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Celtic Knotwork Construction Tutorial

Introduction

This tutorial is based on a class covering beginning Celtic knotwork construction (Introduction to Celtic Knotwork) I gave during Pennsic War XXII (the week of 20 August 1993).   The Pennsic Wars are a long-running series of large yearly events held by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), a nationwide organization of those interested in pre-17th century activities.  

Tutorial Background

This information should be considered introductory in nature, and assumes no experience in Celtic art or design; just a fascination with it!  It does not cover what I would call "art" or "design" as such (I don't feel I'm qualified to teach in those areas), but is more "technical" in nature.  This tutorial covers basic interlacing techniques, simple border and panel construction, analysis of existing patterns, interlaced corners, more advanced patterns (such as "doubled" knots), and provides links to other, advanced sources for your further research.   Techniques from this tutorial can be (and have been) applied to both hand drawn and computer-constructed designs (for example, see my Celtic Computer "Art"--Images).  The techniques described in this tutorial did not originate with me. (Please see the Tutorial Bibliography for original sources.)  I only use the techniques in my work, felt that they were not well-enough known, and hoped that the class (and this web site tutorial) would help them gain wider appreciation.

Knotwork Background and History

Where did what we call "Celtic Knotwork" come from?   Interestingly, knotwork (and much of what we see as "Celtic Art" today) corresponds to only the latest style in a long tradition of Celtic art.  Who were the Celts?  Roughly, they were a non-Classical European society differentiated by language.  They flourished in central and eastern Europe from (at least) the 7th C. BC, moved into the British Isles by about the 3rd C. BC, and remain there today.   What, then, is "Celtic Art"?  Besides the obvious definition ("art done by Celtic peoples"), Celtic art has several special features.  For example, from [Megaw] comes a "minimal working definition" of Celtic Art:

...encompasses elements of decoration beyond those necessary for functional utility, though these elements represent a form of symbolic visual communication which is only partially accessible to us.

From [Green] comes the concept that Celtic art was closely integrated with its society; that the Celts were used to seeing art as part of their every day life.  She maintains that "...in Celtic society it is virtually impossible to make a distinction between art and decoration."  

The roots of regognizable Celtic art go back at least to the 6th or 7th centuries B.C.  The earliest Celtic art seems to have been influenced by the existing Iron Age Mediterranean cultures.  Some possible influences can be seen in art from Persia, Africa, Egypt, and other places (see [BainG], page 27 for some speculative examples).  Celtic art went through a number of recognizable phases over time (see [Green], [Megaw], and [Laing] in the Bibliography for further details).   The Celtic art phase I've concentrated on was a late development, sometimes known as "Insular", and exemplified by the illuminated manuscripts of the 6th-12th C. AD.  This style was influenced by a number of sources: Christianity (about the 3rd C. AD--It is interesting how the Christian influence, especially Roman and Irish monastic, seemed to enrich rather than replace the earlier pagan artistic traditions.), the native northern British tribes ("Picts"), Anglo-Saxons (from the 5th C. AD on), and the Vikings (from the 9th C. AD on).  A view of these influences is shown pictorially in the following:

Late Celtic Art Sources

Sources for patterns used in this tutorial (and in the associated Celtic Computer "Art"--Images page) are taken from illuminated manuscript Gospels; Durrow (ca. 680 AD); Lindisfarne (ca. 700 AD); Kells (ca. 800 AD); and from carved stones (especially see [BainG] and [BainI]; also [Meehan2]).  In the case of the great manuscripts, it appears that masters designed and initiated patterns, with students (monks?) completing the work.

For an interesting look at the earliest origins of Celtic art in general, see: Barbarians on the Greek Periphery? a hyper-text PhD thesis.

Another good resource is The Origin and meaning of Celtic Knotwork, found on the web at http://home.ctnet.com/drew/knotwork-meaning.html.  The author, however, feels that Lindisfarne was the earliest major knotwork effort (Durrow is usually cited as the earliest), but agrees with the ca.700 AD time frame for the creation of Lindisfarne.  The author also mentions that plaits broken and reattached (see Basic Interlacing Construction and Interrupted Interlacing for examples) were first used in Italy in the early 700's; a claim I'd not heard before.  The Origin and meaning of Celtic Knotwork site includes a good bibliography--it can be reached from the link noted above.  

Symbolism in Celtic Art

I've often been asked about the symbolism in Celtic knotwork, or in Celtic Art in general.  Many visitors to my Web site ask if I have a list of knots and what they mean, or if I know of a knot that symbolizes a particular concept.  I'm sorry, but my research indicates that the Celts probably had no such meaning attached to their work; and, if they did, we would not be able to interpret it today.  Drew Ivan (among others) has studied knotwork symbology, and says, on his site: http://www.craytech.com/drew/knotwork/knotwork-meaning.html that:

Therefore, it's my opinion that the Celts did not use knots as specific symbols.  They did not have different knots to represent specific ideas or concepts.  Knots were just nifty ways to fill a space.  The symbolism of connectedness and continuity seem apparent from simply looking at knotwork patterns.  This may have been an intended effect, but I've uncovered no evidence to suggest that knotwork patterns mean anything more than that.

This is likely to disappoint a great many people.  Ivan goes on to mention that: In "Brigit's Feast" (Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 9, 11) Frank Mills writes...

The interlaced patterns with their unbroken lines symbolize humankind's pilgrimage, both as a quest to return to our divine source and our spiritual growth as we move along in the quest. The pattern is to be mentally unraveled, which, while occupying the mind with a repetitive task, creates a deeper concentration enabling us "to see." In this it is akin to the use of a mantra or rosary beads.

...though in a footnote Mills says...

It must be remembered that in our interpretation of Celtic art we cannot know the mind of the ancient Celts who developed these forms, thus the best we can do is to hopefully 'read between the lines' correctly and make some educated guesses.

This theme is reiterated, for Celtic art in general, in [Megaw], where they state:

...we cannot tell the precise meaning to a Celt of even some of the commonest motifs...  Some may have been, like a three-leaved clover, a charm; others may be heraldic symbols like the American bald eagle or the Tudor rose; yet others may have a significance as profound as a crucifix has for a Christian.

Please read the facinating works [Green], [Megaw], and [Laing] (referenced in the Bibliography) for further information about the symbolism of Celtic Art.

Now, on with the tutorial!

Printable Version of this Tutorial

A converged, printable (422KB PDF File) version of this tutorial is now available.  It contains the all information from the tutorial HTML pages converged into a single file.   You can download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader you'll need to read it from the Adobe web site: www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep.html


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