Celtic Interlace Designs
Interlaced Patterns of Knots, Spirals, Zoomorphic Images: Art of Ancient Celts.

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Example of Celtic Interlace

Celtic Interlace Designs

What is Celtic Interlace?

Interlace is one of the main Celtic designs characterized by a continuous, unending pattern of connected strands or plaitwork. Knots are a common motif in interlace, as are zoomorphic shapes (animal forms, commonly birds and snakes). Along with spirals, and fantastic animal shapes, interlace is the most common feature of Celtic art.

For the history & development
of the iconography, zoomorphic
patterns and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Spirals Designs
Celtic Knots Designs
Celtic Crosses Designs

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.

The ancient Celts did not actually invent interlace art. Indeed, since it did not appear in its true form until the 6th or 7th century - some 500-600 years after the collapse of the pagan Celtic kingdoms on the Continent - by which time the surviving pockets of Insular Celts (eg. in Ireland, Iona, Scotland and Wales) had become almost fully integrated with the indigenous cultures where they had settled, the term "Celtic Interlace" is used in a descriptive rather than a definitive sense.

Notwithstanding the fact that interlace during its heyday (c.600-900) was very much an "international" style of decorative art - these interwoven braid patterns have become closely identified with Celtic culture, and are practised by modern-day "Celts" and Gaelic communities in Scotland and Brittany, and particularly in Ireland. Along the way, the style was a strong influence on other art movements, notably Art Nouveau.

For facts about the craftsmanship,
artistry and artisanship for which
the Celts were justly famous, see:
Celtic Weapons Art
Celtic Jewellery Art
Celtic Sculpture.

For a chronological list of dates
and events in the development
of painting, sculpture, ceramics
and metalwork, please see:
History of Art Timeline. For details
of the evolution of artworks from
the Stone Age epoch, please see:
Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For an outline of later styles,
see; History of Art.

Celtic Interlace Characteristics and Types

There are two main forms of interlace in Celtic culture: knotwork and animal-shape (zoomorphs). Knotwork traditions are based on a number of simple rules. First, strands or bands must alternate over and under. Traditional Celtic designers rarely strayed from this convention. Second, there should be no ends or tails to the pattern. It must form a continuous unending pattern. Animal-shape interlace also generally adheres to these rules, except that the added iconographic complexity of accomodating various crests, tongues, limbs and tails requires the occasional compromise. Indeed, zoomorphic interlaces almost by definition tend to terminate in heads or tails.

Origins and History of Celtic Interlace

There are two general views about how interlace entered the idiom of Celtic Art. The first maintains that it was part of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tradition (Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art) that flourished in 7th century Northumbria and Lindisfarne Island from where it spread via the Christian monastic network to Iona and Ireland. There is certainly strong evidence that the zoomorphic style of interlace derived from the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tradition.


The second view maintains that Celtic interlace originated in the Middle East as part of the artistic tradition of the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium (Constantinople, now Instanbul). Byzantine artists had already begun to use interlace in the development of their preferred form of two-dimensional art - the latter being fully exploited in the icons, mosaics, calligraphy and illuminations of the later Eastern Orthodox Church. The proponents of this view cite Christian Coptic (Egyptian) and Syrian illuminated texts, produced during the 5th and 6th centuries, as the true precursors of Western Gospel manuscripts like the Book of Durrow. Copies of such Middle Eastern manuscripts were probably introduced to Ireland sometime between 630 and 690 by religious envoys or missionaries returning from Rome or Siena.

The case for a Levantine origin of Celtic interlace is strengthened by two stylistic arguments. First, Germanic or Continental knotwork and other types of knotted interlace frequently terminates in a head or tail, whereas Coptic artists maintained an unending pattern with no beginnings or ends - as did Celtic illuminators. Second, unlike Germanic styles of colouring, Coptic artists altered the colours of strands that crossed under others - a convention adhered to also by Celtic scribes. Finally, one should note that most of the initial curvilinear-type designwork originated in the eastern Mediterranean, in the form of Mycenean and other cultures associated with ancient Greece. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire around 450, the centre of artistic gravity moved eastwards to Constantinople. Thus, historically, the latter would seem to be an obvious source for the continued development of curvilinear interlace.

In any event, Christian artists and scribes working in the Celtic idiom across Northumbria, Ireland, Iona, Scotland (Pictland) and the islands, embraced the interlace style and - due to their general inventiveness - raised it to a new level of sophistication. The native pre-Christian style fused perfectly with knots and animal-shape patterns, "key" and "step" designs along with figurative imagery to produce a very complex but exuberant style. The greatest exemplars of interlace design are to be found in the series of illuminated Gospel manuscripts, which were produced during the early Christian era (c.600-900), in the monasteries of Ireland, Iona and Northumbria in Northern England. Some of the most famous of these Biblical manuscripts are: The Cathach of St. Columba (early 7th century), The Book of Durrow (c.670), The Lindisfarne Gospels (690-720), the Echternach Gospels (c.700), the Lichfield Gospels (c.730) and The Book of Kells (c.800), notably its beautifully decorated Monogram Page (Chi/Rho).

From the early 9th century onwards, aggressive raids by Viking marauders placed enormous pressure on the isolated monastic network around the British Isles. Iona, Lindisfarne and other monasteries and abbeys around the coast were plundered and many monks butchered. In response, many of the illuminated gospel texts, relics and other ecclesistical treasures were moved to inland monasteries for safekeeping. See also: History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200) and Making of Illuminated Manuscripts.

It was during this period of Nordic turbulence that Irish Celtic-style craftsmen began carving the extraordinary series of monumental stone sculptures, known as the Celtic High Crosses of Ireland - the greatest series of freestanding scultures created between the fall of Rome (c.450) and the Renaissance (c.1400). In addition to Biblical figurative engravings, these scripture crosses were decorated with a wide variety of abstract patternwork featuring interlace designs of knotwork and zoomorphs, as well as spirals, "key" and "step" patterns. Examples of such carvings can be seen on: the 7th century St. Patrick’s Cross, Co Donegal; the West Cross at Kilieran, Co Kilkenny; the 9th century Killamery Cross, Co Kilkenny; the 9th century Kinnity Cross, Co Offaly; and the 10th century High Cross at Duleek Priory, Co Meath, among others. Pictish stone carvers also used interlace art in their own High Crosses and other stonework. Examples include: the 8th century Pictish Aberlemno Cross slab, Angus; the 8th/9th century Pictish cross slab at Farr Church in Sutherlandshire; the 9th century St. Madoes Cross, near Perth, among others. On Iona, knotwork interlace patterns can be seen as late as the 15th century on The Cross of MacLean.

Following the Norman invasions of Britain and Ireland during the 11th and 12 centuries, Celtic designwork involving interlace, knotwork, spirals and zoomorphs began to decline, although the tradition survived in a few of the Gaelic communities, not least as a way of siding with traditional Gaelic culture in the face of growing Anglo-Norman power. For example, in the Hebrides and West Highlands, until the 16th century at least, Gaelic chieftans continued to encourage the carving of stone monuments and religious sculpture with abstract interlace patterns, as a means of preserving the Celtic heritage, while up until the mid 18th century, Jacobite weapons and items of personal/ceremonial jewellery continued to be embossed or ornamented with interlace motifs. Thereafter, however, the style faded until the Celtic Revival of the mid-19th century.

The Celtic Art Revival in Ireland, which emerged in parallel with the growing Nationalist desire for independence during mid-Victorian times, was stimulated by the discovery of numerous Celtic-style antiquities like the Tara Brooch (discovered in 1850, Co Meath), the Ardagh Chalice (discovered in 1868, Co Limerick), and the Broighter gold torc (discovered in 1896, Co Derry). The Revival movement in Ireland essentially triggered a "rediscovery" of the national heritage, a major element of which was Celtic art. The process of replicating and updating traditional types of Celtic design, like spirals, interlace and animal shape patterns in a variety of arts and crafts, initiated by the Revivalists, continues to this day.

• For more about painters and sculptors, see: Famous Irish Artists.
• For information about the cultural history of Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic Interlace designs, see: Homepage.

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