of the designs in this collection are Celtic knotwork, or
Celtic interlace, designs. Knotwork is one of the most identifiable
aspects of Celtic art although its a relatively late
addition to the repertoire of the Celts.
the Bronze Age forward Celtic design 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.
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 theres also the possibility
that it developed locally.
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 well know more about them one day.
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 design are also frequently
found in those parts.
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 its 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
it arrived in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the Celtic peoples
lost no time in perfecting knotwork design. 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 wouldnt have
them; in fact, the Welsh christians didnt even want
to convert them, since theyd then have to share their
Heaven with the Saxons as well as their Earth). If it hadnt
arrived before, this is probably the origin of the "gripping
beast" in Celtic art - the ancestor of the designs
youll find in that section of the present collection.
have been various suggestions that knotwork designs 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 cant 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"
wasnt 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.
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 its 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.
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.
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.
the purest embodiment of what Ive proposed as the "idea"
of knotwork, the entire design ought to be composed of a single
band. Personally, I dont always restrict my designs
this way, though I usually try to avoid obvious "rings"
- and the ancient craftsmen didnt always follow that
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.
most widely used source for students of Celtic design is George
Art: The Methods of Construction.
Bains 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.
second book is A
Handbook of Celtic Ornament
by John G. Merne. Apparently by chance the Merne book is a
perfect companion to Bains. 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.
very fortunate to have both of these books in print. Together
they form a treasury of existing ornament and a craftsmans
guide to creating both similar and new designs in the traditional
manner. In addition to these two important books there are
others of interest:
on the links for in-print books will take you to that books
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.
Robert Bruce - The Irish and Highland Harps
George - Celtic
Art: The Methods of Construction
H.S. - Irish Carved Ornament
Francoise - The Book of Kells
John G. - A
Handbook of Celtic Ornament
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.
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