Celtic Art Bibliography I

While I hammer out the details on my post or posts regarding Historiography, in which I try and engage your attention without missing the best parts, enjoy my first post of books I used to create this series.

In my earliest college days, I had a brief and ultimately unsuccessful brush with journalism. I believe that the only influence that remains from this dalliance is my personal library catalog. I group the majority of my books into five broad categories: who, what, when, where and how.

‘Who’ represents my collection of spiritual and religious books. It also encompasses fairie tales, mythology, poetry, plays, and books that are about specific people such as St. Patrick or Eamonn DeValera.

‘What’ is the largest section, covering books about things. Artifacts. Manuscripts. Stuff. These are my picture books and photo references. Many are obtained from museums and the gift shops next to the old forts and tombs. It includes books about Celtic art ITEMS as seen in museums and my tidy collection of facsimile manuscripts as well as photo books on Northern Ireland‘s sectarian murals.

‘When’ is the section of history and context. It isn’t as large as the rest of the sections as many of my books of history are divvied up into other specific sections of ‘Where’ and ‘What’. Here you will find general books on the world of the Celts and the history of the early Christian church. Books on Christian religion are under ‘Who.’

‘Where’ includes my travel stuff, geography, atlases and hardcore archaeology books. Anything that places art into a physical context. Where is it? I have books on regional archaeology, traveling through the Burren and illustrated maps of the Irish west coast. Historic travelogues are in the ‘When’ collection, current travel books are here.

‘How’ is, of course, my collection of actual construction books. It is more than just George Bain’s book on the construction of Celtic Art. Here I have books on geometry, perspective, and the concept of Notan, the balance of light and dark compositional elements. I have books on proportion and the design underlying the manuscript pages of the Book of Kells. J. Romilly Allen is here, as are Aidan Meehan, DaVinci and Pythagoras.

I have a lot of books to share, and I will occasionally comment on specific books and their usefulness or lack of usefulness. To start, I will include the titles and authors. Hopefully, as I go along, I can flesh out the details of publishers and costs. If you want that sort of info up front for any given book, drop me a line and I’ll go into more detail.


Barry Cunliffe
1) The Extraordinary Voyage of Pythias the Greek; the man who discovered Britain
2) The Celtic World

Vincent Byrne
A Thousand Years of the Hidden Annals of the Kingdom of Connacht: 366-1385AD

David Willis McCullough
The Wars of the Irish Kings: from the age of myth through the reign of Queen Elizabeth I

Peter Berresford Ellis
The Ancient World of the Celts

Simon James
The Celts

J.G. Davies
The Early Christian Church

William Hellier Baily
Rambles on the Irish Coast

Editors Bill Rolston and David Miller
War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader

I think there are a few more in a stack in the studio. A lot of these books are large, and I don’t have a lot of space, thus they will tend to float about. I’ll gather them up and add to the Bibliography page as I go.



Defining Celtic Art

A definition:
Shall we start with Wikipedia?

“Celtic art is the art associated with the peoples known as Celts; those who spoke the Celtic languages in Europe from pre-history through to the modern period, as well as the art of ancient peoples whose language is uncertain, but have cultural and stylistic similarities with speakers of Celtic languages.”

Actually, I kinda like this one. It has a lot going for it. I’m not completely sold, but we can start here. It does have a few flaws. First, you need the definition of ‘Celtic’ or ‘Celts.’ Then, perhaps, you have to be in tune with the science of historic linguistics and the ability of specialists to tell you when and where certain languages were spoken. And what does ‘cultural and stylistic similarities’ mean?

For some, Celtic art is only the works of pre-Roman Celts. Some feel that subsequent degradation of the clear Celtic style through influence of Roman and later Christian cultures creates something decidedly non-Celtic. Some are only acquainted with the traditions of the Christian times: the Book of Kells, the crosses of Clonmacnois, the Ardagh Chalice. And some are only familiar with the green trappings of St. Patrick’s day, the kilts and bagpipes of Scotland or the spoons of Wales. It’s ok. We welcome the uninitiated. Just don’t bring green beer.

The fact is, that much of the common and popular knowledge of Celtic art and even the definition of ‘Celt’ is based on works that came out in the 40’s. We’ve come a long way, baby, and new information is not getting out there. Stay with me.

Saying that there is any single, representational Celtic style is incorrect. So I will just refuse to address that particular ‘Pre-Roman is more Celtic’ reasoning. Celtic art was influenced in many ways by many other cultures at many different times and developed in different ways throughout the areas recognized as Celtic. It’s my blog. I mentioned your reasoning. I find it woefully inadequate so I will not bother my readers with it.

Why bother with it all? Isn’t Celtic art just art made by Celts? Well, sure. But during the rise of nationalism throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s, artists of Celtic ethnicity identified themselves by their national identity, as ‘Irish’ or ‘Welsh’ rather than Celtic. Irish art has come to encompass the range of styles and techniques one would expect of a modern country, yet the term Celtic art still hovers around the idea of historic and predominantly linear, non-representational design.

Celtic art is art done by Celtic speakers from ancient to modern times. Seems way too narrow. There are artists utilizing the methods and symbolism of Celtic art today. And they aren’t always Celtic speakers. It is a growing thing. The history of Celtic art provides roots, a sense of depth. For many of us, the designs evoke a sense of rhythm, a resonance like music. Modern artists use individual elements of Celtic design like musicians use notes. It is in the skill of the individual artist to create a composition that sings to an audience.


We can start with some of the Wikipedia stuff. But we’ll make some changes. Celtic art is art created by ancient cultures recognized as Celtic through archeological and/or linguist evidence. It is also art based on the designs, motifs and visual impressions which are recognized thusly as historically Celtic.

Did you see what I did there? I used the word ‘thusly’ but I also added ‘archeological’ evidence. Did Wikipedia do that? No. Does that seem odd, now that you think about it? It should. It explains why Wikipedia had to add the part about cultures “whose language is uncertain.” I didn’t have to do that.

Ah. Outdated views of Celts. I have my evidence. The next post will cover the fads of the historian and how Wikipedia is perpetuating a stereotype.


Celtic Art

An overview:

I get excited about Celtic Art. Most of you cannot sit with me over coffee or over a pint, and watch me wave my hands about and draw examples as I tell you about Celtic Art. Maybe it is best, as I might spill your pint.

So here is the start of something amazing and glorious. A blog series on Celtic Art.

A lot of people have a lot of opinions on what constitutes Celtic Art. I want to address ALL of them, which may be a bit excessive, but there it is. So let me know what you think and ask me those questions about Celtic Art that you wanted to know.

I’ll start with a definition of Celtic Art. It might get complicated, but we’ll work out the basis of an understanding so at least we’ll all have an idea regarding what I am gassing on about. The historiography, or the history of how history is analyzed, is also relevant to the discussion, so I’ll throw a bit of that in too. Did you know that scholars of history are prone to fads as much as any Hollywood Diva?

I’ll do book reviews from the specific viewpoint of how the book contributes to the understanding of Celtic Art itself and to the construction and creation of more Celtic Art. Do you have a specific book you’d like me to talk about? I might. I’ll introduce you or reintroduce you to Francoise Henry, D. W. Harding, George Bain and other authors of books on Celtic Art.

Did you ever see a design or piece of artwork on your travels and wonder about it? I have done extensive research on symbols and artifacts, and if you find one I’ve never seen before, we’ll both learn more. Are you planning a trip and hoping to see specific artifacts or museums? Stone Crosses? The Book of Kells? I’ve done a bit of traveling in Ireland and Britain, so let me know what you want to see and maybe I can help.

Have you ever wanted to know how to create some basic designs? I’ll show you a few. More complex designs? Sure, why not? I have studied the geometric underpinnings of some of the most amazing ancient and Medieval artifacts and manuscripts. I have my own collection of sketches used to create my art, I have hundreds of reference books in my library and there are places on the web for information too.

We’ll ramble through history and we’ll ramble through the hills of Donegal. We’ll talk about the Urnfield Culture of the Bronze Age, the Celtic Revival of the late 1800’s and the Arts and Crafts Movement. We’ll put art into historic context. You will see what sorts of influences there have been on Celtic Art from non-Celtic sources, such as Scythians, Greeks and Vikings. I’ll blatantly advertise the works of some modern artists, and hopefully by the time I’ve finished up the outline I’ve put together, I’ll have more ideas and subjects from you and we’ll keep right on going.

I get excited about Celtic Art.

I hope I can inspire someone out there as well.



Printmaking: Harvest Cross phases

From start to finish. The changing but constant image of the Harvest Cross pattern.

This design started out on a piece of 8×10 gessoed Masonite board. I like to do the more complex Celtic designs on Masonite for a number of reasons. It is easier to deal with the compass and with the erasing of geometric guidelines on the board, rather than tearing up a piece of paper. I also like to throw a few of the works-in-progress into my sketch pad bag, and having them on Masonite makes it easy to just pull one out and work on it anywhere.

First sketch layout of Harvest Cross design

First sketch layout of Harvest Cross design

It sat for a while. I liked it, but was not painting complex Celtic designs at the time. The lower panel is from a Medieval manuscript. My notes say 12th-13th century, but I neglected to list which manuscript, and I haven’t re-found it. The cross itself is a very traditional Irish Celtic Cross shape, with circular cut-outs at the junctions of the arms and a wheel with the arms extending out of the circle edge. I added the free-form, winding grape vines and more regular patterns of mistletoe using numerous sources from early and late Medieval examples and my own imagination.

When I was asked to provide art for some possible digital reproductions, it seemed like a good time to dust off the design. I produced it in black and white. I liked it. but the digital project did not materialize. I really do like the look of it this way. The angles of the mistletoe leaves in the arms create a lovely, layered, diamond effect.

Harvest Cross

So when I was working on printing plates and I wanted a complex design, roughly 8×10, with some Celtic flair, I sorted through my Masonite board layouts and picked this one. I plunked down an acrylic plate and traced the design with a stylus to make a printing plate. I wasn’t going for subtle shading or chiaroscuro. No drama. Just lines. Lots of complex lines.

I was also going for a comfortable speed. So the width of the twining vines and spiraling mistletoe is not as consistent as I would like. That being said, the print looks really awesome. I am still working on the process, but I have been very pleased with the results. There is a lot of satisfaction in making it all come together from drawing, to plate, to print. The zinc plates require deliberate and focused lines. The diamond tipped scriber is a bit stiff, requiring careful use. The steel scriber is lighter and more like drawing with a pencil when you put it to an acrylic plate. Just remember it doesn’t make as many prints.

Acrylic plate

Acrylic plate

This is the fourth impression of the plate. It has a bit of uneven toning, and a few streaks, but I like the look of it over all.

Intaglio print of Harvest Cross

Intaglio print of Harvest Cross

So I have a small stash of prints. Pulled with my own smudged hands. All of them of the Harvest Cross, and each one just a bit different. Do I stop there? Would added color take away from the awesomeness of the print? Perhaps. Perhaps not. No knowing unless you try, I suppose.

And I did.

This, then, is Harvest Cross II. Number five in the run of eight intaglio prints, carefully crafted then covered in blankets and coaxed through a series of print rollers, then dried and lightly tinted with high quality, liquid watercolors. Is it a masterpiece? Well, maybe not. But it was certainly fun.

Harvest Cross II

Harvest Cross II


Notes on the Children of Lir

Well, yes. I often work on two pieces at the same time, and considering it is almost the end of January, I would like to get moving on more than one piece. It is also easier, when working with eggs and dry pigment, to have a second piece to work on while one is drying.

The story of the Children of Lir is a popular one in Irish mythology. There are a surprising number of versions of the story, and I have worked with the translation by Marie Heaney (Over Nine Waves; Faber and Faber, 1995.) She approaches her translation in a literary fashion, aiming for accuracy and understanding. Heaney’s book is a good overview, though not complete. I like to use it for quick reference. Some translations are for a more targeted audience, emphasizing the pagan aspects or emphasizing the Christian aspects.

Early monks in Ireland wrote down many of the older myths and stories. The secular stories are grouped traditionally by scholars into four collections. The Mythological Cycle centers predominantly on the arrival of the Tuatha de Dannan in Ireland and their struggles against the Formorians. The Ulster Cycle tells the stories of Conor mac Nessa and the heroes of the Red Branch, (most famously, Cu Cuchulainn), taking place in and around Ulster. The Fenian Cycle follows the history of the Fianna, followers of Finn Mac Cumhaill. The Cycle of Kings retells the legends of the more historical kings of Ireland, and is mainly centered around the Hill of Tara.

The Children of Lir is a story taken from the Mythological Cycle. The characters are of the race of Tuatha de Dannan. This makes the story read a bit differently than if the characters are merely human. When the children are cursed to live 900 years as swans, they fully expect to return to their father at the end of this time.

Lir, or Lyr/Lear, is married to the daughter of King Bodb Dearg/Bov the Red. She is named Eve/Ove. They have four children; a daughter named Fionnuala, and sons named Aed, Conn and Fiacra. Eve dies when the children are young, and Lir eventually marries her younger sister, Aoife. Aoife becomes jealous of the attention paid to the children, both by the other Tuatha de Dannan, and by her husband who cannot bear to be parted from them.

She spirits the children away from her husband and tries to get the servants to kill them for her. They refuse, and she herself is forced to admit that she cannot kill them either. She curses them to live as swans, unable to set foot on dry land. When Fionnuala cries for an end to their curse, Aoife relents and states that they may walk again as humans on dry land after 900 years as swans, and after a Northern King marries a Southern queen, and after a new faith sweeps through the land of Ireland.

Aoife becomes a spirit of air, either through her own magical skill or through the anger of Lir, and to this day she flies between the clouds, wailing on the wind.

For three hundred years, the children are allowed to stay by the shores of Lough Derravaragh, near their father and grandfather. Their singing calms troubled souls. Then they are forced to spend three hundred years in the wild seas of the Straits of Moyle, between Ireland and Scotland in the North Sea. They survive the loneliness and cold through the strength of Fionnuala’s spirit and their knowledge that they will return home someday.

They are then required to spend three hundred years on the Atlantic coast near Erris, which allows them to fly near their father’s lands again. But the halls are gone, and there is nothing but nettles and dry grass growing on the once-populated Sidhe mounds. The Tuatha de Dannan have retreated behind the veil. Devastated, the children rest on Inis Gluaire, or Inish Glory, a place said to be the first stop by the Tuatha de Dannnan as they came to Ireland. It is a place made holy by St. Brendan the Navigator, and a holy saint lives there, waiting for Lir’s children.

He calms them, allowing them to share his food and small chapel. They sing prayers with him, and listen to the bells that announce a new faith sweeping through Ireland. The saint fashions silver chains for the children to ensure they will never be separated again.

A Northern king takes a Southern queen for his wife, and she requires the magical, singing swans of the holy isle as a gift from her new husband. When he tries to drag the swans from the saint’s chapel by their silver chains, they become four ancient human beings, and he flees in horror. The saint baptizes the ancient children before they die, and lays them to rest under an Ogham stone, carved with their names.


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