52: 01 Artio, the Celtic Bear Goddess
This week I’m going to start a new weekly series looking at striking pieces of art that I’ve come across in my travels, presented in no particular order.
I’m going to kick this series off with a stunning pediment-mounted bronze statue group from Muri, adjacent to the modern city of Bern, Switzerland, which depicts the Celtic bear goddess Artio, dating to the second century CE.
The Celts were notoriously aniconic for most of their long history, preferring to celebrate the numinous powers of nature through the veneration of sacred trees and groves and the like. It was only in the waning latter days of the Celts, under the influence of their Roman conquerors, that they belatedly took up the practice of depicting divinities in human form.
In my experience, most Celtic bronze devotional statues are small, crude works with little expressive or aesthetic power. This Artio statue group is a rare and stunning exception to the rule, expressing the energies of life and death with unmistakable force.
The statue group is dominated by an enormous bear projecting forward toward the seated goddess from the root of a loping tree, as if springing directly from the base of the axel tree or axis mundi, from the wellspring of life itself.
Its head is subtly enlarged to give ample room for its expressive features to dominate the work. It is positioned just off-center of the pediment, and directly controls the feeling of this piece:
Each viewer will have their own response to the feeling-tone conveyed by the bear. For myself, I see the blank but rapt expression of life and awareness without personality, reminding me of the cool, emotionless gaze of classical Greek divinities who seem to peer forth from a realm far removed from the ordinary domain of human concern. It is both arresting and chilling.
The goddess herself is pitched backward in a semi-recumbent posture suggesting a dialectically complementary attitude of reception of the dynamic, active powers of life expressed by the bear.
There can be no doubt that this image in aggregate encompasses a totality of opposing energies, which work with and against each other to constitute the total dynamic embodied by the image of the goddess. It forms a kind of pictoral merism, or a coincidentia oppositorum. That is, a total image is conveyed by the elements set in stable conflict by this piece, reminding us that the transcendent powers of life are, in themselves, beyond the pairs of opposites in which they play out in the field of time.
Religious art around the world is centrally concerned with this very problem – the expression of the energies of eternity in the field of time by way of antithetically-posed pairs of opposites. I don’t have an itinerary in mind for my art series here, but I anticipate this is a theme we will encounter again and again.
This theme of dialectical complementarity is also suggested by the association of the predatory and life-destroying character of the bear juxtaposed with symbols of fecundity – not only the tree, but the implements borne by the goddess. In her left hand she holds flowers and fruit; in her right, she holds an empty bowl.
Other than this wonderful statue group, nothing is known for certain about Artio. Jan de Vries tells us in his Keltische Religion that the contradictions encompassed by the statue group have led scholars to speculate in conflicting terms, with some viewing her as a goddess of war, and others seeing her as a goddess of fertility. Of course, we know from the example of long-lived cult of Ishtar that a goddess may be both.
The fact that a bear goddess statue of great antiquity was unearthed in a city that is today called Bern (meaning “bear”) has aroused considerable interest, but again, nothing is known for sure. Various linkages to pagan England have likewise been posited, hypothetically linking Artio to the warrior goddess Andraste, who was invoked by the British warrior queen Boudica in her struggle against Rome, for example.
I came upon this work quite unlooked for in the Bernisches Historischen Museum on vacation a few years ago, and was completely transported. Sometimes you just get lucky.