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HISTORY OF THE CELTS
 
 


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The Celtic legacy

The Celtic languages are a living survival of these people who for nearly 1000 years, to about AD 500, are the Europeans of the Atlantic seaboard. Another prominent trace of their culture is the characteristically vigorous Celtic art, spanning a similar period and finding a late flowering in medieval Christian art.

Shrouded in greater mystery, but with lasting appeal in the public imagination, are the priests of the Celtic religion. These are the druids, whose modern followers spuriously associate themselves with Stonehenge - a monument abandoned by its unknown creators centuries before the arrival of the first Celt or druid in Britain.
 








Druids

Almost nothing is known about the ritual practices of the Celts or of their priests, the druids, except that trees and groves are sacred places. Oak and mistletoe have a special magic.

It has long been held that the druids practice human sacrifice, probably in times of crisis rather than as a regular cult (unlike the Aztecs). Some extraordinary survivals provide possible evidence for the theory. The tannic acid of northern peat bogs has preserved the bodies of men who may have been sacrificial victims of the druids. The leathery remains found at Tollund in Denmark and at Lindow Moss in England have nooses round their necks. Both men lived and died in Celtic communities some 2000 years ago.
 








Barbarian art in Europe: 5th century BC - 7th century AD

During the long centuries of Roman dominance there is a marked difference between the art of classical Europe and that of the barbarian tribes. In southern Europe the realistic Greek tradition prevails. In the forests and village settlements of the north a much wilder imagination is at play.

The tribesmen are skilful workers of metal. Their creative energy goes into metal brooches and neck or arm rings (torcs) for the warrior families of the tribe, together with ornamental belt buckles, sword hilts and scabbards, or fittings for shield or chariot. Their decorative style is lively and curvilinear, in a dramatic jumble of animals and intertwining tendrils.
 









This type of art is characteristic of many large tribal groups (for example, the Scythians), but none are as productive as the Celts. From the Celtic artefacts found in central Europe at Hallstatt (7th-5th century BC) and La Tène (5th-3rd century), to others of a later date in western Europe, there is a gradual development of a style which will influence western art long after the Celts themselves have lost their prominence.

The restless swirling lines of their metalwork find a new Christian theme from the 7th century AD in the interlacing patterns of Irish manuscripts and stone Celtic crosses. And the carved monsters and grinning faces of barbarian art surface again in the capitals of Romanesque cloisters.
 






Illuminated manuscripts: 7th - 11th century


Irish monks of the 7th and 8th century create illuminated manuscripts which are among the greatest treasures of Celtic and early Christian art. The beautiful calligraphy (the scribes sometimes add Complaints in the margin about their difficult working conditions) usually provides the text of the four Gospels. The earliest is the Book of Durrow, from about 650. Others include the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.700) and the Book of Kells (c.800).

The glory of these manuscripts (in addition to their wonderfully inventive images of the evangelists) is the intricate decoration, with the famous 'carpet pages' formed of interlacing patterns - reminiscent of the complex linear designs in Celtic metalwork.
 









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