Celts: Art and Identity at the National Museum of Scotland
Country Life, June 15th 2016
This is one of the most tantalising displays of prehistoric art ever exhibited in the British Isles. It is a gathering of our collective artistic unconscious yet nothing is known about the makers or the owners. Working at their very best, scholars can tell us how they were made and where they were found - which is in a grave or as an offering thrown into somewhere damp, a bog, a river or a lake. None of these extraordinary objects can be associated with historical use, for they have never been found in a fallen house or hilltop citadel. We have no supporting literature with which to interpret them, just a few bemused references from their enemies. Even the most famous element of Celtic society, their priest-like order of Druids, is as yet unsupported by any archaeological find. Yet this is where we came from, the artistic root-stock of our nation.
I have now been to the exhibition four times, and have made a nuisance of myself trying to sketch some of the simplest brooches and torcs. They reveal themselves to be bafflingly complex, or rather suggest many things at the same time, depending on how close you look, from which angle and how the light falls. Sinuous lines of metal switch like an abstract dream between animal, vegetable and human forms, suggesting a horses head from that angle, a sprouting seed from that or a pair of dragons from the other. Some of the most exquisite detail, be it the workings of the handle on a shield or the underbelly of a brooch, would have been invisible to all but the owner, the maker and the gods.
The British Museum display was awesome. Moody, darkly mysterious and intensely lit, it was also engaged with the issue of our contemporary Celtic heritage. The exhibition has moved north to Edinburgh, which has less space and money for this sort of thing, yet has managed to make it even better. It is more tightly focused, more historical, with some small but lovely additional pieces on loan (among them the Swiss Bear goddess, a highly relevant panel of repousse work from Romania and a whalebone casket). You can also listen to mini-lectures by passionately articulate Scottish archaeologists (including the lucky metal detector who found the Blair Drummond hoard on his very first outing !). The display of original books from the 1850’s (by scholars working simultaneously on the separate collections in Dublin, Edinburgh and London, John Kemble, Daniel Wilson, Augustus Frankes, is a handsome tribute to those who gave this subject to the world.
It also acknowledges the disparate nature of how English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh see their Celtic heritage.
The National Museum has also tightened the displays for the less learned, so that the Snettisham torcs, the boar-headed Carynx war trumpets and the Gundestrup silver cauldron (the Mona Lisa of the European Iron Age) are highlighted as the memorable punctuation marks of this exhibition. The start date is 450 BC. The Celts have no ethnic or linguistic identity. It is just our collective term for the shared material culture of the Iron Age Europeans living north of the Meditteranean, from the Atlantic to the Danube. This vast European hinterland was united by strands of shared belief in the importance of the heroic warrior, sacrifice and communal feasting. It was a culture knitted together by pilgrims, traders, master-smiths, story-tellers and shaman-priests, not by leaders. Many of these venerated objects have travelled the length and breadth of Europe before reaching their final resting place. They were never intended as art to be nailed to a wall, even that of a palace or temple, but to be worn on a chariot, a handsome horse, a woman or a warrior, maybe also by their kings and priests. But even more than that, the very best of these pieces, were destined to be offered up to the gods through our waters.
The artistic tradition reaches its apogee in the British Isles just before the Roman conquest, but survives beyond it, albeit in slightly cheaper more accessible forms. The Romans added silver to the repertoire, while the Anglo-Saxons liked combining metals in inlays and adding garnets. The final apogee came in the 8th century when classical and Christian influences are added to the Celtic-Pictish-Anglo-Saxon bedrock to create the Insular School. This is the era of those fantastically inventive manuscript pages and stone crosses, of jewelled crosiers and caskets that served as reliquaries and book shrines.
With these totemic early medieval objects we have entered a recognizably modern artistic world. For these things are lovingly preserved (not sacrificed to gods in bogs) and make triumphant use of flat surfaces - parchment and stone. They also tell us stories that we know. Yet the artistic line that connects Iron Age warriors with Medieval Abbot-saints is sure and strong.
“Those singularly beautiful curves are more beautiful in the parts that are not seen….and revealed in shadow more than fire.”
Back to Articles page
by Barnaby Rogerson