To Mean or Not to Mean

Posted to a discussion of Celtic Art by Jen Delyth, 6 August 2002 at




In our circling spiraling way, we always come back to this discussion of "meaning" or "not meaning". I think we need to clarify that some Celtic patterns "mean" something, and others not... This is a multilayered issue, and not simply answered..

Some (ancient) Celtic patterns have symbolic intended "meaning" which can be strongly deduced by the context in which they are found, folkloric anthropological evidence etc. Other patterns may have originally been intended to have symbolic meaning, but we'll never know what it was exactly. Some patterns are used in a purely decorative function way, and others are a mixture of being used decoratively, within a tradition where originally the patterns did have some significance.

As contemporary Celtic artists, some of us intend an underlying "meaning" in our work, using the "language" of Celtic knotwork (including animal symbols).. Others of us work intuitively with a strong sense of using the patterns with resonance to the symbols inherent "meaning", but in a more open fluid non specific way. Some of us work with a functional decorative intention with the patterns, using the aesthetic and design to balance beauty and form within a piece. (I think especially for jewelers than for painters, this is more likely to cause frustration when the public is constantly demanding a "meaning" for a lovely knotwork pattern that is designed for its balance, and aesthetic qualities rather than as talismanic power objects. Other jewelers are specifically using some patterns in a symbolic way as their pieces are intended to be received and worn as talismans..... And sometimes a mixture of all the above...

I don't think we should disrespect our customers for asking, or seeking an underlying profundity to Celtic patterning used in our work... It is understandable considering the context in which "Celtic" art is usually found (religious illuminated manuscripts) and its appearance on stones that seem to have sacred significance.  It is frustrating though, and particularly for the sense of superficiality that this question sometimes provokes.  I recognize the hunger in people for things to have "meaning" is perhaps a
reflection of the spiritual void in our society I sometimes think.... So, my point is, some spirals mean something (historically, and if used by an artist to resonate as an abstract symbol or movement, change, flow etc) , and others are used purely decoratively within the page or as the perfect shape to hold a stone in a ring for example... Neither is the correct approach, both are.

However, it is my feeling, that all spirals do have their own intrinsic energetic value within their aesthetic functional form... whether implied, intended or not....

So! To mean or not to mean? This is the question.... and what is that Zen riddle? "If a tree falls in a forest but no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"  I think spirals are powerful meaningful symbols of natural energy and rhythm of the Universe - more than any other abstract two dimensional "marks" made by people - they are archetypal, and have profound "meaning" within the context in which they are used, and also possibly independently..... They are used universally by people throughout the ages, and are intuitively applied by people to represent inner consciousness (as in Jung's work suggests with the paintings of patients dealing with psychosis). Neolithic artists certainly used spirals with profound intention of their representing or perhaps even actively attracting or channeling powerful energies... but then spirals are the special sacred pattern of life.... as well as beautiful flowing paths that we love to draw..... Jen
Y gwir yn erbyn y byd - Truth against the world

Jen Delyth ~ Keltic Designs

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