Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Extraordinary Art of the Celts

Celtic Horses

It was such a gorgeous sun-shiny day here in my neck o’ the woods (along the lake in Michigan) that I had a hard time sitting down and writing my blog! My instinct was to soak up the sun. But finally I got down to the business of getting my resources and photos ready to post. Phew, found out I had a LOT of material on the Celts and Ireland but predominately Scotland and their “ilk” After I started hauling out all the books, artwork, jewelry and ephemera I had collected in my journey to know all that was about my Scottish heritage, it became clear to me that it would take a lot more posts (and maybe another blog) to cover the subject to my satisfaction. So here is a taste of the Celtic world and the Isles in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day next week.
A little bit about the Celts: When we here the word “Celt” most of us associate it with the Emerald Island, Ireland. The word is derived from the Greek word Keltoi and actually refers to the larger dominant pre-Christian culture of Europe and northern Mediterranean regions. Evidence from archeologists  tell us that the Celtic society and culture first appeared around 500 before the common era at the headwaters of the Danube. By the first century it had encompassed what is now Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Central Europe, the Balkans and of course the British Isles. After the 10th century, their culture receded surviving predominately in Ireland, Wales and the Highlands of Scotland.

Stylized Celtic letter
Celtic refers also to the family of languages spoken by these early inhabitants of Europe with Irish-Gaelic being the oldest surviving form of spoken Gaelic in the world. With the coming of Christianity in the isles, Irish arose as a written language circa the 15th century and it is the oldest and longest literary vernacular tradition outside of the known classical world. Once spoken by millions, it is now a living language of approximately 25,0000 people. 

Necklace with Book of Kells Dragon Motif

And of course, (you wondered when I would get around to the art right?) Celtic also refers to a form of European art. Our earliest source for Celtic art was the wonderful distinctive expressions found in the pottery and metalwork artifacts from the Hallstatt culture which blossomed around the eighth and nine centuries b.c. the La Tene period in 450 b.c. was known for beautiful and intricate designs. In spite of its traditional insular viewpoint, Celtic art successfully bonds previous elements of the past Irish iconographical traditional Celtic vision and the assimilations of Romano-Christian culture, producing what is considered to be the crowning achievement of Irish Celtic art. Early Celtic art reflects a mystical world view where people could transform into animals, as humans were not separate from them, and where the boundaries between the spirit world and this world were oftentimes blurred. Their abstract and decorative art is reflective of this, becoming literal and figurative.
Eight-Circled Cross From Book of Kells

This Crowning Glory of the Irish-Celtic world is known as “The Book of Kells.” It is one of the most famous and valuable illuminated manuscripts. The original book is housed at t he Trinity College Museum in Dublin, Ireland. The Book of Kells was written circa 800 a.d. Scholars believe it took over seventy-five years to complete as it was handwritten on and hand-painted on vellum (calf-skin that is previously tanned and stretched paper thin.) The Book contains the four Latin gospels inscribed in the Insular Majuscule script. Excepting four pages, each one is richly illuminated with flamboyant exuberantly colored birds, animals, faces, and figures, some in a very humorous fashion entwining the letters. Combining vivid colors, sometimes grotesque beasts and whimsical fantasy figures shows that the monks who created it were capable of delightful  expression. (who know those monks had a sense of humor!). This truly magnificent achievement is considered to be one of the finest examples of illuminated art in Europe. In 1990 Trinity College allowed for a limited number of replicas of the book to be published. Each of these exact facsimiles cost $14,800 each. With the assistance of the MuskegonIrish-American Society and the Friends of Hackley Library, a copy was purchased and placed in  the Hackley Public Library on their one hundredth anniversary. It is held in a specially-made black box very similar to the type of medieval boxes that would have previously held such a priceless artifact. At that time, it was the only known facsimile edition of this book to be on display in a public library in North America. (I do not know if this current information). I have been lucky enough to live close to the Library and have had the honor of viewing the book on many occasions. At one time they turned a page per day in order to enable people to view the art on its pages. The book has 680 pages. 

Saint Patrick
And what would an article on St. Patrick’s Day be without making mention of the patron saint himself? Probably just another day to drink beer.

Saint Patrick was born in Scotland (yup, not Irish folks) in 385. He was captured, taken to Ireland and enslaved. It was during this time that he turned to God for comfort and strength. After six years, it is said that God came to him in a dream telling him to return home to Scotland. After escaping and returning to his family, the Irish country-land still haunted his dreams. Eventually he became a priest, then a bishop doing his work in Rome. He was then sent back to Ireland to spread his message of the Gospel, and because he could speak Celtics, he was able to communicate with the Irish in their own language. Druidism was the spirituality widely extant in the Isles but Patrick and his followers preached all over Ireland, many times being imprisoned or facing death to spread their belief system. The traditional of using shamrocks stems from his manner of explaining the trinity to the indigenous people. He was said to be a gentle, patient man, known for his humility and humbleness, shunning material wealth for the quiet life spent in quiet prayer. His feast day of course is March 17th

The Luck of the Irish be with you!
So whether you like to drink green beer, enjoy a steaming hot bowl of Irish Stew or spend a quiet day of solitude in remembrance of the Patron Saint who brought us this day, to all those Irish-which is everybody next week: sláinte mhaith (good health to you in Gaelic). ( A copy of the the following hangs on my door all the year long). 

An Irish Blessing
May the blessing of light be upon you
Light without and light within.
May the blesses sunlight shine on you
And warm your heart until it glows like a great peat fire, so
That the stranger may come and warm himself at it, and also
A friend.
And may the light shine out of the two eyes of you, like a
Candle set in two windows of a house, bidding the wanderer
To come in out of the storm
And may the blessing of the rain be upon you
The soft sweet rain, may it fall upon your spirit so that all
The little flowers may spring up, and shed their sweetness on the air.
And may the blessing of the great rains be upon you,
May they beat upon your spirit and wash it fair and clean,
And leave their many a shining pool where the blue of heaven
Shines, and sometimes a star.
And may the blessings of the earth be upon you,
The great round earth; may you ever have a kindly greeting
For them you pass as you’re going along the roads, may the
Earth be soft under you when you rest upon it, tired at the
End of the day, and may it rest easy over you when, at the
Last, you lay out under it; may it rest so lightly over you,
That your soul may be out from under it quickly, and up, and
and on its way to God.

Celtic Triskle
For more information, see: Celtic Art: From Its Beginnings to the Book of Kells (Ruth and Vincent). NY. Thames and Hudson 1989. The Story of the Irish Race by Seumis MacManus (1921). Ordinary People. Extraordinary Lives: Inspirational Stories of the Saints.
Photos: Stock.


  1. Great blog entry! My favorite place that the Celts were (besides Ireland!) is Galicia, Spain where Carlos Nunez is from! A great piper!

    1. Thank you talkandchatter. I love all things Celtic! I may have to do more posts on the subject-Marie