Celtic La Tene Style (c.450-50 BCE)
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HISTORY OF CELTIC CULTURE
The term "La Tène" refers to a late Iron Age Celtic culture, roughly centred in Switzerland, which was practised widely across Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. In Western Europe, its evolution and historical development was roughly coincident with the fate of the Celts themselves. Thus, it emerged out of the preceding Austrian-based Hallstatt Celtic culture, achieved its zenith during the expansion of Celtic power and influence during the fourth century BCE and then declined - at least on the Continent - with the Roman subdugation of the Celtic heartlands in Gaul around 50 BCE. Thereafter it morphed into a Roman-Celtic art style before fading completely. In Eastern and north central Europe, it declined at about the same time under pressure from eastern barbarian tribes arriving from Asia. Thus, by the first century CE, the only practitioners of the La Tene style of Celtic art were the insular Celts of Ireland and other islands on the western fringes of the Roman Empire.
DESIGNS OF THE ANCIENT
EVOLUTION OF THE
As a culture, La Tene is synonymous with advanced forms of metalwork, including goldsmithing (goldsmithery), jewellery and other decorative works, which, while not comparable in range with Greek art or Egyptian civilization, nevertheless represents the first real high point in Celtic design and creativity. Its decline was simply reflective of the political weakness of the Celts themselves: despite their strong hold over European trade, especially along the principal European waterways like the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone, and the ferocity of their warriors in battle, their loose network of tribal societies lacked the internal cohesion and central authority to compete with the unified Roman state.
The earlier Hallstatt civilization was centred along the Upper Danube in Austria. During the late sixth and fifth centuries BCE, the locus of the Celtic heartland shifted to the Rhine, and by about 450 BCE was north of the Alps astride the Upper Rhine and Rhone rivers in Switzerland and eastern France. Meanwhile, Celtic migrations and trade missions had established occupations in Spain, Britain and Ireland. Over the next two centuries, from 450 to 200 BCE, La Tene culture accompanied a number of militaristic Celtic invasions into southern France and northern Italy, and through the Balkans as far as Macedonia and Greece. Although ultimately prevented from achieving the domination they sought, the Celts succeeded in settling the whole of Gaul (France, Belgium) and introduced their culture to almost every corner of the Continent, from Ireland to Asia Minor (Turkey) and from Scotland to Sicily. However, its cultural impact varied from region to region, according to indigenous tradition. Also, one should note that a fair amount of La Tene culture was spread not by the sword but through cultural transfer on foot of trade. This is particularly true of its appearance in Britain and Ireland.
The type-site for the culture was the archeological site of La Tène on the northern side of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. It was here, in 1857, that a rich hoard of artifacts was first discovered by Hansli Kopp. In 1885, after a series of sporadic investigations, the the Société d'Histoire of Neuchâtel agreed to complete the excavations. In total, more than 2,500 items have been recovered. Not surprisingly, given the militaristic nature of the culture, most of the objects were weapons, including more than 150 swords (mostly unused), nearly 300 spear-heads, and 22 shield plates. Other items included 400 brooches, as well as tools and other implements. Most were decorated in the typical La Tene style of artwork (for more, see below).
Other important archeological discoveries include: the Erstfeld hoard, the priestess tomb at Reinheim, the Chieftain's grave at Hochdorf, the elite grave sites at Glauberg, Kleinaspergle, Vix and Waldalgesheim and the settlement or town finds at Donnersberg, Engehalbinsel, Glastonbury, Manching, Mont Beuvray, Munching, and Sandberg.
Like Hallstatt, La Tene is noted for its Celtic metalwork, particularly its iron weaponry and tools, as well its bronze-based artifacts, goldsmithery and decorative crafts. But La Tene construction and design is more advanced, with evidence of new techniques, new materials and wider influences. Grave sites become more elaborate and opulent, in keeping with greater prosperity among the chieftains and other high officials, and more goldwork is evident. On the other hand, the culture was more militaristic and its burial sites reveal an abundance of swords, spearheads, shields and protective armour, as well as everyday items such as cauldrons, yokes, and razors. Jewellery is also common, and some pieces are exquisite - notably the finely made gold torcs. La Tene designwork, found on a wide range of objects is more mature and more complex. It includes the elaborate swirling patterns of Celtic knotwork which reached their apogee during this period.
If Hallstatt art surprised historians with its early emphasis on aesthetics, La Tene demonstrates greater affluence, deeper knowledge of materials and technology, and wider cultural interchange. Within its new, more confident idiom, it accomodated styles and motifs from Carthaginian, Etruscan, Greek and Scythian art forms, among others.
All this was founded on growing Celtic wealth acquired from control of trade routes across the Continent, allied to lucrative exports of salt, tin and copper, amber, wool and leather, furs and gold. Perhaps the only surprise is why the La Tene Celts resorted to military conquest in the fourth century. Was it pressure from the East, or was it an expansionary desire to convert their Mediterranean trading partners into vassals?
There are several possible classifications of this era. One of the most popular is the one adopted by the historian Paul Jacobsthal in his book "Early Celtic Art". Jacobsthal outlined four main periods of heartland La Tene: the Early Style, the Waldalgesheim Style, the Plastic Style, and the Sword Style.
The Early Style (c.450-350 BCE)
This sub-style is based on the excavations of elite burial sites in Germany and France, exemplified by stunning gold torcs (collars) and bracelets from Rodenbach and Reinheim, as well as bronze containers from Kleinaspergle and Basse-Yutz, many of which are decorated in typical La Tene-style curvilinear patterns of lotus buds, palmettes, and acanthus leaves.
Waldalgesheim Style (c.350-290 BCE)
This variant derives from chariot pieces and jewellery found at the famous Waldalgesheim burial site near Bonn in Germany, and shows a new harmony of Celtic and Classical styles, reflected by a growing confidence in the Celtic idiom.
The Plastic Style (c.290-190 BCE)
This period witnesses greater concern with 3-D effects in ornamental designwork. Artists use more animal and human imagery, which becomes more elaborate and decorative.
The Sword Style (after-190 BCE)
This sub-style highlights the eastern archeological finds of engraved swords and scabbards, illustrating a move away from the flamboyant 3-D style figuration of the preceding Plastic period towards linear abstraction characterized by geometric patterns derived from on Hellenic floral motifs.
Metals and other materials used by Celtic craftsmen were relatively abundant within Celtic territory: tin was mined in Cornwall; gold came from Bohemia; amber originated from the Baltic. Other, scarcer materials were easily obtained through trade: pink coral was obtained from the Mediterranean; ivory from Russia and North Africa; silks from central and eastern Asia.
La Tene metalworking techniques were improved developments of earlier Hallstatt methods. The main Celtic techniques were casting by the cire perdue (lost wax) method, and the beating of metal into sheets. The cire perdue method, for instance, was employed to create the engraved finials of gold torcs and the decoration work on bronze harnesses. Metal-beating was used to decorate panels or sheets. The metal piece was typically hammered on its inner side in order to produce a positive relief on the outer side. This repoussé (pushed back) effect could be duplicated by beating the metal against a previously prepared relief surface. Numerous other methods of scratching, scribing, and chiselling were utilized to decorate plain surfaces, processes enhanced by the use of compasses for extra precision.
Metal items, especially bronze objects, were often inset with enamel. This was achieved either by creating a raised bordered area on the metal surface (the champlevé technique) or by creating a recessed area (the cloisonné method); in both cases, the areas were then filled with coloured enamel, coral or amber.
Among the finest examples of La Tene metalwork were the torcs, heavy neck rings occasionally manufactured in tubular form but more typically made from twisted strands of copper and gold, with terminals decorated with animal heads or scrolling geometric style patternwork. Supreme specimens were those recovered from the burial sites of two princesses, at Reinheim and Waldalgesheim, dating from the 4th century BCE. Queen Boudicea, the famous Celtic leader of of the British Icenii tribe, reputedly went into battle on her chariot wearing a gold torc; whether this feat was emulated by the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix is not recorded! Other examples of great Celtic metalwork include elaborate clasps called fibulae, as well as the famous circular bronze mirrors with round flat backs decorated with complex engravings whose swirling forms sometimes give the momentary impression of human or animal heads. The best specimens, created in Britain during the Sword Style, include the Holcombe mirror and the Desborough mirror (both now in British Museum, London).
In simple terms, the genius of La Tene metalworkers lay in their ability to weave a unique and energetic idiom from a variety of local and foreign styles. Indeed, the whole La Tene culture derives in no small measure from the forges and workshops of these innovative craftsmen. Their impact on later Hiberno-Saxon Insular art and even 20th century design movements was immense.
Early La Tene occupations differed little from Hallstatt-era fortified hilltop settlements, and such habitations may have persisted in contested areas on the peripherary of the heartlands, or in key strategic locations: examples of the latter include the great hill forts of Mont Lassois, on the upper Saône, and at Heuneberg on the upper Danube. Gradually however, the economic requirements associated with a rising population led to the emergence of larger settlements and towns at river-crossings and trade junctions. In these towns, wood-built rather than stone houses were the norm, and most municipalities were surrounded by outlying areas populated by farms and agricultural enterprises. In addition, land was invariably set aside for burial sites and other ceremonial places.
Unlike the relatively compact Celtic heartland of the Hallstatt period (in which a single tongue, Proto-Celtic, was spoken until quite late on in the era), La Tene Celts occupied numerous territories with differing languages, where even the Celtic lingua franca varied. In Spain, for instance, a Celtiberian version of Celtic emerged, while in Gaul and Britain a Brythonic version was used, whereas in Ireland they spoke Goidelic, or Irish Gaelic. These traditions coexisted until the fall of Rome, by which time only Goidelic remained as an active living language.
Celtic metalwork was the principal art form of La Tene, exemplified by many different classes of objects: from chariots, personal weapons and shields, to ploughs, equestrian fittings, and everyday implements like pitchers, mirrors and razors. Personal adornments, including head-dresses, bracelets, necklaces, torcs, rings, brooches, clasps and amulets, were also made, as were ritual vessels and related artifacts. All these items were made and decorated out of a variety of metals and other materials according to the importance of the customer or commission. Materials included gold, silver, bronze, copper, iron, amber, coral, ivory, bone, wood and of course iron. A range of pottery and ceramic art was also manufactured for both ceremonial and domestic use. There was no known tradition of fine art painting, although monumental pagan sculpture was practised.
If the range of La Tene artifacts was comparatively narrow, the opposite was true of its designwork, which featured an incredible diversity of ornamentation and pattern. La Tene designs used highly organic, curvilinear styles, with flowing curves and abstract leaf-like patterns. Common forms included (1) spirals (built up from S-shaped and C-shaped forms, among others); (2) knotwork; (3) geometric imagery, like the trumpet, the triskel and the palm, together with endless floral and plant shapes; (4) numerous zoomorphic shapes and realistic pictures of animals, including: elephants, wild boars, wolves, stags, winged horses, bulls, hounds, cats, snakes, dragons, owls, and birds.
The finest examples of La Tene art include:
The silver "Gundestrup
Cauldron" (c.100 BCE)
The contribution of La Tene to ancient art continued for a surprisingly long period. As stated, La Tene was extinguished on the Continent by the process of Romanisation. However, it survived as a culture and art form in Ireland, where it merged with local pagan traditions before re-emerging (thanks to the monastic irish culture and the patronage of the Church) in a more ordered and disciplined style during the era of early Christian art. Its main forms were metalwork and illuminated manuscripts.
Famous examples of Celtic metalwork art from this period, decorated in the La Tene style, include: the Tara Brooch (c.700 CE), the Ardagh Chalice (8th/9th century CE), the Derrynaflan Chalice (8th/9th century CE), the Moylough Belt Shrine (8th century CE), the Tully Lough Cross (8th/9th century) and the Cross of Cong (12th century) commissioned by Turlough O'Connor, High King of Ireland.
The most famous religious manuscripts illustrated with La Tene Celtic designs include the Cathach of St. Columba (early 7th century), the Book of Durrow (c.670), the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.698-700), the Echternach Gospels (c.700), the Lichfield Gospels (c.730) and the Book of Kells (c.800). See also: History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200) and Making of Illuminated Manuscripts. These calligraphic artworks are among the greatest treasures in the entire history of Irish art, and (among many other things) exemplify the stunning spiral ornamentation and knotwork of the ultimate La Tene style.
Astonishingly, the same swirling curvilinear patterns reappeared over 1000 years later during the early 1900s in connection with the Celtic Art Revival Movement and also when the Art Nouveau decorative style swept Europe and North America in the form of illustration, stained glass, jewellery and decorative metalwork.
For more about painters and sculptors,
see: Famous Irish Artists.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IRISH AND CELTIC ART