Given their preference for abstract or stylized forms, it is scarcely surprising that the Celts should have left us comparatively few images of their gods. Most of the finest examples of Celtic sculpture involve disciplines like metalwork and jewellery art, as well as stone carving. Of the stoneworks, many of the finest surviving examples were placed in or near important burial sites.
Pride of place is usually given to depictions of Cernunnos, the horned-god, since he is the only deity that has been positively identified through an inscription. This was discovered on a rather worn altar relief, originally located beneath the present-day church of Notre-Dame de Paris. The monument was erected by Parisian sailors and was dedicated to Tiberius. On the strength of this, a number of other portrayals of the deity have been identified.
ART OF THE ANCIENT
The most notable of these is a Gallo-Roman altar from Reims, whieh shows Cernunnos sitting cross-legged between the figures of Apollo and Mercury. The sculpture dates from the 1st century CE, after Gaul had been Romanized. This accounts for the overtly classical appearance of the group. Even so, several of the god's traditional attributes are clearly recognizable. These include his horns, the torc around his neck and the animals at his feet. In his lap, he holds a sack of money, which represents abundance. The rat above his head relates to the underworld and, in this instance, probably refers to Mercury rather than Cernunnos. The horned god was most popular in Gaul, although evidence of his worship has also been found elsewhere. On some of his shrines, the deity's antlers were removable. This implies that the rites associated with him may have been seasonal, coinciding with the natural growth of a stag's antlers.
ART & ARCHITECTURE
EVOLUTION OF THE
After Cernunnos, the most widely represented
deity was the horse-goddess, Epona. This may be due to the fact that,
alone of all the Celtic divinities, she was worshipped at Rome. In most
cases, Epona was shown riding side-saddle on a mare or, alternatively,
standing between a pair of horses. On coins, she was occasionally represented
as a horse with a woman's head. The goddess represented fertility, particularly
in relation to horse-breeding, but she was also linked with death. On
some images, she was portrayed with a key. One of her roles, it seems,
was to conduct human souls to the Otherworld and the key symbolized her
access to this legendary realm. Predictably, the cult of Epona was especially
popular with cavalrymen. Her name is the source of the English word 'pony'.
Regrettably, many of the surviving items of Celtic religious art (sculpture) can no longer be identified. Nevertheless, they can be classified under a number of different thematic groupings. It is noticeable, for example, that many Celtic deities had zoomorphic overtones. Cernunnos himself was often represented with cloven feet, and this tendency can be discerned in a variety of other figures.
The tiny sandstone statue from Euffigneix in eastern Gaul (1st century BCE) is particularly striking. Measuring just over 25cm, it was probably intended for private devotions, rather than for a larger tribal shrine. The stylized face has been damaged but this is overshadowed, in any case, by the spirited depiction of a boar on the front of the figure. Its dorsal bristles are erect, an aggressive feature which normally underlined the creature's role as a war symbol. On one side of the statuette, there is also an outsized carving of a single human eye, its prominent eyebrow echoing the line of the boar's crest. No one has been able to find a satisfactory explanation for this combination of motifs, although the figure is sometimes thought to represent a hunting god.
Bouray Bronze Figure
Sculpted from bronze rather than stone, the curious figure from Bouray (50 BCE - 50 CE) falls into the same category. A cursory glance might suggest a classical source, but closer examination reveals not only the torc around the neck, but also the figure's awkward, squat-legged position. The tiny legs, which are out of proportion with the rest of the figure, resemble the hooves of a deer. Indeed, if it were not for the complete absence of antlers, it would be tempting to interpret this as a depiction of Cernunnos. The figure was dredged out of the River Juine, to the south of Paris, in 1845. It was fashioned out of sheet metal, and it seems quite possible that its designer was a specialist cauldron-maker. Certainly, there are some stylistic affinities with the figures on the cauldron from Rynkeby.
Many of the other worthies represented
by Celtic stonemasons take the form of pillar-statues. This reflects their
original purpose, which was to crown the summits of ancient burial mounds.
One of the oldest discoveries in this vein was the life-sized figure of
a warrior, carved out of sandstone, which was found near the German tomb
of Hirschlanden. The statue dates back to the 6th century BCE and was
originally placed at the top of the barrow, until it was broken off at
the feet. Its various attributes - the conical helmet, the weighty neck-ring,
the dagger hanging from a belt, and the erect phallus - were all designed
to emphasize the heroic status of the princeling in the tomb below. The
distorted facial features are sometimes thought to represent a mask.
Janiform figures provided an alternative
format for the pillar-statue. With their ability to gaze out in two directions
at once, Janus heads were particularly appropriate for the tops of tumuli,
dominating their entire surroundings. The best surviving example is a
sandstone pillar-statue from Holzerlingen. This is slightly more than
life-sized and shows Celtic stylization at its most severe. The mouth
is nothing more than a horizontal gash and the heavy, hooded eyes exude
menace. Unlike the Hirschlanden figure, which was meant to glorify the
occupant of the tomb, this is clearly a deity of some kind. By tradition,
Janus figures fulfilled a protective, custodial function, and this may
well have been the intention here. Originally, there was a horn-shaped
protrusion between the heads. It is not clear whether this was a variant
of the leaf crown, as seen on the Pfalzfeld pillar, or whether the deity
was actually horned.
The sanctuary at Roquepertuse was thoroughly
excavated in the 1920s, offering a rare insight into Celtic ritual practices.
It may date from as early as the 6th century BCE and it was in continuous
use for several centuries, until it was destroyed by fire at the start
of the 2nd century BCE. At the entrance to the shrine, there was a portico
consisting of three limestone pillars. These contained niches, where the
skulls of defeated enemies were triumphantly displayed. Similar activities
were carried out at Entremont, another Provencal retreat. This featured
the same arrangement of severed heads, nailed into cavities in pillars,
but at Entremont there were also a number of carvings of these grisly
trophies. On these, the faces had no mouths and were shown with their
eyes closed, pointing to the fact that they were dead.
Comparatively little wood-carving
has come down to us from the Celtic era, largely because of the perishable
nature of the material. The majority of the surviving pieces are votive
figures, which were cast into the water at sacred springs or river shrines.
Unlike the magnificent weapons and items of jewellery
that were discarded at other sites, these wooden figurines were usually
plain, cheaply made objects. They were also deposited for a very specific
purpose, namely to invoke the healing powers of tutelary deities.
Other Celtic Sculpture
Famous monumental Celtic stonework such as the La Tene style Turoe Stone in County Galway Ireland, the Killycluggin Stone in County Cavan, the Mullaghmast Stone in County Kildare, the Derrykeighan Stone in County Antrim, and the Navel Stone at Delphi, in Greece, is more engraving than sculpture. Likewise the 3-D goldwork of the Broighter boat and other similar artifacts is considered under Celtic Metalwork art rather than sculpture.
As for the famous ringed Celtic High Cross Sculptures, sculpted during the medieval period (c.750-1150) of early Christian art, such as the 10th century Muiredach's Cross, the Celtic-style designs (eg. the interlace, knotwork and spiral designs on the South Cross of Clonmacnoise, the St. Mullins Cross, and the Ullard High Cross) are almost all abstract (the few exceptions being zoomorphic images), while the figurative reliefs owe little to the art of the Celts.
For more about painters and sculptors,
see: Irish Artists.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IRISH AND CELTIC ART