Celtic Art, Venceslas Kruta

Reviewer: Wouter van DijkCeltic_Art

Celtic Art, Venceslas Kruta

Phaidon Press, London 2015
ISBN: 978 0 7148 4597 5

Hardback, lavishly illustrated in colour, with glossary, chronology, map, bibliography and index
240 pages
£59,95 / €49,95


An illustrated history of Celtic art

More than 2000 years after their famous defeat by Caesar in Gaul and their submission to Rome, the Celts nowadays still inspire and intrigue. Their art plays a considerable part in the ongoing appreciation of this ancient people. In this book the mysterious and attractive designs of Celtic art objects are meticulously scrutinized by the well-known Celtic scholar Venceslas Kruta, but before diving into the wealth of archaeological remains that passes-by in the book, Kruta gives an overview of the history of Celtic Studies and archaeology in his introduction. The first attempts to discover the Celtic past were made in sixteenth-century England, we learn, when the much older megalithic tombs and stone circles were attributed to the Celtic forbears. Kruta then elaborates further on the question why Celtic art has been a backwater in our collective memory for so long. An important reason for this, besides their reluctance to put their knowledge to paper, is that the Celts did not leave any architectural achievements behind, since they built primarily in wood, not stone, in contrast tot heir Greek and Roman contemporaries.

Celtic art then, was for a long time treated as an inferior imitation of Mediterranean and even oriental models. The originality of Celtic creations however, can be clearly seen in their tendency to abstraction of the surrounding world in their art and the previously unseen sources of inspiration such as the enduring theme around the human-headed horse that appeared in the fifth century BC. The cult of the sun also became a very powerful source of artistic inspiration. A bit strange though, is Kruta’s enumeration of countries the Celts inhabited, in which he fails to mention the Netherlands, to name one example. Today it should be known to an expert as Kruta that Celts also inhabited the area of the modern Netherlands, before mingling with incoming Germanic peoples from the north and east. The lack of written sources left behind by the Celts should, according to Kruta, be attributed to a belief that the sacred could not be confined in written words and so nothing of their religious or scientific knowledge was trusted to paper. Caesar’s mentioning in his Gallic Wars that the Celts’ hesitation to writing sprouted from their fear that that would lead to a decline of the ability to remember things is probably a myth.

The first chapter of the publication is about the forerunners of the typical Celtic art that becomes visible from the 5th century BC, and deals with the period from the 8th to the 6th century BC. Some elementary Celtic images are already noticeable, such as the emphasis on solar symbols and even an object shaped as an oak leaf, hinting to the later so important sacred oak tree. From the 5th century BC onwards, motifs and style begin to change under influence of Meditteranean trade, mainly with Greeks and Etruscans. Solar symbolism from Etruscan pottery is now adopted and adapted to Celtic interpretations. Also the image of the mistletoe as sacred representation of the deity makes its entrance. The mistletoe, living as a parasite on oak trees, stays green in winter while trees lose their leaves. Therewith it is the perfect representation of the solar deity that symbolizes eternal life and thus immortality.

Another typical aspect of Celtic art Kruta touches, is the role of mathematics in the designing of the Celtic motif. According to Kruta, this use of Euclidean geometry had to be well known by the Druidic class and been taught orally over generations. This reveals the Druids and with them the Celts as true scholars of Pythagoras, a claim also made by Robb in The Ancient Paths. The combination of the three forms of life, human, animal and plant, was a much used theme in Celtic art. Plant, animal and human figures were used time and again to make the sacred visible. Also the personification of the sun god as a human figure along with his serpentlike acolytes was a recurrent and loved theme. In the fourth century BC influences of the Italic cultures become visible in the art of the Celts, this was triggered by the Celtic expansion into the Po valley in northern Italy which increased Italo-Celtic contacts.

The innumerable objects in Kruta’s book are described in great detail. Technical specifications are also provided and the quality of the photographs is extraordinary. The highlights in this collection are too many to mention, from the jewellery from the princess grave of Waldalgesheim to the warrior statue and ceremonial flagon of Glauberg they receive all the attention they deserve. Of course the famous Gundestrup cauldron and Battersea shield are incorporated, as are lesser known objects of art from Austria, the Czech Republic and many, many other countries of Europe.

In the third century BC the Celts expanded their power as far as Delphi in Greece and Asia Minor. Bronze and iron working reached new heights and glass working was introduced. The art from this period resembles the strong warrior cult in Celtic society and can for instance be seen in graves of the elites. The bronze decorations that belonged to a wooden jug found in the burial site of Brno-Malomerice are a unique example of the astronomical knowledge of the Druids. They show the starry sky on exactly two important days of the Celtic calendar, the feasts of Beltane and Samhaim, representing the coming of the bright season of the year in june and the new year festival that heralds the coming of the dark season respectively. Archaeological finds such as these are instrumental in shaping our image of this people as being in fact far more sophisticated than hithertho assumed. Our distorted image of the Celts as a bunch of barbarians has mainly been shaped by hostile Roman writings that have survived to our day and taken as the undisputed  truth.

In the second and first centuries BC Celtic expansion came to a halt. Market and power centres, proto-towns, developed. The oppida, as the Romans were to call them, functioned as central places for their surrounding areas. A monetary economy developed and Kruta mentions the decline in spectacular archaelogical artifacts found from this period. One possible explanation he gives is that the best artists and craftsmen were now recruited in the production of coins, leaving less skilled persons to provide for artistic highlights. This seems however, not very convincing.

Two short chapters on Celtic art in the British Isles and Ireland complete Kruta’s overview work. Here the art of the Celts was adapted in a distinctive but still definitely as Celtic recognizable style. Due to the absence of Roman and Germanic influence, especially in Ireland the Celtic style and symbols remained dominant and developed gradually in symbiosis with the symbolism of the new religion when Christianity came. Together with the extensive glossary and the marvellous images of the objects, Kruta’s description of the art pieces and his contextual explanations make this work a must have for anyone loving the immortality and unmatched quality of Celtic design and artistic originality. Simply a beautiful book about beautiful art.

Wouter van Dijk