Celtic Knots Designs
Knotwork Art: History Origins, Styles.

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Celtic Knotwork

Celtic Knots Designs

Knotwork, one of the most common Celtic designs employed by ancient and modern Celtic artists, consists of an endless series of graphical arrangements of overlapping and interwoven knots. Notable instances of knotwork include the wide range of patterns which appear in the ornamentation of early Christian illuminated manuscripts, like the 8th century Book of Kells (c.800) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.690-720), and on High Cross sculpture like the Bealin Cross in County Tyrone (c.820).

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 Interlace Designs
Celtic Crosses Designs

For a guide to the historical
connections between Ireland
and the civilization, culture
and heritage of the ancient
keltoi traditions, see:
Iron Age
Celtic Art: Early Style
Turoe Stone
Celtic Art: Waldalgesheim Style
Celtic Art: Coins/Coinage
Celtic Art: Late European
Celtic Metalwork
Broighter Collar
Petrie Crown
Gundestrup Cauldron
Celtic Art: in Britain/Ireland
Celtic-Style Christian Art
Ardagh Chalice
Derrynaflavan Chalice
Tully Lough Cross
Moylough Belt Shrine
Tara Brooch
Cross of Cong
Irish Monastic Art
Lebor Gabala Erenn
Medieval Irish Arts

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.

History and Origins of Celtic Knotwork

Knot patterns appeared at a relatively late stage in the development of Celtic art. Whereas spirals and other types of abstract geometric curvilinear imagery were common features of Hallstatt and La Tene art among the Celts of central Europe from 600 BCE onwards, knotwork only emerged in Celtic culture during the early Christian era, and art historians are still undecided about its origins.

Some of the earliest knot patterns are evident in Roman floor mosaics of the 4th century (eg. The Great Pavement Roman mosaic created in 325 at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, England), while the broken and reconnected plaitwork typical of authentic knotwork seems to have begun in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul around this time. However, most experts believe that these designs were almost certainly derived from Middle Eastern sources, possibly by Byzantine artists patronized by the authorities of the Eastern Roman Church in Constantinople. The Eastern (later Orthodox) Christian tradition of manuscript illumination developed earlier than its western counterpart, and interlaced knot patterns can be found in Byzantine architecture and Gospel illustration, as well as Coptic art in Egypt, from the early 7th century onwards.

At any rate, in Bible manuscript decoration, knotwork designs appear to have come to Britain and Ireland around 650 in the form of manuscripts illuminated by Coptic artist-monks from Egypt or Syria. (Note: One reason for presuming a Middle Eastern origin for Celtic knotwork illumination techniques is because in the Book of Durrow strands of interlace typically change colour as they pass under another strand - a Levantine convention. In contrast, Roman and Germanic knotwork traditions do not change colour.) Whatever its origins, the plaitwork motif was rapidly absorbed by scribes and artists working in the scriptoriums of early Christian monasteries in Ireland, from where the style spread to monasteries in Iona, Wales and Northumberland.

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


Later, Viking raiders incorporated some of the design elements into their signature style of animal interlace. The earliest surviving example of true knotwork employed in illuminated manuscript decoration is contained in a fragment of the Durham Gospels, now held in the Durham Cathedral library, which was written in northern Britain in the mid-600s, although one should emphasize that, as a design-form, knotwork was fully developed by Irish monks based in Ireland and Britain, in a style commonly known as Ultimate La Tene, or Hiberno-Saxon Insular art.

Principal Characteristic and Types of Knot

Celtic knots consist of complete, continuous loops with no end or beginning. They look like strands of woven strips that bend and weave among themselves. The knotwork pattern may be made up of a single strand criss-crossing itself, or any number of strips. A common interlace knot-pattern is the Trinity Knot, which has 3 outer lobes or petals, and any number of curvilinear weavings within its centre. In fact, according to the expert J. Romilly Allen ("Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times", 1933), there are only eight fundamental knots which form the basis of nearly all the interlace plaitwork in Celtic-style decoration: two of these stem from a three-cord plait, and the remaining six from a four-cord plait.

True knots have no loose ends or tails and thus can easily be distinguished from similar Celtic animal interlace patterns which employ zoomorphic images. The latter, although equally complex and beautiful, invariably terminate in tails, heads or feet, and therefore are not "true" knots. Historically, the Coptic tradition of knotworking always adhered to the unending loop, while the Roman and Germanic tradition tended to permit loose ends.

Irish Celtic Knot Designs in Illuminated Gospel Texts

The finest examples of knotwork appear in the illuminated manuscripts of the early Christian period, such as the Book of Durrow (c.670, Trinity College, Dublin), the carpet pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels (690-720, British Museum, London), and throughout the Book of Kells (c.800, Trinity College, Dublin). Used to decorate initials, to represent the hair of the Apostles and other figures, and to create other forms of ornamentation, Celtic-style knotwork was a sigificant element in early Christian art, in particular, Gospel illumination. See, for instance, Christ's Monogram Page in the Book of Kells.

Other renowned illuminated manuscripts featuring Celtic designs, include the Cathach of St. Columba (early 7th century), the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.698-700), the Echternach Gospels (c.700), and the Lichfield Gospels (c.730). See also: History of Illuminated Manuscripts (600-1200) and Making of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Irish Celtic Knot Designs on High Cross Scupture

Built across Ireland between about 750 and 1150, Celtic High Crosses are a form of religious sculpture unrivalled in Western European culture during the Middle Ages. The sculptors who ornamented these crosses typically employed two types of decorative art: figurative, usually scenes taken from the Old Testament, or the crucifixion of Christ; or abstract geometric, comprising all the basic Celtic designs such as: spirals, key patterns, zoomorphs and knotwork. Examples of knot patterns can be seen on: the 7th century St. Patrick’s Cross, County Donegal; the West Cross at Kilieran, County Kilkenny; the 9th century Killamery Cross, County Kilkenny; the 9th century Kinnity Cross, County Offaly; and the 10th century High Cross at Duleek Priory, County Meath, among many others.

In Scotland, Celtic knotwork designs can be seen on 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, and others. On Iona, knotwork interlace patterns can be seen as late as the 15th century on The Cross of MacLean.

Meaning of Celtic Knot Designs

It is fair to assume that all abstract symbols and designs, from the earliest prehistoric era onwards, were created originally with some specially meaning or significance in mind. Unfortunately however, no consensus among art historians exists as to the meaning of the various types of knot patterns. Thus the following comments are strictly illustrative.

In general, the unending knot interlace pattern represents the unending continuum of life, while the crossing and recrossing of the plaits is emblematic of the ongoing connection between the physical and emotional/spiritual planes. For example, the three-lobed Trinity knot (or Triquetra), symbolizes the inter-connection of the three planes of existence: mind, body, and spirit.

Modern Celtic Art

Following a decline in Celtic-style arts and crafts between the 13th and 18th centuries, the Celtic Art Revival Movement in Ireland of the mid- to late-19th century (triggered in part by the discovery of various antiquities from the Iron Age and Hiberno-Saxon Insular art period), led to an upsurge in Celtic crafts. This in turn has led to a general renaissance in the production of artifacts and craftwork (eg. jewellery) based on the authentic designs - including knotwork - of the ancient Celts.

• For information about the crafts history of Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic Knots designs, see: Homepage.

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