What Did British Celts Like to See?
By Sukayna Powell
The art of the Celts – a loose cultural grouping along primarily linguistic lines – has been an object of fascination and contention since it was first identified and classified as such. In the case of the more distinct sub-culture of the Celts of the western and northern British Isles, their art and material culture has become a frequent touchstone in nationalist debates; in historical re-positioning initiatives; and in the aesthetic identities of artists in subsequent epochs.
Part of the reason for this sustained fascination is that the artworks themselves almost invite us to suspect deliberate elusiveness on the part of their creators; they are incredibly epistemologically impenetrable. There is enough visual consistency across extant material to convince the observer that there must have been some coherent and consistent syntax being transmitted culturally – but because the vehicle of that transmission was entirely oral, and we have no entirely unadulterated, and very little even adulterated, evidence of its nature and qualities, it is almost impossible to infer contextually. With no time-travellers or texts to speak revelation, the mute objects that make up the remnants of a rich material culture are both highly prized as testimony, and magnets for the projection of unverifiable speculation.
It might not be possible to read meaning into the artworks with knowledge of the cultural context, and it would certainly be irresponsible to read outwards into the culture from a subjective response to the visual qualities of the artworks, but that does not mean that certain ‘perceptual preferences’ cannot be isolated and highlighted, and presented for further study. That there were such preferences can be inferred from the marked stylistic and temporal variations across the Celtic world – a swathe of Europe connected through trade, language, and certain cultural foundations.
In addition to ‘internal’ influences, Celtic artists also had access to the full wealth of classical and eastern processes and syntaxes through complex trading practices, but stylistic analysis reveals that foreign artistic models were assimilated only if they fitted in with their specific visual identity. Celtic art was, on the whole, staunchly resistant to assimilation without strong motivation, and this was even more markedly the case in the British Isles, with the rapid adoption and development of the central European La Tène style in the fourth century BCE, and the subsequent resistance to further external influence.
Probably the most striking thing about insular Celtic art is the fact that it is almost entirely non-representational. You would be hard pressed to find any representation of a bird or an animal that has not been abstracted practically to the point of indecipherability. In the case of representation of the human form (something we unconsciously assume to be an instinctive activity) it is almost totally absent. In fact, this was such a strong ‘preference’ that we find almost no examples of anthropomorphic art outside the Roman sphere of influence, both spatially and temporally. In other words, Britons only made figures and images of human beings in the areas and during the times of Roman dominance, and outside, before, and after that interval they worked deliberately within a non-representational paradigm.
What is more common than the human figure is the human face – but with an important caveat; whereas on the continent artists can been seen growing steadily more comfortable with explicit, unmistakable faces, in the British Isles the so-called ‘Cheshire cat’ face is the standard, and appears with far greater frequency. The Cheshire cat face is characterised by a ‘now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t’ quality, wherein a degree of ambiguity sufficient to dampen our natural tendency to see faces in things is maintained. These faces appear and disappear as your eye roams the design.
This playing with representational ambiguity and complements a broader interest in figure-ground ambiguity, or in the conditions created when the relationship between convexity and concavity are constantly in flux. Playing with contour rivalry is a sophisticated visual game, and creates an almost endless source of visual interest without the invocation of linearity, time, or narrative. Examples of this interest or technique cross media – from engraved bronze mirrors, to stone carvings, to repoussé work.
When a three-dimensional element is added, extra planes seem to have offered artists even more opportunities to play with the perceptual effects of contour rivalry. For example, the design of the first century BCE Turoe Stone (County Galway, Ireland) does not consistently raise or depress similar elements but unbalances our ‘reading’ of the pattern by expressing the strong form of the circle not in relief but in a depression, balancing the solidity of a circle with the inherent absence of concavity.
The circle and the triangle, especially the equilateral triangle, are common foundational shapes in the insular Celtic visual syntax. These shapes feature multiple (and in the case of the circle - infinite) planes of symmetry, as well as rotational symmetry. The Celtic preference for free-flowing curved lines and surfaces did not preclude a rigorous application of geometric principles when desired; the beautiful engraved bronze mirrors were often executed with the aid of compasses.
Notably, however, the symmetry is rarely simple or perfect. Asymmetry and other slight subversions of geometric perfection are the norm, ranging the tiny but deliberate shifts of direction within a larger design to a carefully orchestrated ‘balanced imbalance’. This compounds the sense of infinite movement and visual interest – it engages the eye without being awkward or illogical.
The piece that best embodies all of these perceptual preferences is the design on a ritually deposited object from Llyn Cerrig Bach, near Anglesea in Wales, roughly dated to the first century BCE. In this deceptively simple, subtly asymmetrical triskelé, featuring arms based on ‘bird’ abstractions, the convex and concave surfaces dance amongst the contour rivalry of the various unique curves, voids become shapes then become spaces. The Llyn Cerrig Bach Plaque exemplifies the complex and subtle set of visual qualities that were clearly highly prized and continuously explored by insular Celtic artists.
Celtic Mirrors. Accessed 27 November 2017. https://www.celticmirrors.org
Kruta, Venceslas, Bradford, Keith, trans. & Bradford, Angela trans. Celtic Art. New York: Phaidon, 2015.
Megaw, John Vincent Stanley & Megaw, Ruth. Celtic Art: From its Beginnings to the Book of Kells. New York, N.Y: Thames & Hudson, 2001.