Celtic-Inspired Art in the CMA's Collection

Happy Saint Patrick's Day! See below to learn about Celtic-Inspired art in the CMA's collection! 

The Celts were a group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Medieval Europe who spoke Celtic languages and had a similar culture. Today, the term Celtic generally refers to the languages and respective cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany, also known as the Celtic nations. These are the regions where four Celtic languages are still spoken to some extent as mother tongues. The four are Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Breton; plus two recent revivals, Cornish (one of the Brythonic languages) and Manx (one of the Goidelic languages).”

Celtic Head, 100-300. Northern England (Romano-British), Migration period, 2nd-3rd centuries, sandstone with traces of original red paint, Overall: 30 x 31 x 24 cm (11 3/4 x 12 3/16 x 9 7/16 in). Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Jacob Hirsch 1955.555

This stone head has never been attached to a torso. It is known from ancient literary sources that the Celts practiced ritualistic veneration of the human head. For the Celts, the human head represented the seat of mankind’s magical energy. Stone heads similar to this one have survived in large numbers, especially in the upland regions of northern England (the Pennines, the Peak District, and Cumbria) where this one was undoubtedly made by British Celts during the Roman occupation. Such stone heads were probably placed in religious shrines or grottos generally associated with springs, well heads, or natural landmarks for ritual veneration.

Dragon's Head, 1100-1150, Anglo-Norman?, Romanesque period, 12th century walrus ivory, Overall: h. 6.4 cm (2 1/2 in). Gift of Thomas P. Miller in memory of James J. Rorimer 1975.258

This exceedingly rare medieval carving, which recalls the more monumental carvings on Viking ship prows, may have been a finial for a diagonal member of a folding chair. The character of the head, the stylized acanthus leaves, and the foliage-spouting mask on the neck are characteristic of north European and Anglo-Norman Romanesque styles.

Volvo, near Newgrange Tumulus, Slane, County Meath, Ireland (R6), 1987. Patrick Nagatani (American, 1945-) toned gelatin silver print, Image: 15.1 x 20 cm (5 15/16 x 7 13/16 in); Paper: 20.2 x 25.1 cm (7 15/16 x 9 7/8 in). Gift of George Stephanopoulos 2012.343

Which is more useful to humanity: fact or myth, science or faith? This question is central to the saga imagined and brought to life by Nagatani of the archeological explorations led by the artist’s alter ego, Japanese scientist Ryoichi. Traveling the globe between 1985 and 2000, Ryoichi’s team locates and documents 13 of 30 archeological sites, each of which contains a remarkably well-preserved, low-mileage automobile that must have been buried there centuries earlier. Photographs, stills from video documentation, artifacts, and pages from Ryoichi’s journal serve as scientific "proof" that time may not be linear. "If fiction has given more to us than fact, then this is the greatest truth," writes Ryoichi/Nagatani in his journal at the thirteenth and final site.

Vase, c. 1895, James Couper and Sons (Scottish), Christopher Dresser (British, 1834-1904) clutha glass, Diameter: w. 13 cm (5 1/8 in); Overall: h. 36.4 cm (14 5/16 in). John L. Severance Fund 1991.103

Christopher Dresser was hired in the 1880s to create a new “art glass” series for the manufacturer James Couper & Sons, which was located in Dresser’s hometown of Glasgow. Sold under the trade name “Clutha,” the ancient name of Glasgow’s river Clyde, these artistic vases turned out to be Dresser’s only experiment in glass design. Dresser worked in many design fields, including metalwork, furniture, ceramics, and textiles. He was one of the most important designers associated with the Arts and Crafts movement in Great Britain, and he is regarded as being the first independent British industrial designer. The influences on his work range from Japanese, Egyptian, and Asian art and design to botany. Dresser’s interpretation of glass was radical in his time. Longnecked, bulbous vases in bubbly yellows, browns, and greens heralded the organic shapes that would become characteristic of the Art Nouveau style, but his designs also exhibited a pioneering modernism. This vase is a rare example of the “Clutha” series: the bottle shape, intentionally plain in form and color, is covered with acid-etched floral decoration that is enlivened by the application of an abstract white cane. This object expresses Dresser’s interest in organic decoration and the power of simple lines.

Warrior Fighting a Dragon, c. 1170-1180, Anglo-Norman, England or France, Romanesque period, 12th century, gilded copper, champlevé enamel, Diameter: h. 6.5 cm (2 1/2 in). Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1951.546

This gilded copper medallion features an enameled representation of a youthful warrior fighting a winged dragon. As no inscription accompanies the scene, the young hero’s identity remains unknown. It may depict the Arthurian hero Tristan fighting the dragon of Ireland--an epic poem titled Tristan gained popularity at the Plantagenet court of Henry II in England shortly before the medallion was created.


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