Originally published December 2006
“Their lives were very simple, and they had no knowledge whatsoever of any art or science”
–Polybius on the Gauls of northern Italy.
The surviving treasures of Celtic peoples have made a liar of the Greek historian Polybius. Some classical writers may have considered the Celtic lands an artistic waste land, but Celtic abstract motifs, especially as applied to metal working, even came to influence Roman provincial art.
Many of the masterpieces of Celtic art were decorated in what modern scholars call the “La Tene” style. The pottery and metal work of the Hallstatt Celts was often decorated with simple geometric patterns. Human figures are fairly rare. As decorated pottery and metal artifacts were introduced from Greek and Etruscan imports, the Mediterranean designs began to influence the art of the areas north and east of the Hallstatt settlements. It is this mixing of cultures which seems to have given birth the the La Tene school of art.
But the La Tene artists did not merely copy the Greek and Etruscan art motifs. They adapted many plant forms and stylized them to the point that they were no longer as recognizable. They also never made use of human figures as often as the Greeks, and when they did, it was most often just faces, or heads, not full figures. Some scholars have
speculated as to whether this implies that there may have been a taboo against portraying complete human figures.
The La Tene artists spread across a wide area of Europe, and started appearing in England around 300 B.C. and Ireland about a century later. The British Isles eventually became centers of innovation in their own right, and became the finest branch of La Tene styles during the later Iron age.
La Tene inspired art saw a rebirth in the early 19th century when it helped influence the styles of the Art Nouveau movement
Some of the masterpieces of British La Tene art in the British Museum
The Battersea Shield:
The Desborough Mirror: