Celts: Art and Identity
at The British Museum
Until 31st January 2016
What does Celtic mean? And who are The Celts? To us these words have come to be associated with the culture, languages, music and traditions of the fringes of northwestern Europe – Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany – but, as this exhibition at The British Museum aims to show, Celticness has been a much more fluid and elusive state throughout history. The exhibition starts in 500BC when the term Celts was first used by the Ancient Greeks to describe people living north of the Alps who the Greeks clearly saw as being ‘other’ and set apart from the Graeco-Roman classical world. The exhibition goes on tell the story of all the different groups who have been given or have taken the name Celt from then until now. It shows us that The Celts have never been a single unified entity that can be easily pinned down, rather historically they were disparate groups of people who shared a common link in the form of a unique, distinctive, stylised art. And what art it was.
Torcs are probably the quintessential Celtic jewellery, these simple circular open ended neckpieces still to this day have Celtic associations, and the exhibition has a huge number of ancient torcs on show. The silver bull torc with an iron core is so heavy at 7kg that it is thought to have been created for ceremonial use and worn by a statue rather than a person. It is a stunning thing though. the terminals fashioned in the shape of bulls’ heads, themselves wearing miniature torcs of their own. No wonder this is a culture that has captured our imaginations for so long.
The Blair Drummond torcs were found in Stirling, Scotland in 2009 by a metal detectorist on his very first outing (one can only guess how infuriating that must have been for his fellow detectorists). The differing styles of these torcs show how connected widespread areas of Europe were in the Iron Age period. Of the torcs which date from 300-100 BC, two are made from twisted spiralled gold ribbons, which is very characteristic of Scotland and Ireland, while another has a knobbly texture, a style that originated from Southwestern France. Yet another has intricately decorated terminals typical of gold work from Mediterranean workshops. In this one hoard you find local styles mixed in with far-flung styles from across Europe. Study of the gold used suggests that these exotic foreign styles were not imports but rather were made locally revealing the sophisticated connections between skilled craftsmen of the period.
But, magnificent as they are, this exhibition is not all torcs. The most awe-inspiring object in the exhibition is very rarely loaned from its home in the National Museum of Denmark. The Gundestrup Cauldron is an exceptional and iconic object which features in virtually every book on Celtic art. Dug out of a peat bog in northern Jutland in 1891, this silver bowl, so big you could barely wrap your arms around its circumference, is thought to date from c.100-1 BC. The Gundestrup Cauldron is made up of a number of beaten silver panels which portray a series of mysterious scenes in relief. On the outside are seven panels, of an original eight, each showing the face of what is thought to be a god or goddess. On the interior surface of the cauldron you find panels with more complex scenes, filled with more deities, people and animals both real and imagined.
The Gundestrup Cauldron’s decoration is both extraordinary and extremely puzzling. Scenes show gods with their arms held aloft, a woman jumping, other figures wrestling animals, giants upending humans, sea monsters, warriors and animal sacrifices. Quite what these scenes mean is regrettably lost in the passage of time. Do they depict legends or stories or are they of some religious significance? And what was the cauldron used for? We don’t know but regardless these remain powerful images that still fire the imagination more than 2,000 years after they were created. It is a privilege to see it up close.
The Celts exhibition also highlights some fascinating elements of Celtic culture including the practice of sacrificing precious objects to their gods. Typically this would happen in wet places – rivers, bogs and lakes – which seemed to hold a ritual significance for Celts. The Battersea Shield, an ornate bronze shield dating from 350-50 BC, is considered to be one of these objects ritually deposited in water. Pulled out of the River Thames at Battersea in 1855, the shield is one of the finest examples of Iron Age Celtic art from Britain, with curvilinear decoration and red glass embellishments.
The Celtic Iron Age gold, silver and bronze pieces known collectively as The Snettisham Hoards are among the most important archaeological finds in this country to date and a section of the Celts exhibition is devoted to it. The first pieces of The Snettisham Hoards to be found were ploughed up accidentally but a major find in 1990 prompted The British Museum to conduct a comprehensive dig and a huge number of deliberately buried objects, torcs and jewellery were subsequently found. Most of the The Snettisham Hoards were buried about 70 BC and the entire collection is the largest deposit of gold and silver found in Iron Age Europe, weighing in at around 20 kg of silver and 15 kg of gold. Laid out in this exhibition The Snettisham Hoards are an amazing sight and a testament to the astounding skill of the metalworkers of the time. The highlight of the Snettisham Hoards is The Great Torc. Made from just over a kilogram of gold mixed with silver, it comprises sixty-four threads twisted together, 8 threads at a time to make 8 separate ropes of metal. These eight ropes were then twisted around each other to make the final mighty torc and finished with cast terminals welded onto the ropes.
Celts: Art and Identity takes us from prehistory through the Roman era into the early medieval period where we see Celtic art meeting Christianity and the emergence of the familiar Celtic Cross. The exhibition has huge replica examples of crosses from Scotland and ireland. Amongst them a replica of the huge St John’s Cross from Iona which dates from 750-800 AD. These replica Celtic crosses make for a wonderful sight, dominating one end of the Sainsbury Gallery space.
The exhibition goes on to look at the reemergence of the Celtic name in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after it had fallen out of use for hundreds of years. This was a time when writers and artists created a romantic vision of Celticness that reimagined it as the rightful historic past of the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh. This section of the exhibition explores the Bardic traditions of Wales and the National Eisteddfod rites, complete with Archdruid’s robes and regalia on show. The Arts and Crafts movement, the Glasgow School and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were entranced and inspired by Celtic art and there some beautiful objects from the last decades of the nineteenth century, a glass and silver basin and a stunning enamelled silver triptych amongst them. The painting by George Henry and Edward Atkinson-Hornel The Druids: Bringing in the Mistletoe of 1890 represents late nineteenth century artists’ preoccupation with Celtic subject matter and motifs.
Celts: Art and Identity is a hugely ambitious show that manages to wrestle a unwieldy and elusive beast of a subject into relative submission. Altogether it is a fascinating insight into an enigmatic and mysterious world that resists any attempts at simplistic interpretation, it is a 2,500 year old aesthetic that does not yield its secrets easily.
The exhibition is open until 31st January 2016
Photographs © The London Art File
Under 16s FREE
Celts: Art and Identity
Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery
Great Russell Street