epic, where Morann the Arbiter wore a magical torc, which tightened around his neck whenever he gave a false judgement. In a martial context, torcs were thought to act like talismans, offering the wearer some mystical form of protection. Classical sources recorded with astonishment how some Celtic warriors would go naked into battle, bearing only their weapons and a torc around their neck.
DESIGNS OF THE CELTS
EVOLUTION OF THE
ART OF THE ANCIENT
In decorative terms, the torc was highly versatile. It was pliant enough to be pulled open, but sufficiently robust to take ornamentation over its entire surface. It could also he made in a variety of different sizes and materials. Indeed, some torcs were so large and heavy that they can only have been worn very rarely, on ceremonial occasions.
Perhaps the most sumptuous of the surviving torcs is the magnificent item which was buried with the Princess of Vix. This is made of 96 percent pure gold and weighs some 480g. The decoration, as it is so often with torcs, is focused on the terminals. These take the form of two large globes, attached to lions' paws. In addition, there are two tiny winged horses, mounted on beds of golden filigree. Given its early date (6th century BCE), the technical sophistication of the piece is remarkable. It consists of 20 separate components, some of them cast (the Pegasus figures, the paws) and some beaten out (the hollow spheres). Parts of the decoration were punched from the interior of the object, and the remaining elements were then soldered together.
Of course, not all torcs were this lavish. The celebrated example found at Trichtingen, in southern Germany, was made of far less costly materials, but it was still deemed sufficiently fine to be cast into a pool as a votive offering. The torc is made of silver-plated iron and has an Eastern flavour, which suggests that it was produced in the lower Danube area. Its most intriguing features, however, are the two short-horned bulls, which constitute the terminals. The motif of confronted animal heads was extremely popular with Celtic craftsmen, and echoes of it can be seen in the border decoration of many, later manuscripts. Here, there is added interest in the fact that the bulls themselves are wearing torcs. This suggests that the piece may have had links with the cult of bull-worship, which was common in many parts of the Celtic world.
More than most other artefacts from the
La Tene period, the torc was prey to dramatic regional variations. In
the Champagne area of France, for example, early neck-rings displayed
the usual emphasis on the terminals, which were generally either triangular
or torus-shaped, before local craftsmen developed an entirely different
format. This was the ternary torc, so-called because the hoop was decorated
with three, identical protrusions. The band itself was sometimes adorned
with an engraved leaf-pattern.
If torcs were the most exalted forms of personal adornment among the Celts, then brooches were the most popular. They were worn by both men and women, and they served a variety of purposes. On a purely practical level, they often acted as clothes-fasteners while, at other times, they carried talismanic overtones or were valued for their decorative appeal.
As objects, they came in a bewildering diversity of guises though, in most cases, the ultimate inspiration was drawn from the classical world. This was certainly true of the two most basic forms of brooch, the hand pin and the fibula. By and large, pins were long and slender with finely decorated heads. These usually consisted of metal beading or millefiori enamel studs. The fibula, on the other hand, offered more scope for invention. In essence, it resembled a kind of safety-pin, dating back to Mycenaean times. From as early as the 5th century BCE, however, Celtic craftsmen began to toy with this simple, S-shaped design. They expanded the bow, partly for practical reasons - so that it could be used to fasten a more substantial piece of material - and partly as a matter of aesthetics. For, the pronounced arch of the fibula made it an ideal setting for the sinuous curves of the La Tene style. The most striking examples tended to take the form of fantastic animals or stylized humans. These are generally known as 'mask' fibulae.
The richest finds have occurred in Germany and Central Europe, the finest of all, perhaps, being the Parsberg brooch, which was discovered in a grave in the Rhineland. This extraordinary piece has a stylized human head at either end of its S-curve. Both have bulging eyes, a prominent nose and no mouth, and the lower figure also sports a set of pointed ears and a strange, conical hair-piece. Below him, the catchplate of the brooch takes the form of two skimpy griffins. Double-headed brooches of this kind were not unusual, and the effect was enhanced by the Celtic practice of wearing fibulae in pairs, linked together by a metal chain.
In Britain and Ireland, a very different
type of brooch became popular. This was the penannular brooch,
so-called because it had a small gap in its hoop which made it not quite
annular. There is a measure of disagreement about its origins. Some believe
that it evolved from provincial Roman models, while others argue that
the basic design was native to Britain and had survived virtually unaltered
since the Iron Age.
After this, its fame was assured and Waterhouse wasted no time in marketing facsimiles of the jewel. Fortunately, the Tara brooch was worthy of its reputation. It is richly decorated on both sides, which suggests that it must have been made for a genuine connoisseur, since only the front would have been visible when in use. These surfaces are divided into a series of tiny panels, featuring a combination of engraved curvilinear patterns and filigree interlacing. Pieces of coloured glass, amber and granules of gold also punctuate the design. In addition, there are miniature ornaments projecting from the edges of the ring and the pinhead. These depict long-snouted beasts and fishtails and, in many ways, they resemble the border decoration in manuscripts like the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells.
Other Precious Items
Torcs and brooches were the most distinctive
forms of jewellery produced by the Celts, although they did produce a
range of other artifacts. Armlets, bracelets and ankle-rings
were available throughout the La Tene era, and were frequently worn in
matching pairs. Sometimes animal motifs were employed - snake-like bracelets
appear to have been particularly popular - but the most eye-catching designs
feature abstract or semi-abstract elements. The anklets from Klettham
in Bavaria and from Planany in Bohemia, for instance, are fine
examples of the enigmatic Plastic Style. Their knobbed protuberances,
which were probably meant to be imitations of coral beads, actually help
to create a typically Celtic sense of ambiguity. When viewed at certain
angles, they resemble swollen, distorted faces with popping eyes.
For more about the history of Irish
culture, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.