Celtic Knotwork clip art
What's Celtic Knotwork?

Where Did Celtic Knotwork Come From?

Most of the designs in this collection are Celtic knotwork, or Celtic interlace, patterns. Knotwork is one of the most identifiable aspects of Celtic art although it’s a relatively late addition to the repertoire of the Celts.

Celtic knotwork panelFrom the Bronze Age forward Celtic art embodies a very well-developed use of form. This is especially evident in the curved and sweeping shapes Celtic craftsmen delighted in creating - sometimes abstract, sometimes stylized from plant or animal forms. The exact point at which this mastery of line and shape first adopted interlace as its main expression is not clear, though it probably developed between the early christian period and the seventh century C.E.

The early Celtic church diverged very markedly from christianity as practiced on the continent. Its manifestaion as a loosely organized community of monastic orders or communes in the wilderness reflects not only pagan Celtic tradition (in which groves and springs were sacred places) but also resembles the early christian society of North Africa. Interlace was used by the Coptic communities in North Africa, though it was never developed there so well as it did in the British Isles. It is possible that it was this heretical link which brought knotwork to the islands where it was to become known universally as "Celtic Knotwork"; but on the other hand, this type of ornament is native to many parts of the world, including China, so there’s also the possibility that it developed locally.

Celtic Knotwork DesignAnother influence, less well understood, is is that of the Picts in what is now Scotland and northern England. These are a people slighted by history, often portayed as naked stone-age fellows chipping flints in their burrows: in fact there seem to have been organized and powerful kingdoms of these Coritani or Cruithne well into the ninth century, able to withstand the many waves of invaders who came to their territories. Their stone monuments are among the most excellent examples, both in design and craftsmanship, of interlace and animal ornament. While the period references for a study of the Picts are inconclusiveone can still hope that we’ll know more about them one day.

There were also strong related traditions for decoration in Scandinavia. A recurring motif in early Saxon and Scandinavian art is the gripping beast, and bands of knotwork ornament are also frequently found in those parts.

Celtic Knotwork SquareIt’s important to remember the nature of the age in which this art form became dominant in Celtic culture. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, there was a prolonged and brutal collision of British, Irish, Pictish and Scandinavian peoples in northern Britain. During the seventh century these four cultures wrestled for territory with such violence that all contemporary local records simply cease - for years. In the generations following this period it’s apparent that after the wars there was a cross-fertilization of these cultures that may have resulted in what we now call Celtic Interlace as well as other developments including the creation of the frame harp, strung with horsehair or wire.

However it arrived in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the Celtic peoples lost no time in perfecting knotwork. This style of decoration appeared in metalwork, carved stones, textiles, and, ultimately, in illuminated manuscripts such as the Books of Kells, Lindisfarne, and Durrow, in which some see the highest expression of Celtic art. By the time these manuscripts were made, the Irish ecclesiastics were on familiar terms with the Saxons of England. Many young Saxons travelled to Ireland to be educated (the Welsh wouldn’t have them; in fact, the Welsh christians didn’t even want to convert them, since they’d then have to share their Heaven with the Saxons as well as their Earth). If it hadn’t arrived before, this is probably the origin of the "gripping beast" in Celtic art - the ancestor of the designs you’ll find in that section of the present collection.

What Does Celtic Knotwork Mean?

There have been various suggestions that knotwork patterns form a sort of language. In the literal sense this is probably not true. Such a tradition would almost have to predate christianity, which brought its own form of literacy to the Isles. Not only is that unlikely due to the physical evidence, but even if it were so the Druidic and Scandinavian traditions alike avoided the use of written language for most purposes; our word "spell", which means both to write a thing or to enchant it, is a Saxon word that demonstrates how seriously these people took the act of writing - a creative act tied to the magic of poetry and to pure enchantment itself. One can’t describe as "illiterate" a people to whom education meant the memorization of hundreds of stories, geneaologies, and poems; in fact the ancient Irish used several hundred poetic metres and variations alone, which a bard or filidh had to learn; but "literacy" in the literal sense of "writing" wasn’t in their curriculum. Any of us, in this age of printing and now of electronic data transmission, would be unlikely to master that sort of mental training - but writing, and specifically the use of knotwork as a means of writing, looks very unlikely as a branch of Celtic learning.

Another idea, proposed by John Cargill*, is that Celtic knotwork was in some cases a form of musical notation. To my knowledge no one has pursued this idea further, but it’s an interesting one; basically he believed that a limited number of the stone carvings in Scotland used a particular freeform type of interlace to record musical scores.

My own belief is that knotwork embodies one idea. It is the same basic premise of cartomancy, of astrology, indeed of all forms of divination: that all things proceed from one substance, and that all things are composed of various embodiments of that one thing - a substance, or energy, or conciousness, whose sentient elements turn and contort themselves is an effort to see the entire pattern of which they are a part. In this view the knots and patterns of knotwork represent the complicated whole of creation as the embodiment of one strand of essence.

What Makes it Celtic Knotwork?

A knotwork pattern is a design made up of a band or group of bands of patternwork which, like a woven thread, pass alternately over and under one another as it (or they) loop and knot around one another. This is the only basic rule: that a band alternates, over and under, throughout the design. That rule is sometimes relaxed in the case of "gripping beasts" in order to accent the identifying characteristics of the animal.

For the purest embodiment of what I’ve proposed as the "idea" of knotwork, the entire design ought to be composed of a single band. Personally, I don’t always restrict my designs this way, though I usually try to avoid obvious "rings" - and the ancient craftsmen didn’t always follow that rule either.

To my mind, this should depend on the purpose of the design or the nature of the object being decorated. For example, a wedding ring would be a truer symbol if it were composed of two interlacing bands, rather than one.

Books about Celtic Knotwork

The most widely used source for students of Celtic decoration is George Bain’s Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. Bain’s book is a valuable atlas of surviving examples of Celtic interlace, spiral designs and fretwork. There are over two hundred designs in the book as well as any number of variations on them, and he gives reasonable techniques for constructing and adapting his examples. Where Bain falls short is is in his text, which honestly is not very good, and fails to arm the reader with the basis for a really creative use of the material he presents.

A second book is A Handbook of Celtic Ornament by John G. Merne. Apparently by chance the Merne book is a perfect companion to Bain’s. Merne introduces the reader to the fundamental principles of actually creating knotwork designs, gives examples of increasing complexity for basic knots and panels, shows techniques for linking these either as bands or as "carpet" designs, and sends one off to Do It Alone.

We’re very fortunate to have both of these books in print. Together they form a treasury of existing ornament and a craftsman’s guide to creating both similar and new designs in the traditional manner. In addition to these two important books there are others of interest:

Clicking on the links for in-print books will take you to that book’s page at Amazon.com; if the book is out of print, I've set up its links to search for used copies at AbeBooks.com.

Armstrong, Robert Bruce - The Irish and Highland Harps

Bain, George - Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction

Crawford, H.S. - Irish Carved Ornament

Henry, Francoise - The Book of Kells

Merne, John G. - A Handbook of Celtic Ornament

Stead, I. M. - Celtic Art In Britain Before the Roman Conquest

* John Cargill's "The Celtic Cross and Greek Proportion" in Miscellanea Musica Celtica by J. Travis; Medieval Music Ltd., New York is not included in the bibiography because I'm uncertain of the volume number.


Ars Celtica - Celtic Knotwork Art & Gifts

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