What is Celtic art?
2,500 years ago, the peoples that the ancient Greeks knew as the Celts expressed their shared beliefs through similar abstract art styles which were used across northern Europe, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Objects decorated with sinuous organic forms and fantastic animals were used for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare. These designs were rich with hidden meanings, many of which remain mysterious to us now. They were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey a shared identity. The development of this Celtic art style contrasted strongly with the increasing realism being used by the ancient Greeks around the same time.
Celtic art continued in Roman Britain, transforming and taking on new influences. In the exhibition you’ll see objects made using typically Roman forms and technologies, such as multi-coloured enamelling, but decorated in characteristic Celtic motifs. Local people, invaders and settlers coming to Britain from around the Roman Empire used these older abstract designs on new types of objects to express Romano-British identities.
Beyond the frontier, communities in northern Scotland were affected by the conquest in a very different way. The exhibition also presents the new types of objects they created once they found themselves the neighbours of a powerful empire, such as distinctive jewellery which emphasised their difference from the Romans.
The Celtic art style was further reinvented in early medieval Christian monasteries in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The distinctive languages, art and objects used by these communities set them apart from the Anglo-Saxons to the southeast, and also from the rest of Europe.The rare manuscripts and striking stone crosses in the exhibition show how the older Celtic curves were combined with Anglo-Saxon designs such as knotwork and interlace, creating a fusion that was altogether new and different. Creating these elaborate and time-consuming works of art was itself an act of religious devotion.
As the Industrial Revolution changed life throughout Britain, people became increasingly fascinated with the Celtic past and traditional crafts. By Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, a creative Celtic revival was underway. Ancient Celtic art styles were rediscovered once again, and what it meant to be Celtic was reimagined. Celtic Revival art became particularly important in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The exhibition shows Celtic-inspired art and design such as a poster from the influential Glasgow School of Art, an exquisite Liberty tea set and vase by Manx designer Archibald Knox, and beautiful paintings by Scottish artist John Duncan.
Many Celtic influences can also be seen in contemporary art, design and culture, in everything from tattoos and tarot cards to jewellery and graphic novels.