Celtic Knotwork Construction Tutorial
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.
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 everyday life. She maintains that
"...in Celtic society it is virtually impossible to make a
distinction between art and decoration."
The roots of recognizible 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, by 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
- Native northern British tribes ("Picts").
- Anglo-Saxons (from the 5th C. AD on).
- Vikings (from the 9th C. AD on.)
- Others--For example, Thomas Cahill in How the Irish Saved
Civilization notes that the use of red dots on manuscript initials (see
the Line Treatments class for details), appears
to have been introduced to Ireland by visiting Coptic monks, where that was
a common treatment.
A view of these influences is shown
pictorially in the following:
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.
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:
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
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
...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.
This has not stopped some from assigning meanings anyhow! See:
Please read the fascinating works [Green], [Megaw], and [Laing]
(referenced in the Bibliography) for
further information about the symbolism of Celtic Art.
Now, on with the
Copyright © 1997-2015, A. Reed Mihaloew
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Most recent revision: November 2015