The Origins of Celtic Art


By Victoria Chick


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Artist Victoria Chick discusses the ancient history of Celtic Art. Listen here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on PodBean. You can hear Victoria on Big Blend Radio every 3rd Saturday and catch up with her monthly podcasts on

The roots of Celtic Art are very old yet can still be seen to influence the arts of calligraphy and jewelry today. The motifs and decorative patterns related to what we call Celtic Art can be found in a wide geographic area from the New Grange tomb in Ireland dating from 3300 B.C. (pre-dating the Great Pyramids of Egypt) to the Scythian art found as far east as Siberia dating from the 7th century B.C., and in nearly every European country in between. Exceptions are those countries along the Mediterranean coast where the influences of Classical civilization were strong.

More than one theory exists as to who the Celts were.

Language and culture seem to tie together the people of more than one location. The most prevalent theory is that as Celtic tribes moved across northern Europe, the Bronze Age was changing into the Iron Age.

Metalwork was the forte of Celtic artisans. Archeological finds in Hallstadt, Austria of Celtic weapons and jewelry show strong symmetrical design. Interlaced knots, spirals, and fret patterns are typical, with some abstract bird shapes. The early Celtic tribes left no traces of painting or sculpture. Their art was practical and made to be transported.

An important archeological site at Le Tene, Switzerland, worked from 1857-1885, unearthed some 2500 metal objects of Celtic workmanship done from 400 to 300 B.C. This rich find was due to a change from cremation to burial.

The Celts placed objects into the graves they thought the deceased would need in the afterlife. Gold and silver collars, metal shields, bowls, and cauldrons are some of the objects found at this site. All were decorated with flowing abstract patterns of plant motifs and stylized animals, particularly serpents and birds, probably representing their gods. A different metalwork technique was found at this site – the addition of fused enamel to add color to the objects.

It is probable the Celtic tribes continued to move westward, intermarrying with local populations. They eventually mixed with the native people of Ireland. The Celtic decorative aesthetic merged perfectly with that of the people they found already there. From about 200 B.C. to 100 B.C., the power of the Roman Empire reached the British Isles. Only Ireland managed to stay free of the control of Rome. But, based on what little has been found, artmaking appears not to have thrived in Ireland until the collapse of the Roman Empire and, oddly enough, the beginning of the Dark Ages that coincided with the rise of Celtic Christianity.

The Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome, sent St. Patrick to evangelize Ireland somewhere around the middle of the 5th Century A.D. Although not the first Christian missionary there, St. Patrick had great success in converting the people from pagan practices to Christian beliefs. So much so, that the output of art blossomed in a Christian manifestation using old Celtic (pagan) decorative patterns and styles. There were three main types of Celtic art during the 800-year period after the Romans left Ireland and 1100 A.D. when the Middle Ages were ending.

The metalworking heritage of the Celtic tribes was brought into play by making ritual objects, such as chalices, reliquaries, and crucifixes, for worship. Enameling skills expanded, with craftsmen performing sophisticated cloisonné techniques that added rich color between thin lines of gold metal.

  • Carpet page from Lindisfarne Gospels, showing knotwork detail.
    Carpet page from Lindisfarne Gospels, showing knotwork detail.

The technique of “chip cutting” gold or silver to catch the light across a faceted surface was an invention of the Celts. On the flat surfaces of metal reliquary containers and book covers, the chip-cutting technique was very effectiveIn monasteries, separate rooms were designated for copying Bible manuscripts. First, the monks made smooth vellum from animal hides. Then, they copied the script, did illustration and decoration, and sewed the pages together. The process was painstaking and if any uncorrectable mistake was made, the page was thrown out and a new one started. The term “illuminated” refers to the extensive use of gold leaf that made the manuscripts glow in the light. Irish manuscripts used Celtic designs derived from decorative metalwork examples of complex interlace patterns and animal forms.

The three most common types of illumination were the “carpet page,” a sheet of overall decorative pattern placed before the beginning of a Gospel book; an illuminated page which was the beginning of a Gospel book; and a figural representation of the Gospel writer surrounded by a pattern.  Often, the first letter of each book would be elaborated with plant and animal forms. Sometimes the entire illumination would be stylized animals, head to tail as if biting each other to form the shape of the letter. Sometimes a letter starting a chapter within the Gospel would also be illuminated.

The Book of Kells is the most famous Irish Gospel illuminated manuscript, but the Book of Durrow, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other manuscripts that have come down to us are all examples of the piety and art of the Irish Monastic system. Celtic manuscripts often had human figures but, because realism was not that important to the Celts, the figures were like those found in children’s coloring books today- areas defined by line and color between the lines.

From about 750 A.D. to 1150 A.D., high crosses of stone were erected. Some were carved with historic biblical scenes, and some simply had a Celtic knot or swirl designs carved in relief. Some scholars believe they were an outgrowth of earlier Christian, vertical ogham stones marking graves, memorial places, and territories in Ireland and a few other places in the British Isles from about 400 A.D. The ogham stones have hatch marks on them that have been identified as a type of alphabet. The Celtic crosses are synonymous with Ireland. A carved, decorated vertical, and a cross at the topmost often having equal arms within a circle, has the symmetry and interlace qualities of traditional Celtic design.

The isolation of Ireland resulted in the development of the Celtic form of Christianity. When Ireland initiated sending missionaries to continental Europe, the Roman Catholic Church reawakened to their existence, and realized what they were teaching was not in line with the dogma of the Vatican. Meetings ensued and finally, Bishops of the Irish Church agreed to be bound by the Pope in Rome.

Artistically, the result was that some Celtic Irish Gospel manuscripts were sent to monasteries in Germany (Charlemagne was now Emperor of the new Holy Roman Empire and his court was at Aachen, Germany) for copying. Remember that the Celts had earlier settlements in Austria and Northern Germany and their decorative style still survived there. By 800 AD it had mingled with classical influences from Rome. The illuminated manuscripts of the Holy Roman Empire show modified Celtic interlace decoration, but human figures are much more in the realist classical mode. In Germany and France during the Middle Ages, we also see a modified Celtic influence of symmetrical relief carving with animals and extensive patterns in the interiors and exteriors of Romanesque churches.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at

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