Celtic Art and Design
by S Walker (mailto:email@example.com)
knots or Celtic interlace are ornamental patterns that first became
associated with Celtic people in the early Celtic Church where
they were used to decorate Bible manuscripts, monuments (notably
Celtic crosses and cross slabs) and jewellery. They probably were
used in other media such as wood carving and textiles but these
have not survived.
Knotwork tradition in manuscript painting probably came to Ireland
with displaced Coptic monks from Egypt by way of St. Martins monastery
at Tours (in what is now France) in the 4th or 5th century. This
is not a settled issue as far as the art historians are concerned
but the best evidence I have seen points to Coptic prototypes.
From Ireland the style spread to Scotland (then Pictland and Dalriada),
Wales and Northumbria and with missionaries of the Celtic Church
to Europe. Viking
raiders later appropriated some of the design concepts into a
more chaotic style of animal interlace.
knots are complete loops with no end or beginning. Celtic animal
interlace is similar in construction but the cords terminate in
feet, heads, tails etc. The animal designs are very much influenced
by an older Saxon tradition of abstract beast forms that when
combined with the new more sophisticated knotwork of the Celtic
designers became known as Hiberno-Saxon. A good Celtic artist
will never end a strand that is not stylised into a zoomorphic
element or spiral. Rather pure knots should always be unending.
On this point of ornamental grammar you can distinguish much that
is made to look like Celtic design by designers who do not really
know the tradition. The Coptic examples of knotwork that pre-date
the early Irish work are consistent this way while the Roman and
Germanic examples of knotwork that sometimes are cited as possible
sources often have loose ends. The way that ribbons are coloured
in some of the early Irish work, particularly the BOOK OF DURROW
is the same as the Coptic preference and there is a parallel evolution
in Moorish design.
not get the idea that all Celtic art is borrowed and souped up
from other cultures. Celtic spiral designs are an older design
form and have been practised by the Celts since the dawn of their
existence. Very difficult and sophisticated spirals exist in the
same early works where the knotwork and animal designs are relatively
Book of Kells is the best known source of Celtic knots as well
as other types of Celtic ornament. The Book of Kells is a fantastic
collection of paintings that illuminate the four Gospels in Latin,
penned circa 800 AD The incredible degree of ornament and detail
caused Giraldus Cambrensis in the 13th century to call it: "the
work not of men, but of angels" or as Umberto Eco wrote in 1990:
"the product of a cold-blooded hallucination"
recent years Celtic Knots have enjoyed a revival however way too
much of this has amounted to copies of historical knots used in
tourist type craft goods. Fortunately there are a few artists
who take the subject more seriously and are creating new and exciting
Ritchie made quite a lot of pretty good silver jewellery incorporating
knotwork on the Isle of Iona from 1900 to his death in 1941. George
Bain wrote an excellent book titled CELTIC ART THE METHODS OF
CONSTRUCTION that is great if anyone is serious about learning
how to create new knots in the Celtic tradition. Bain's book was
first published in 1951 but appeared as a series of booklets before
that. Aidan Meehan has a series on Celtic design with an entire
volume titled KNOTWORK.
for symbolism: knotwork designs are emblematic in modern times
of the Celtic nationalities. The symbolism that has come down
through the ages is as obscure and indirect as much of the speech
and literature of the Celtic people. How then can we understand
it? If that which is not prose must be poetry, knotwork's meaning
defies literal translation and should be sought at a deeper level.
the repeated crossings of the physical and the spiritual are expressed
in the interlace of the knots. The never ending path of the strand
represents the permanence and the continuum of life, love and
faith. Particularly recommended material for artists interested
in knotwork is any of the books by Aidan Meehan.
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