Celts: Art and Identity at the British Museum

Entering the always-imposing British Museum and fighting through the crowds of tourists to get into the exhibition room for Celts: Art and Identity, you face three symbols of Celtic identity: an Irish harp, a Scottish cross-stone and the beautiful Welsh Gorsedd banner.

Symbols of Celtic identity

Symbols of Celtic identity

Coming into the main room, you are confronted at once with a towering sandstone figure, Janus-faced, with deep eyes and a single slit for a mouth. Around his head are two bulbous shapes, reminiscent perhaps of mistletoe leaves.

Celtic statue, Germany c.1st century CE

Celtic statue, Germany c.1st century CE

He doesn’t look like what you might expect from Celtic art, but there he is. This unusual shape around his head turns up again and again on statues, artwork, faces in shields etc. Picking up Exploring the World of the Druids by Miranda Green in the gift-shop, the mistletoe connection was confirmed, the plant being sacred to the Druids and representative of fertility and virility.

The statue was found in Germany and is over 2,000 years old. But wait…aren’t the Celts British, Irish and Gaulish? Well, it turns out that the various disparate tribes and peoples whom the Greeks called Keltoi (a name they never used for themselves) lived all over Europe from as far East as Turkey to the Western Isles of Ireland. These “Celts” are a cultural group, not a genetic one, linked over time and geography by a shared style of art and visual identity and possibly a shared linguistic and religious heritage.

The British Museum’s exhibition takes you on a journey from the earliest records of Keltoi as seen by the so-called “civilised” cultures of Greece and Rome, through to the conversion of British and Irish Celts to Christianity, and the revival of interest in all things Celtic that began in the 17th century and laid the foundations for much of modern Druidry.

Apart from hundreds of gold and silver torcs (seriously, there were cases stuffed full of them, and some were gigantic!), weapons, shields and miscellanea, one highlight of the exhibition was definitely the famous and vast Gundestrup Cauldron, found in Denmark. I’ve seen many images of this in books, but seeing the real thing was an experience I won’t forget. It is huge and polished bright silver, with details on every panel showing hunts, battles, feasts, deities, heroes and more. The most striking image is that of a figure seated, Buddha-like, amongst a variety of animals. He has antlers on his head and is wearing a torc, while holding another one. In his other hand, he holds a horned serpent.

"Cernunnos" figure from the Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark c. 2nd century CE

“Cernunnos” figure from the Gundestrup cauldron, Denmark c. 2nd century CE

In modern Paganism, this figure has come to be known as Cernunnos, although he is not named on the cauldron and the name comes from a different inscription on the 1st century Gaulish “pillar of the boatmen”. Whatever his name, and whether he was intended to represent a god or a shaman-like figure, we will never know, but his image remains evocative of Druidry and the “wild wisdom” of the forest.

Turning the corner, the exhibition features giant stone crosses from early Celtic Christianity, and comments on how British Celts embraced Christianity as a badge of identity against the invading Pagan Anglo-Saxons. The blend of Celtic, Saxon, and later Viking art and culture all combined to create a distinct British-Celtic art style and identity that would fuel the imagination of the later Celtic revival.

"Archdruid in his judicial habit" from !Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles" (1815)

“Archdruid in his judicial habit” from “Costume of the Original Inhabitants of the British Isles” (1815)

The exhibition goes on to feature early modern and Victorian ideas of the Celts, fanciful and romantic reconstructions of “noble savages” and Druids building stone circles (which of course, pre-dated the Celts by some several thousand years). In this section, the exhibition features some really interesting artefacts of modern Celticism, including Archdruid’s robes from the Welsh Gorsedd. This is a cultural, non-Pagan form of Druidry inspired by the forgeries of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), whose ceremonies and symbols, notably the Awen symbol /|\, have also influenced traditional British Pagan Druidry in a big way.

Speaking of, I was surprised and pleased to see modern Druidry represented, with a case featuring the Druid Animal Oracle by OBOD’s Chief Druid, Philip Carr-Gomm. According to the caption, Druidry is one of the fastest-growing religions in the UK and USA, so go team!

While the price of the exhibition (£16.50 adults, £13.00 students) seemed a bit steep, it was genuinely fascinating and really rather moving, and an excellent way to spend a grey December afternoon learning about our Celtic past and present.

Celts: Art and Identity is on until 31 January 2016. For more information see the British Museum website.

You’re unfortunately not allowed to take photos in the exhibition, so all images in this post are by the Museum/via press reports of the exhibition.

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3 Responses to Celts: Art and Identity at the British Museum

  1. Andy says:

    I wanted to see this but I’m not going to make it. I missed the Viking exhibition too, but I did go to the Neolithic one-Ice Age Art, which was fantastic. Will keep an eye out for the accompanying Celtic book.

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