Celtic Metalwork Art
History, Characteristics of La Tene Metalworking, Goldsmithing by Ancient Celts.

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The Broighter Collar (Gold Torc)
(National Museum of Ireland)

METALWORK OF THE CELTS
For facts about the craftsmanship
in metalworking & goldsmithery for
which the Celts were famous, see:
Celtic Weapons Art
Celtic Jewellery Art


The Tara Brooch
(National Museum of Ireland)
One of the finest examples of
metalworking from Celtic culture.

Celtic Metalwork Art (c.400 BCE - 100 CE)

The historical tradition of Irish goldsmithing and jewellery begins far back in the Irish Bronze Age (c.3500-1100 BCE). Irish craftsmen produced a range of simple shapes in Bronze, copper and gold, as well as the more intricate torque (torc) shaped items. On foot of the Celt invasions from Europe (c.500 BCE onwards), a new style of Celtic art took hold in Ireland, known as La Tene (after the excavations at La Tène close to Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland), which incidentally owed a great deal to the earlier Hallstatt Celtic culture, as well as Greek and Etruscan civilization.

In any event, these Irish and Celtic metalworking traditions fused in the late Irish Iron Age (400 BCE - 100 CE) to produce a number of outstanding pieces of artistic metalwork, of which only a few survive. Chief among them are the Broighter Collar, the Broighter Boat, the bronze trumpet from Loughnashade, County Armagh, the Gundestrup Cauldron and the Petrie Crown.

Celtic craftmanship in metals continued to develop in the early Christian art period (c.500-900 CE), producing such masterpieces as the Tara Brooch, the Ardagh Chalice, the Derrynaflan Chalice, the Moylough Belt Shrine, and the processional crosses like the 8th/9th century Tully Lough Cross and the great 12th century Cross of Cong, commissioned by Turlough O'Connor. All of these pagan and Christian artworks can be seen at the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Dublin.


The Ardagh Chalice (Detail)
(National Museum of Ireland)

HISTORY OF CELTIC CULTURE
For details of the development
of metalwork among the Ancient
Celts, which culminated in the
masterpieces of the late La Tene
period and Hiberno-Saxon
Insular style, please see:
Celtic Art, Early Style
Celtic Coins Art
Celtic Art, Wadalgesheim Style
Celtic Art, Late European Style
Celtic Art in Britain and Ireland
Celtic Style Christian Art

DESIGNS OF THE ANCIENT CELTS
Celtic metalworking exemplifies
numerous Celtic designs - many
influenced by Greek and Etruscan
artists - developed by craftsmen
among the Ancient Celts. For
details of the zoomorphic motifs
and decorative patterns used by
the Celts, please see:
Celtic Interlace
Celtic Spirals
Celtic Knots
Celtic Crosses

Celtic Mastery of Metalwork

Due to their dominance of the Rhine and Danube trade routes, the Celts were the first central European tribe to experience and profit from the Iron Age and they carried their metalwork expertise to Ireland and other countries throughout Northern and Western Europe. The focal point for all metalworking was the blacksmith's forge. It was the Celtic forge that produced the agricultural tools, the horse tack and the swords, and that nurtured all the secrets and skills of alloy mixing. From these workshops a stream of metal objects emerged that influenced the course of history, including the first chain-mail body armour, the first horse-shoes, iron rims for wheels, early iron ploughshares, and more.

Metalwork in Celtic Civilization

It remains unclear how Celtic culture came to Ireland. Some historians and archeologists believe it arrived gradually over several thousand years; others, while conceding a degree of gradualism, think that it flowed principally from the Celtic invasions, from 500 BCE onwards. However, few experts dispute the idea that metalwork - specifically iron work - was an integral element in Celtic civilization, without which they could not have exerted the influence they did. Celtic mastery of the blacksmith's art, added to the native Irish skills in Bronze Age metalworking, was one of the foundation stones of Irish Celtic culture from 400 BCE to 900 CE.

 

Celtic Metalwork in the Christian Era

As Christianity spread to Ireland during the collapse of the Roman Empire (c.300 CE onwards), the country's geographic isolation and freedom from colonization by Rome provided a breathing space for cultural and spiritual development. Monasteries, many of them becoming centres of both religious and secular scholarship, sprang up across the country attracting men and women from the higher classes who, within a matter of generations formed a cohesive body of monks, scribes, and scholars.

Side by side with this rise in monastic art, Latin scholarship, and scriptural study, came a renaissance in the arts of calligraphy and book illustration which led to the Golden Age of Irish illuminated gospel manuscripts. The most renowned of these 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).

This early renaissance in the history of Irish art, under the patronage of the Church in Rome and directed by bishops and abbots in the major monasteries, was closely associated with an upsurge in Celtic metalworking skills. Indeed, close by the monasteries and abbeys of Ireland, we can still see the traces of metal forges (eg. Moynagh Lough Crannog, and Lagore Crannog, in County Meath) and the remains of slag heaps and plaster moulds from the workshops of Irish metalworkers. The great illuminated manuscripts of Ireland, often embellished with clasps and bindings in precious metals, like gold and silver, and encrusted with precious gems, bear witness to the metalworking skills of these craftsmen, goldmiths, and other anonymous medieval artists.

Furthermore, the metallurical skills of Irish craftsmen were not limited to the decoration of scriptural manuscripts. The everyday material needs of the monasteries brought new challenges for the metalworker. Religious and secular artifacts of every description were required, such as: platens, chalices, crosses, book shrines - even door handles.

Improved Metal Casting Techniques and Greater Supply of Minerals

By 600 CE, the art of metalworking in Ireland had become part of the great Hiberno-Saxon school of Insular art, which blossomed throughout the monastic establishments of England, Scotland Wales and Ireland. Irish trade with Germanic peoples sweeping into Western Europe, and increased contacts with native craftworkers and miners in Scotland and Cornwall led to improvements in Irish metal casting techniques and greater supplies of tin. Fortunately, metals like copper, iron and silver were relatively plentiful in Ireland during the period. Gold was scarce, due to deposits having been overworked in the Bronze and early Iron Ages, and was used sparingly. The only other scarce metal was mercury, which was traditionally sourced from Mediterranean traders.

Metallurgical Techniques

The metalwork production process used by Irish artisans involved the assembly of a number of different pieces. This required a mastery of such techniques as soldering, and riveting, as well as mechanical joints. Irish metalworkers typically used riveting to assemble their artifacts, (though soldering was used to join gold wire, eg. on the Derrynaflan Paten) examples of which can be seen in the complex construction of the Ardagh and Derrynaflan Chalices. The Tara Brooch is another such treasure. Archeological evidence of bone and slate diagrams, indicates that the designs and joints of these valuable artworks were carefully planned out in advance.

Thus, in addition to its Saints and Scholars, the early Christian artistic renaissance of monastic Ireland needed a skilled army of metalworkers to help produce the beautifully embellished artworks upon which its reputation was founded.

• For more about Irish cultural history and craftwork, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.
• For information about art and crafts in Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For our main arts index, see: Homepage.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IRISH GOLDSMITHERY AND METALWORK
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