Celtic art is considered the first great contribution to European art made by non-Mediterranean peoples. Its roots go back to the artisans of the Urnfield culture and the Hallstatt culture (8th-6th century BCE) at the beginning of the Iron Age. It flowered in the period of the La Tène culture. Although Celtic art was influenced by ancient Persian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art and by that of the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, it developed distinctive characteristics. These are evident in its major artifacts-weapons, vessels, and jewelry in bronze, gold, and occasionally silver. Many of these objects were made for chieftains in southern Germany and France and were recovered from their tombs.
The Celtic style is marked by a preference for stylized plant motifs, usually of Greek origin, and fantastic animals, derived from the Scythians and other steppe peoples; the human figure plays a secondary role. Other favorite motifs are elliptical curves and opposing curves, spirals, and chevrons, also derived from steppe art. These elements were combined in dynamic yet balanced, intricate geometrical patterns carried out in relief, engraving, or red, yellow, blue, and green champlevé enamel on shields, swords, sheaths, helmets, bowls, and jewelry.
They also appeared on painted pottery cinerary urns, food vessels, incense bowls, and drinking cups. Examples of Celtic art include torcs, or neck rings, with the two open ends ornamented with animal heads; the silver repoussé Gundestorp cauldron (circa 100BCE, National Museum, Copenhagen); a bronze lozenge-shaped shield with circular medallions and small enamel circles (1st century BCE-1st century CE); and a bronze mirror with enameled decoration (1st century BCE). Also surviving are roughly carved stone monuments and wooden objects.
During the period of Roman domination of Western Europe in and after the 1st century BCE, the art of Celtic peoples on the Continent gradually lost its distinctive style. The Celts of Ireland continued to work with traditional motifs, but, as Christianity took hold, they combined them with Christian motifs and employed their skills in the service of the church. Their carved stone crosses; intricate metal chalices, bells, and reliquaries; and magnificently illuminated liturgical books may more properly be considered Irish art.
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