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Celtic Knotwork

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Celtic Knotwork

Celtic knotwork is a key part of the styles used in Celtic art. Other designs representative of Celtic art include the use of distinctive spirals, key patterns and stylised figures. Knotwork consists of designs where things (often cords) interlace, ie go over and under each other, forming decorative knots.

Creating knotwork is something that is suited to people with generous amounts of doodling time, though there are numerous short cuts if you wish to doodle using the computer. Knotwork can fill almost any space, but beginners would be advised to stick to rectangular panels at first. This entry will not show you how to do very much (it's difficult to explain using only words) but it should provide an understanding of the rules, and some of the background.

Knotwork Has...

... No Loose Ends

At its simplest, knotwork is a convoluted cord formed into a loop, or loops, which are interlaced in pleasing designs to fill a space. Historical examples often consist of an intentional single endless loop, supposed by many to be symbolic of eternity, and certainly useful in contemplation as you follow the line around the pattern.

... Symmetry

If overall symmetry is ignored, knotwork has been described as tending to resemble a plate of spaghetti. The symmetry comes from the pattern of breaks made from a simple plait1, which can cause the cords to twist and turn like a roller coaster. The symmetries can take several forms:

  • Rotation - This is where the same pattern has been rotated about a point.
  • Reflection - This is where there are one or more lines of symmetry for the pattern of breaks.
  • Translation - This is where the same pattern has been moved sideways and repeated.

... Consistent Interlacing

The cords should always interlace consistently - that is, when you follow a line, if it goes over one cord, then it will go under the next cord it intersects, and then over and so on. The cord of a loop doesn't split, and no more than two cords ever meet at any intersection. If you ignore either of these restrictions, lacing consistency is difficult to achieve.

... Consistent Cord Width

For nearly all knotwork panels the cord width is kept consistent. Some authors argue that the width of the cord should be equal to the gap between cords, but this rule is not always used in historical examples.

... Other Things to Interlace

The main alternatives to using closed loops in Celtic knotwork are using stylised people, birds and animals, or plant forms2 or having the ends of cords segue into spirals or key patterns. It is more usual to keep separate styles in different panels of a design than to intermingle them.

Using creatures or plants allows for lines to branch and terminate (so with these you can break the 'loose ends' restriction), but again interlacing must be consistent, with only two 'lines' (be they bodies, top-knots3, limbs, tails or branches) crossing at any point. In historical examples, the rare plant forms all 'grow' from pots4.

History of Celtic Knotwork

The history of Celtic knotwork, like much history, has been contentious, with arguments over its roots and symbolism. You do not need to know much (if anything) about the history to enjoy creating knotwork. If you are inclined to know more, 'Celtic Interlace - An Overview by Stephen Walker' is an interesting and scholarly article on some of the issues. For more about the Celts, see History of the Celts.

Pre-Christian Celtic art has some of its roots in the La Tène5 culture, but this was much more centred on spirals than knotwork. Norse influences, where interlacing of sorts is apparent, with the Valknot for instance (that looks like an interlaced MOT6 symbol), may have been a route for interlacing artwork to merge with the La Tène style.

Even if you are not interested in detailed art history, you should be aware that Celtic knotwork has little to do with druids and pagans. Most currently popular Celtic art has its roots in the 7th - 10th Century Christianity of Ireland, Northumbria and Scotland. It was in this period that knotwork and other aspects of Celtic art reached the peak of their complexity and craftsmanship - known by some as Ultimate La Tène. Examples of this are the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow, the Gospels of Lindisfarne, jewellery such as the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice and the stone crosses in Scotland and Ireland7.

How to Create Knotwork

For a long time after the intricate Ultimate La Tène knotwork was created, it was not known how it could have been done. Without an understandable method it is quite difficult8 to recreate accurately the complex patterns made hundreds of years ago.

Anyone who wants to know how to create their own knotwork can find various references, but the 'original and best' book is Celtic Art: the Methods of Construction by George Bain9.

This was the first book aimed at giving practical methods for recreating or creating new examples of Celtic art, and was inspired by Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times, the work of J Romilly Allen, which is more art history than design methods, and introduces the idea of 'eight elementary knots' used in creating most knotwork in Celtic art. Note that these 'knots' that Romilly Allen identified were all variations of breaks in plaits within larger panels or borders - not knots existing in isolation which had a particular symbolism.

Bain's book covers knotwork, key patterns, borders, spirals, Celtic lettering, plant and animal forms as well as history (generally traced via what he terms the 'Pictish school of Celtic art') and many examples of interlacing ranging from woven African designs, to ones from the Renaissance. The vast majority of examples are drawn from the sources mentioned in the history above, and appropriately credited.

Since this book became popular (in the 1970s) many other people have proposed methods by which the 7th to 10th Century craftsmen may have planned their intricate knotwork, or indeed proposed their own entirely novel methods (without pretending their methods would have been appropriate to long-dead Columban monks at Iona and elsewhere).

Some authors acknowledge their debt to Bain's scholarship, in particular his son Iain Bain, whose book Celtic Knotwork is more limited in scope than George's, restricting itself solely to knotwork. Instead his book goes into much greater detail on how to achieve the same effects as in the manuscripts mentioned above.

It is nice that if one author's method doesn't agree with your own personal style you should be able to get almost the same results from another method.

Some methods may be too elliptical (applied by some to George Bain's work), some too eyeball-burstingly egocentric and extremely poorly-referenced (Aidan Meehan), and others too reliant on dots, grids and rulers (most paper-based methods).

For More Information on Celtic Art

Andrew Birrell's Knotwork Panel gives a quick and simple instant knotwork panel you can play about on.

Draw Your Own Celtic Knots provides some summarised methods of creating knotwork, and useful bibliography.

1A simple plait is where the cords always follow diagonal straight lines, interlacing with cords travelling perpendicular to them, only turning when they reach a border.2Also known as anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or foliated designs respectively.3Top-knots are one of the peculiar ways bodies are commonly stylised in Celtic art, giving something that can be used to create interlacing. Top-knots are cords extending from a head, for example the 'tails' that frequently extend from the eyes of snakes in knotwork.4See chapter on plant forms in Celtic Art, The Methods of Construction by George Bain for good examples of plant formation in Celtic knotwork.5La Tène refers to an archaeological site near Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland where masses of cultural artefacts were discovered in the late 1800s.6The symbol for the British Ministry of Transport.7These links are to photographs on O'Brien's Celtic and Medieval Page.8Recreating manuscript panels (rather than stone cross carvings) can be remarkably difficult, for the additional reason that they were drawn very small, with very fine detailing.9Examples of George Bain's work are on permanent display at Groam House Museum, in Rosemarkie, Scotland, where there are also quite a few Pictish stones.

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