Insular Art: The La Tène Style of Art and Its Influences


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The La Tène style was evident in art across central Europe and even in the British Isles. What were some of the influences and unique characteristics of this style of art? How did it travel across such a wide area? Let’s take a look.

Close-up look at the Agris helmet with its repeating pattern of embossed gold leaves.
The La Tène style of art is very stylized, without much emphasis on realism. Repeating patterns and abstract elements are cornerstones of this style.
(Image: Lamiot/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

La Tène Style of Art

The La Tène style of art is a very stylized art. The figures we see are not intended to be realistic; they are meant to suggest the figures, not represent them. This art also emphasizes repeating patterns and abstract elements; sometimes these are geometric, but often they are curvilinear, with a lot of spiral forms and interlacing forms. The patterns can be almost mesmerizing.

If you start trying to unravel the threads, you can end up losing yourself in a kind of meditative trance. The early continental art in this style does not emphasize the complete human figure, although you do see lots of depictions of human heads.

This art style became wildly popular in large parts of Europe, including central Europe and Gaul, but it was only represented in a very scattered way in Spain. The areas where this art was popular were in some cases cut off from each other by land, and thus the style probably had to have been spread at least partly by sea, even on the European mainland, surely due to trading contacts up and down the Atlantic coast of Europe.

It is thus, even more, the case that trading contacts probably brought the La Tène style to Britain and Ireland, sometime in the centuries right before Christ.

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The La Tène Style in Britain and Ireland

What we find in Britain and Ireland is a bit complicated, though. The art of this style that we find is broadly similar, so you find artifacts all over this region that have broadly similar designs, whether they come from Britain or Ireland.

A close-up look at the spiral motif on a shield.
The spiral shape, known as the triskele, is a common motif found in La Tène style of art in both Britain and Ireland. (Image: Jorge Royan/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

For example, you might find a brooch from the north of Ireland that looks remarkably similar to a shield mount from the south of Britain. Both pieces might use the same motif, such as the spiral shape known as the triskele. So, in some way, this art was using older motifs and creating a broadly coherent style across a wide geographical area.

But here’s the odd thing. Even though there are similarities between objects found in northern Ireland and southern Britain, just as we found on the continent, this art style in Britain and Ireland is not evenly distributed. It’s not found everywhere.

It’s much more solidly attested in the north of Ireland than the south of Ireland, which is somewhat surprising since you would think that the south would be more open to trading contacts, but we must be seeing the evidence of trade routes that operated in ways we cannot otherwise recover.

The point is that this is not an Irish style or a British style. It’s not even a southern style or a northern style. It’s a style that some groups of people living in these islands adopted, and others did not. And we may never know why.

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La Tène Art in Britain and Ireland Vs. La Tène Art on the Continent

How is the art that we find in Britain and Ireland related to the art we find on the continent at the same time? It used to be thought that the art style came to Britain as part of a Celtic invasion, but scholars no longer believe in this invasion theory. One reason is that the art we see in Britain and Ireland is subtly different from what we see on the continent.

The motifs are very similar, yes, but they are produced in slightly different ways; it’s much more as if native craftspeople in Britain are copying work that they have seen, possibly on objects brought by traders.

So, it turns out that the similarity in art is not a sign of some kind of genetic connection between the continent and the British Isles; it is merely a sign that this art style proved enormously popular in certain parts of the British Isles.

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The striking thing about this insular art is that it ended up as the only place where this art style that came originally from central Europe managed to survive. On the continent, it was pretty much swept away by the Roman conquest of Gaul. Very little of the earlier La Tène style can be found after the 1st century A.D. In Britain, the style goes underground somewhat during the period of Roman rule, but in Ireland, it persists, and then, in the early Christian period, it bursts into a new life, and a new art style emerges out of the old.

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Influences on the La Tène Style

Keep in mind that the original art style from La Tène was already very eclectic. It blended elements from the many areas with which the people of central Europe had trading contacts.

The art of the early Christian period in the British Isles and Ireland is also a mix of elements. You see Celtic motifs that have been around for a while, but also borrowings from Germanic art, such as a strong emphasis on certain animal shapes and the use of certain metalworking techniques, like gold filigree; these would have been elements that had been brought into Britain by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, and also just by trading contacts with Germanic speakers from the continent.

Another important influence on this art style was classical art from the Mediterranean area, which brought in certain vegetal motifs, like the acanthus leaf, as well as broad-ribbon interlace. This art had come into the picture largely due to the influence of Christian missionaries. All these motifs were blended in complicated, dense patterns that repeat over and over. You see these patterns consistently throughout various media.

There are many such repeating motifs. The most common motifs are either curved patterns like spirals or interlace, or more geometric patterns like frets or steps, but perhaps the most distinctive pattern in this art style is the repeating use of intertwined beasts, some of which are recognizable as real animals, and others which seem to be wholly invented.

These patterns are extremely intricate, even more so than the original La Tène art that they are building on, and they are very stylized, that is, the emphasis is never on the realistic depiction of objects but rather on stripping them down to their geometric essentials and manipulating them to form abstract patterns.

We see these basic aspects of insular art illustrated across many different media, so this is a consistent art style that was used everywhere that decoration was used.

Common questions about the La Tène Style of Art

Q: What is the La Tène style?

The La Tène style is a type of art that was prevalent in Central Europe and the British Isles and later survived in Britain. It is characterized by the emphasis on repeating patterns and abstract elements, including geometric patterns and curvilinear patterns, with a lot of spiral forms and interlacing forms.

Q: Where do Celtic designs come from?

Celtic designs do not owe its origins to any one place. Its origin can be traced back to a combination of influences, including early Christian art, Germanic art, etc.

Q: Where did Celtic art come from?

Celtic art is an amalgamation of art styles that were native to the British Isles and art styles, such as the La Tène style, from continental Europe. Anglo-Saxon settlers, Germanic-speaking traders, and others who came to Britain brought with them their art, which directly or indirectly influenced Celtic art.

Q: What is insular art in the migration period?

Insular art is also known as Hiberno-Saxon art. It’s the style of art that blossomed in the British Isles, both in Britain and Ireland, during the post-Roman or early Christian period, and influences of the La Tène style survived in it.

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