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CELTIC SYMBOLS: THE CELTIC KNOT AND THE CELTIC CROSS

The Celtic Knot and Cross

Celtic art is a form of art closely related to peoples that spoke the Celtic language, as well as peoples of uncertain languages that share many common features in their art with those abovementioned. This form of art is hard to define, as it appears over a large span of time and in a wide geographical space, stretching from the British Isles to modern-day Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Croatia as well as Germany, Switzerland and France. The term 'Celt' is used to define a people that spoke a group of languages of Indo-European origin, thought to have spread on the continent from a central point located somewhere in southeastern Europe. This might have happened by means of invasion and large movements of people, although no one can be sure of this because of the lack of written documents. More recent genetic studies show that not all Celtic groups have a common genetic background and this suggests that the culture has spread by diffusion, through trade and other types of social contact, rather than being forced by migration. Because of their lack of written records, we only know of the Celts through the eyes of the Romans and other, more civilized societies of the past and through objects found in their former cities, villages and tombs, objects covered in complex and intricate, highly decorative drawings full of floral and zoomorphic motifs that cover all available space.

The Celtic Knot


Celtic interlace art, more popularly known as Celtic knots, first appeared around the middle of the seventh century A.D. in close relation to the Irish Church, despite the wide-spread belief that all things 'Celtic' have a pagan heritage. As a matter of fact, Margaret Stokes, who in 1887 wrote the book Early Christian Art in Ireland, opens the preface of her book with the following: "The subject of the following chapters is what has been mis-labeled Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or Runic Art, whereas the style is Irish. The term Celtic belongs to the arts of bronze and gold and enamel practiced in Britain before the Roman occupation and in Ireland before the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century". The term Irish Art does not cover all of the schools that produced this kind of graphic design, leaving out the Pictish and Northumbrian schools of Celtic art. Because of this, today's academics choose to use the term 'Insular Art' to cover the cultural phenomenon that defines such works as the Book of Kells. There are two theories regarding the introduction of the interlace to the vocabulary of Celtic Art. The first, the Germanic/Nord influence suggests during the isolation of King Oswald of Northumbria on Iona he became fluent in Gaelic and studied with the monks there, whom he send on a mission to his kingdom. These established a monastery in the year 635, in Lindisfarne. The earliest Christianity

practiced in the Kingdom of Northumbria was, thus, based on the Irish Church and the interlaced animal forms practiced as decorations there, although much simpler than what would later emerge, were part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Celtic art, also termed Hiberno-Saxon Art. This theory does not hold popularity with the Irish and Scottish people, as it implies that people from England and Wales are trying to obtain credit for what they hold to be an Irish cultural specifity. The other school of thought suggests that there are Middle-Eastern influences to be found in manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow. In truth, there are manuscripts from Coptic Egypt and Syria that have ornaments and artwork that resembles those found in works of Celtic Art. There is a distinctive feature that also offers a clue to this: the coloring on the early patterns. In the Book of Durrow, the strands change colors as they pass under another strand - a convention followed by Eastern artists. Middle-Eastern works also respect the convention of the endless path of the strands, while the Roman and some other knotwork traditions do not - their strands will have one beginning and one end. One might wonder how these precious books ended up so far away from their place of origin during a time when travelling such long distances was neither safe, nor common. In the 7th century AD, Venerable Bede records that a frankish archbishop who was returning from his trip to the Holy Lands lost his course in a storm and ended up on Iona. The man was made to dictate a book to the monks that was entitled De Locis Sancti [Of the Holy Places]. It is not impossible for people like this archbishop to have brought books decorated with interlaced patterns common to Celtic Art. Celtic Art in the 7th century consists of two main types of interlaces, each typical for one of the schools of thought above mentioned. The first one is knotwork. This is composed of a series of convoluted circles and follows two very important conventions: endlessness and alternative crossings. It is considered a mistake to have two or more overs or unders in a row and one can see, by the small number of exceptions, that this was the case. The second type of interlace is the zoomorphic interlace. This uses the same rules of over and under since the forms of birds and animals branch out, each limb, wing, claw or tongue transforming in a strand that can be intertwined. This type, however, does not respect the convention of endlessness, as each tail, tongue or foot will end in a spiral.

Decorations from the Book of Durrow

Examples of Celtic zoomorphic interlace

The Celtic Revival


When discussing about the revival of Celtic interlacing patterns, one usually searches for important events. Some of these may be enumerated, such as J. Romilly Allen's and Margaret Stoke's books or the discovery of the Tara Brooch. While this may be the case, the possibility of the art never dying and still being produced in smaller volume in rural areas exists. The Celtic patterns suffered a fall out of fashion as decorative arts from mainland Europe grew in appreciation and as the Protestant reformation gathered momentum, but Irish and Scottish lords still expressed an affinity for adornments decorated in this style. The discovery of the Tara Brooch and it's sale to the Dublin jewelry firm 'Waterhouse & Co.' combined with smart advertising sparked a new interest in the Celtic arts of the past. It was marketed as jewelry worn in the days past by princes and nobles. This strategy worked and reproductions of the brooch were sold to important figures in the social life of England, such as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. As this interest continue to snowball, museums were formed and literature written on the subject. The formation of the Emer Guild outside of Dublin, in 1902, marks a central point in the history of the Celtic revival. Founded by Evelyn Gleason and Susan and Elizabeth Yeats, sister to the poet William Butler Yeats, the guild focused on discovering the old patterns of Celtic interlace and creating more patterns based on the ones already found. The foundation of the guild came at an interesting time in Irish history, as the Irish Literary Revival was already in full swing and was working on building a new identity for the Irish people. The early Celtic revivalists did not, however, appropiate all of the rules and conventions of the art of interlacing and in their early works one can find errors not found on the antic works. It is not uncommon for corruptions on the one-over-one-under convention or the continuity of the single thread. This is due to the ignorance of many 19th and 20th century artists regarding the complexity of the original art. Bringing the art back to its roots would once again fall upon the Isle of Iona and also establish Celtic interlace art as... a tourist souvenir. From 1899 to 1941, a jewel company founded on the isle called Iona Celtic Art produced Celtic-styled bracelets, hairpins, necklaces and other jewels based on models appropiated from the old monuments and designs found on the isle of Iona.

Examples of jewels produced by Iona Celtic Art

The Celtic Cross


The cross is the most ancient and powerful of symbols, uniting the vertical with the horizontal. The origin of the Celtic cross is not known, but it is certain that it is quite old, in the same way the very symbol of the cross is older than Christianity. There are several legends regarding the birth and transformation of the cross from Celtic symbol to Christian tradition and the importance it has. One of the legends attributes the appearance of the Celtic cross to St.Patrick, who preached the Gospel among the Celtic tribes somewhere between 387-493. He is said to have turned a pagan symbol, which Celts held in high regards, into a Christian symbol, somehow representing the union of old and new ways, thus converting the Celts to Christianity. The Celtic cross was used as a Christian symbol to represent the union of Heaven and Earth. In the opinion of German Virt, the Celtic cross represents a kind of ancient calendar. The circle symbolizes the time (day, year), and the cross symbolizes the space (the universe), the four corners of the world (North, West, East, South).The center circle is the divinity that is outside space and time.

The crosses which were found are made of stone. Stones are also considered a symbol of eternal life. The beauty of these high crosses lies in the multitude of scenes engraved on them that show important biblical scenes or traditional Celtic design patterns. Some of the most beautiful crosses are: The Cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice, The Cross of Ardboe, The Cross of Durrow and many others.

The cross of Muiredach in Monasterboice

The cross of Durrow

The West Face

The west face pictured right bears many biblical scenes. 1. Adoration of Magi. 2. Wedding at Canna. 3. Loaves and Fishes. 4. Christ enters Jerusalem 5. Mocking or Arrest of Christ ? The West Head bears a crucifixion scene.

The Celts were a realistic people whos rural theology was formed in a very natural context. Tertullian from Cartagina, in one of his writings in 210 AD, referred to the British areas as inaccessible to the Romans, but subjected to Christ, which discloses the existence of early Christianity independent of Rome. Also, Taliesin, a Gaelic poet of Strathclyde, said that "Jesus has been from the beginning our teacher and we have never lost his teaching . The way back to the origins of Christianity in the British Isles passes, as the Celtic knot does, somewhere beyond beginnings or the ends into a continuous state, overflowing with the presence of God, which manifests itself in different ways at different times.