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Celtic knotwork

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Article by S Walker (mailto:

Celtic 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.

Celtic 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.

Do 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 crude.

The 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"

In 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 knots. Check out Patrick Gallagher at
or Walker Metalsmiths at

Alexander 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.

As 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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