In Search of Meaning: Symbolism of Celtic Knotwork (part 4)

Copyright Stephen Walker
January 18, 2001

Note: This article was published in Dalriada Magazine, Bride 2001 issue. Due to a blunder on the part of the author, the published version was not the correct final product. Below is the intended final draft.

Often the first question asked about Celtic interlace is “What does it mean?”  The assumption is that these designs are a secret language of symbols that could be decoded if we only had the key.  

When talking about things Celtic we have to remember that things change through time and place.  What meaning may or may not have been for the monks that illuminated masterpieces such as the 9th century Book of Kells is not necessarily the same meaning expressed by users of Celtic design in more recent years, but there is a popularly held notion that it is or ought to be.  While it may be reckless speculation to claim a certain symbolic meaning as the original intent of an artist working in the Dark Ages, we should not dismiss that an artist working in our own times intends a symbolic message in the same type of design and that that meaning is valid in context.  The problems that occur are a result of there being very little consensus among artists about Celtic symbolism and the perception that the symbolism suggested has been gleaned from an ancient source.  The naive believer hopes that the symbolism offered by a modern artist or craftsman is an authentic legacy from the past.  The skeptic thinks this is very unlikely and considers it fanciful fakery.  

 

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When a creative modern imagination invents meaning for an ancient design, the scholar will predictably scoff.  Celtic Art by its nature is a link with the distant past.  If we continue to insist on always reaching back 1,200 years to the Book of Kells for our perspective on Celtic Art we ignore the traditions that authenticate the claim that Celtic Art is a living tradition.  The Celtic Revival began 150 years ago and in this time the creative use of Celtic design has evolved along with the myth that there is a timeless consistency of what Celtic Art is all about.

The more you study Celtic Art, the less urgent the issue of symbolism becomes.  Art historians are consumed with problems of timeline, place of origin and migration of styles and ideas.  Artists and designers who work with Celtic themes today are more interested in creative applications and technique.  Work with a message is likely to be spelled out in words or conveyed with figurative images or more universally recognized symbols such as crosses, doves or hearts.  Yet the most common question from the public about knotwork is, “What does it mean?”  

For the contemporary Celtic artist or craftsman, explanation of symbolism can be more of an answer to what may be an awkward question. “Can you show me the knots that means ‘love, health or strength’?”  What an opportunity for creative marketing!  We have absolutely no hard evidence that any such meaning were ever intended by the ancients, but this has not stopped modern designers from attributing such meanings.  Art historians have been very shy about even speculating about the possible symbolism of Celtic Interlace.  To look for a pat explanation from the scholars is a disappointment.  Many go as far as stating that interlace was historically used purely for decoration and that suggestions of any symbolic intent are not supported by credible research.  

The case of the triquetra or three-fold knot is a good example of the difficulty that one faces when trying to assign specific meaning to Celtic designs.  Sacred numbers and the symbolism of numerology offer a promising basis for the interpretation of Early Christian Celtic ornament.  The triquetra is an obvious sign of the Holy Trinity. Other knots could represent the four directions, the twelve Apostles and so on.  But as important as numbers are in Scripture, legends and poetry, the connection remains elusive and evidence circumstantial.

J. Romilly Allen writing in Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) says:

With the exception of the instances at Meigle and at Llanfrynach, in Brecknockshire, the triquetra is used for purely ornamental purposes, and there is not the least foundation for the theory that it is symbolic of the Holy Trinity. If the triquetra knot had ever any symbolical significance at all it was probably in pagan times and in that case it probably had some affinity with the triskele...”  He goes on to say how well suited the triquetra is to filling any triangular space.  Allen’s premise seems to be based on the observation that the triquetra (and other interlace designs) play a decorative role and are not given the prominence of placement that that one would assume an important symbol should have. The Meigle stone being an exception because the triquetra is arranged among other Pictish symbols in a way that it is definitely not a space filler, so possibly used as a symbol in this case.

Françoise Henry in Irish Art in the Early Christian Period (1940) writes about a stone slab at Killagtee, Donegal. A rather primative monument with an equal armed cross in a circle at the top and the only other carving is a large triquetra that is curiously off to one side. She states: “This knot stands most probably for the Trinity, and the whole cross seems to be an awkward version of the Chi-Rho..."

Allen opines that the triquetra is not a Trinity symbol and casts doubt that it was used as a symbol at all. Henry suggests that it probably stood for the Trinity, at least in this one case, but leaves the question open. Each of these experts were leading authorities in their day and neither gives a definite answer to the question of meaning for the knot that should be the easiest to explain.

When the triquetra stands alone it certainly looks like a symbol, but in early Christian Celtic venues it rarely does. If the triquetra had formerly been used as it is now, we would have no reason to doubt its function as a symbol.  In modern times it has been customary to display designs alone that would have been details in older work. These stand-alone details are frequently seen in books about Celtic Art or on modern day Celtic craft objects. When a single knot appears alone, as say a pendant that is a single triquetra, it seems as if it must be a symbol. Given the Celt’s penchant for blessings and invoking the Holy Trinity, the meaning of the triquetra seems more obvious than any other knotwork. The triquetra is quite commonly called the “Trinity knot” and has been consciously used as a Christian symbol during the 150 years of the Celtic Revival.  In recent decades it has also been appropriated as an emblem of the “Triple Goddess” by Pagan revivalists.  When someone plucked the triquetra out of antiquity and it stood alone in modern times, this was a creative act and the triquetra was no longer just a pretty space filler.

Celtic interlace, or attempts at something that looked like it have been made in every century since the Insular style first emerged in the 7th century.  At first interlace was being used to decorate Gospels and symbols of Christian faith such as crosses.  Religious and secular use of Celtic Art cannot be seen as expressing any national identity prior to the Norman invasion, especially when it is recognized that at this time several peoples, the Irish, the Picts, the Scots of Dal Riada and the Northumbrians all had artists that excelled in the style. The nearest neighbors, the southern Anglo-Saxons, the Welsh and many continental religious communities also produced manuscript decorations in the Celtic or “Hiberno-Saxon” tradition.   During the “Golden Age” of Celtic art, 7th to 10th centuries, the style and vocabulary of ornament was an international style throughout the region.

With the Norman invasions of Britain and Ireland, Celtic design went into decline.  Traditions of using interlace designs lingered in some of the more Gaelic areas. It eventually became a way of identifying with the older Gaelic cultural tradition in the face of advancing Anglo-Norman power. In the Hebrides and West Highlands, the Lords of the Isles and other Gaelic aristocrats continued to patronize the carving of interlace decorated monuments as well as portable objects. By the 15th century there was a self-conscious preservation of an older social order with a distinctly Celtic heritage. Knotwork became to a certain extent an emblem of political and cultural identity. Rustic and sometimes very crude attempts at carving knotwork on grave monuments speak of the desire of impoverished but proud Highlanders to imitate the glory of their ancestors.  Weapons and jewellery associated with the Jacobite movement continued to be decorated with knotwork until 1745. At this point the longest gap appears in the continuity of use. Little, if any knotwork was produced from then until the dawn of the Celtic Revival in the mid-1800’s.

The Celtic Revival in Ireland began as an effort to restore a sense of pride in a distinct Irish culture. For the most part this was a literary movement but a rediscovery of artistic treasures of the distant past were being introduced to the public imagination as well. Objects such as the Book of Kells and the Tara Brooch were concrete evidence that the Irish had once been a sophisticated, civilized society, not merely the degenerate barbarians as the English overlords often regarded them. The re-use of Celtic designs began as imitations of historical jewellery and monuments that were used as an affirmation of Irish identity and an association with the glory of past times. By the 1890’s Celtic design was taken up by the Irish branches of the Arts and Crafts Movement and a more contemporary interpretation emerged as well as the establishment of cottage industry enterprises making Celtic crafts.

During the same time in Scotland, Queen Victoria was an enthusiastic promoter of a romantic vision of Scottish national identity.  Celtic design we might logically imagine as part of the pomp and regalia of 19th century Scottish national image, but it was slow to catch on in Scotland. Dirk handles had been one of the last places that knotwork had been carved before it all but disappeared after the failed 1745 uprising. Victorian dirks were carved with thistles and clan or regimental emblems, rather than the traditional interlace.  It was later in the 19th century that knotwork began to add ornaments to tartan. The trend towards Celtic design on Highland dress accessories have slowly but steadily increased to the present.

The earliest Celtic Revival monuments are from the 1860’s.  In both Scotland and Ireland monumental carving was and remains the most conspicuous uses of Celtic design.  Many of the most elaborate earlier monuments of the Celtic Revival are the gravestones of priests.  Recognition of the legacy of the Celtic Church was being expressed with the creation of new “High Crosses” both as public monuments and as grave markers. 

Sometimes the revival got the designs right, in terms of historical rules of design but often what was made was a poor substitute. Cross hatching sometimes fills in as a sort of short hand for knotwork and frequently the conventions of over-under alternation and layout traditions are completely lacking. Whatever message there may be hidden in knotwork when it is done in an authentically traditional way, the message frequently is that the style itself, or a clumsy imitation of that style, is an emblem of Celtic heritage.

A standard answer to the meaning of knotwork question offered by many craftsmen and artists in recent times is that Celtic knots are endless paths and so represent eternity or continuum. The Scottish art teacher George Bain published the book Celtic Art; The Methods of Construction in 1951. This book became a standard reference and source book especially after its re-release in 1971.  In it the author made a great deal of the single continuous path that is laid out in many ancient knotwork panels.  This observation leads quite nicely to ideas about the “circle of life” or “never ending… love, faith, loyalty, what ever you want.”  Many ancient Celtic knots are not a single path, but several closed paths that are linked or woven together. These can be seen as metaphors for the interwoven-ness of life, or linking knots are frequently referred to as “love knots.” To some these seem like trite, pat answers to the question of meaning, which may have more to do with marketing than with any authentic tradition. But who can tell? 

Why would it be that continuum would be such an important concept that an elaborate symbology as knotwork would be contrived?  In modern times those who maintain an interest in Celtic things, be it Celtic music, dance, religion, folklore or history, may relate to the idea of continuum in their desire to affirm and preserve a culture they value, nobly surviving despite centuries on the margins of European mainstream.  Among Celtic Diaspora, those emigrants and their descendants whose interest in their roots have become a passion are especially likely to relate to a message of continuum as they strive to maintain an identity with their heritage in the multi-cultural melting pot of the New World.  If the modern motive for creating or viewing Celtic knotwork involves a sense of heritage, the message of continuum seems to work.

The “secret language” mystique of Celtic art is what makes it so very fascinating to many who look to it today for significance. Many myths carry a lesson about truth.  The myth that every miniscule detail of Celtic art is symbolic, like all genuine folklore, has many variations.  The various beliefs that the symbolism is now lost or perhaps dimly remembered or optimistically preserved by a few who have kept and studied the old traditions, cloaks Celtic art in an exciting veil of mystery.


About the author

My thanks to members of Celtic_Art @ eGroups for their discussion and debate of the issues of meaning and symbolism during January 2001.  My ideas expressed in the article above are by no means a consensus of that forum, but the chance to  kick around  these ideas with a cross-section of imaginative, passionate and knowledgeable contemporary Celtic artists and designers was of immense value. ~ Stephen Walker 

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The article above is the 4th and final part of a series that were published in Dalriada Magazine. Links to the previous articles are below.