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BIRTH OF THE ICON The Development of Celtic

Abstract/Iconic Art in Thrace (3-1 c. BC)*

The process of metamorphosis in Celtic art in Thrace during the 3rd 1st c. BC may best
be observed in barbarian imitations of the Macedonian Alexander type tetradrachms,
which most clearly allow us to follow the chronological framework in which this
occurred. On the original Macedonian prototype(s) (fig. 1/2) the images are idealized but
constructively/anatomically precise, which reflects the glorification of physical beauty
and strength in its idealized form - an approach typical of classical art.

Fig. 1 - Alexander III AR Tetradrachm (Amphipolis mint 336-326 BC). Head of Herakles right, in
lionskin headdress - Zeus seated left, holding eagle & sceptre

Fig. 2 - Philip III (Arrhidaeus) AR Tetradrachm of the Alexander type (Arados mint, 323316 BC). Head of Herakles right, wearing lion's skin headdress - Zeus seated left, holding
eagle and scepter

The Alexander type tetradrachms, and other Macedonian models of this period, were
constrained by the norms of classical art. Classical numismatic artists worked within
strict constraints because their art was, above all, a form of political propaganda. In
such an atmosphere art does not develop, but stagnates. What happens when the artistic
process is not constrained by such considerations? In the centuries before Christ on the
Balkan peninsula we witness a period of experimentation among barbarian artists
which results in a crescendo of ideas expressed in an explosion of images.
In the earliest Celtic examples from the 3rd c. BC (fig. 3-5) we observe some of the
changes typical of Celtic art. Anatomical detail gives way to an increasing emphasis on
the circular form of the composition, while still remaining relatively faithful to the
original Hellenistic model, both in terms of artistic style and the use of Greek in the

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Fig 3-5 - Tetradrachms of Orsoaltes, Kersebaules and Cavaros, kings of the Celtic Tyle
state in eastern Bulgaria during the 3rd c. BC

In fig. 3-5 the images become increasingly schematic. The most interesting feature in fig.
4 is the addition of a new symbol an oval Celtic shield in front of the seated figure on
the throne.

From the 2nd c. BC the tendency towards abstractionism and an increasing emphasis on
the composition is to be observed (fig. 6). The Greek inscription has been abandoned,
and at this stage portrait features are completely absent. The reverse image is an
abstract composition of symbols, forms, and letters in a harmonious whole. On both
sides the image has become more schematic, the composition based on simple geometric
principles conforming to the circular nature of the coin.

Fig. 6 Celtic drachma, Central Bulgaria (2nd c. BC)

In the 1st c. BC (fig 7- 10) we witness a process of further experimentation which
culminates in iconic images. In this final stage the composition has become so schematic
and geometrically centralized that the inscription has become obsolete, and the seated
figure depicted with a nimbus (halo) (fig. 10) assumes an iconic function.

Fig. 7 Celtic drachma, northern Bulgaria - 1st c. BC

Fig. 8-9 - Celtic drachmas from recent excavations at Bratya Daskalovi, Stara Zagora
region, South-Central Bulgaria late 1st c. BC
(after Tonkova et al (2011) -
. 2011; see:

Fig. 10 Celtic drachma, central Bulgaria 1st c. BC

It has always been assumed that early Christian iconic art developed independently, and
replaced classical art. In this process we may observe how classical art itself was
transformed by Celtic artists in the centuries before Christ. This transformation
developed in a number of artistic directions, in this case giving birth to symbolic images
which would later be called icons; glorifying not the human form itself, but the spirit as
an inseparable part of the divine.


the Macedonian/Alexander prototype):

Macedonian prototype


3rd c. BC

2nd c. BC

1st c. BC

*Text after ., . (2010) ,

Krusseva B., Mac Congail B. The Men Who became the Sun Barbarian Art and Religion on
the Balkans. Plovdiv 2010.

On this process see also:

On the distribution of Macedonian type Celtic coinage in Thrace: