La Tene Style: Definition, Art & Artifacts

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Twisting spirals, beautiful gold objects and weapons of war. What do these things have in common? In this lesson, learn about art and artifacts connected to the La Tene style.

What Is the La Tene Style?

Some ancient people created objects that still fascinate us today. That's the case with beautiful metalwork done in the La Tene style.

The La Tene style is the name given to art and artifacts created by the La Tene culture, known to us as the Celts. The Celts were an Iron Age people who lived in Europe from circa 450 - 50 BC. They were migratory traders and warriors, possibly descendants of an earlier European people, the Hallstatt Civilization.

The Celts interacted, traded and warred with other cultures, including the Greeks and Romans. At their high point, the Celts controlled much of Europe to the Mediterranean, but they were eventually beaten back, retrenching to places including Ireland. The Celts were a loose configuration of tribes rather than a cohesive kingdom, one of the eventual reasons for their downfall. While they were a powerful and feared fighting force, they couldn't overtake the more centrally controlled Roman Empire.

The term 'La Tene' comes from the name of an archaeological site in Switzerland uncovered in 1857. Works created in this style are a mix of influences. They show connections to Greek and Etruscan art from the Mediterranean, likely gained as the Celtic tribes migrated south. But they also have a high degree of originality.

But what did the art of the La Tene style look like?

Art and Artifacts of the La Tene Style

Artists who worked in the La Tene style demonstrated advanced skills, including the use of specialized tools acquired from many places. They created pottery and carved in stone. They were expert goldsmiths who also excelled in metalwork with bronze, iron and silver. Objects show understanding of techniques such as gilding, which is covering surfaces with thin layers of precious metals, and hammering, which is pounding surfaces so they are flat or using forms to press them into patterns. Objects sometimes featured more than one technique. A good example of such an object is the Gundestrup Cauldron, made of 13 silver plates. It includes elements of both hammering and gilding. It was made circa 150 BC, and found in Denmark but probably made in an area near the Black Sea in present-day Bulgaria. The Celts also incorporated precious materials such as ivory, amber and coral into their objects, substances gained in trade with cultures from the Near East and Asia. The La Tene style merged elements of other regional art styles into a unique, sophisticated art.

The Gundestrup Cauldron, circa 150 BC
Gundestrup Cauldron

Over time, the early Celts developed a decorative style that was unique, full of scrolling geometric designs incorporating spirals and knots. Some designs include the triskele, a triple connected spiral form. Many surfaces had elaborate curvilinear, or bending and curving, abstract designs and swirling patterns on them. The La Tene style also featured leaf and foliage patterns, as well as variations on real and imaginary animals such as dragons. None of the images were meant to be precise renderings of nature. Instead, they are highly stylized and decorative. On some surfaces, you might even see shapes of birds or human faces emerge out of seemingly abstract linear designs.

The La Tene style can be found on many metal artifacts; some have been found in elaborate graves. A portion of the early Celt society had certainly reached a point of economic success. Rings, buttons and fasteners for cloaks were created from precious metals. They were known for jewelry and created a type of short necklace called a torc, a neck ring sometimes made of twisted strands of gold and silver. The La Tene style is also known for a wide variety of drinking vessels such as flagons, with large spouts and handles. You can see examples of such flagons in the British Museum. The Basse Yutz Flagons include inlay and elaborate dragons on their handles and spouts.

The Basse Yutz Flagons, made of bronze with inlay
Basse Yutz Flagons

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