The Celts: Art & Identity, British Museum

I wouldn’t strictly say that the British Museum is a place of worship – though it can be a spiritual experience visiting there. However, I visited the exhibition with my friend who is pagan, for whom it really was a chance for pilgrimage.

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Queen Mary Harp, 1450, National Museum Scotland

My friend and I had very different experiences thinking about faith and the exhibition (I have no faith, but was brought up Christian). Her immediate reaction was to say “It was so ROMAN in its curation”. To my friend, the gods shown on the Gundestrup Cauldron and other objects are as real and as sacred as any other more familiar god, but for her at least there was little acknowledgement of their sanctity.


Gundestrup Cauldron – detail of antlered god

For my friend, her faith did not feel to her like it was strongly represented in its roots in the past.

For me, which is really why I wanted to write this post, the exhibition showed me many new religious objects that I was just genuinely fascinated too see. These come particularly from the middle section of the exhibition that looked at post-Roman ‘celtic’ indentities.

The Papil Cross-slab, Shetland

Discovered in 1877 in the churchyard of Papil on the island of Burra in Shetland, this is not just a really striking piece of Pictish sculpture, but at first site fairly terrifying too. At the top of this side of the slab is a cross with two clerics either side, a lion below and at the bottom two bird-headed men peck at a human head.

The bird-men immediately stand out. Who/what are they? How do they work with the Christian imagery? Luckily Kelly Kilpatrick’s article* examines them in depth and frames the bird-men as “aggressive otherworldly figures” – part of a Pictish symbolic language, rather than Christian imagery. What it does show is how complicated the routes of communication were in early medieval ‘Celtic’ areas.





Cumdach of St Columba

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Book shrine, holding An Cathach – a manuscript supposedly written by St Columba relating several chapters of the Book of Psalms.

Cumdachs are repositories made to enshrine holy books of the saints of early medieval. These were seen as relics (with associated powers) of the saints themselves, elevated beyond other holy books. Cumdachs were usually made years after the manuscript. In this case, the book-shrine was made between 1072 and 1098, but then was revised in the fourteenth century. The face shows Christ in Majesty, the cruxifiction and an image of St Columba, as well as silver, crystals and pearls.

side cathac

See ‘The Shrine of the Cathach of St Columba’, E C R ARmstrong – a side view shows how tall the jewels are.

In a former life An Cathach (The Battler) was owned by the O’Donnell dynasty who used it as a battle standard, with a monk carrying it in a circle around their forces before a battle three times. The shrine hung from the monk’s neck by a chain. (Infomation on other book-shrines is on the Medieval Fragments blog and on the DBS Irish Studies blog.)

For further detail, read ‘The Shrine of the Cathach of St Columba’ by E C R Armstrong – this image of the bottom of the shrine is from there.

rev cathac

How beautiful! You can see around the edge an inscription, which reads as:

A prayer from Cathbarr Ua Domnaill by whom this Reliquary was made and for Sitric son of Mac Eadha who made it, and for Domnall Mac Robartaigh, coarb of Kells by whom it was made.

coarb=heir/successor in Old Irish

Whether or not you’re visiting these objects as part of your faith, they are fascinating. For me, my eyes were opened further to the life of the early Christian church, where communication was broad and faith brought protection.

The next stop on the tour is National Museum Scotland (who were a major lender) go see!

If you’d like to hear about the origins of the Celts, from expert Professor Barry Cunliffe, this filmed lecture would be a good place to start:


*’The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif’, Kelly A Kilpatrick Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 141 (2011), 159–205.


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