Celtic Interlace; An Overview
by Stephen Walker reproduced here with permission from Dalriada Magazine 


Celtic interlace designs make their first appearance in early Christian Celtic Art in the middle of the seventh century A. D.

  There are three ways I expect various readers to be upset with the opening sentence of this article. Celtic interlace, that is knotwork designs as well as interlaced birds and beasts are the most recognized elements of so-called Celtic Art. In our time these designs are very frequently used to identify Celtic heritage or sympathy with Celtic ethnicity, religion or culture, thus many are passionate about the art, where it came from and what it means. I have encountered each of these objections in many conversations on the subject over many years, frequently from people who should know better.

The first protest I anticipate would come from scholars who would argue that the term “Celtic” is inappropriate to use in this period. Margaret Stokes writing in 1887 opens the preface of her book Early Christian Art in Ireland with these sentences. “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.”

Had I obeyed Stokes proposal and used “Irish Art” instead I would be leaving out the Pictish and Northumbrian schools of Celtic Art (there I go again) and the largely Scottish readers of this magazine might think that this was only about art that occurred in Ireland. “Insular Art” is the term preferred by today’s academics. The fact is that, although flawed, the term “Celtic Art” is the vernacular label for this style. I use the term “Celtic” for no other reason than that is what most people call it.

Much of the misinformation on Celtic subjects is a result of books and articles that present the most reliable information available in such a dry academic style that this material is not thoroughly read by most of those who look at them. Non-academic readers have a difficult time sticking to the text of books on Celtic Art, which bore even many of the most passionate about the subject. Generally readers look at the pictures and read the captions, but quickly tire of the scholarly content. This lack of discipline by the reader results in a rather sloppy understanding of the history and leads to erroneous popular generalizations and fantasies that now amount to a modern folklore about Celtic Art.

The second argument I anticipate against my opening statement comes from those who are fascinated with the pre-Christian culture of the Celts. It is very widely perceived that things Celtic have a pagan heritage. What Stokes describes as Celtic Art certainly was pagan. The interlace designs that we now call “Celtic” appeared in Irish Art and those areas that were in close association with the early Irish Church at least 200 years after Saint Patrick began his mission to Ireland in 431 A. D. Calling artwork such as the Book of Kells (circa. 800 A. D.) “Early Christian” uses the word “early” from the perspective of more than eleven hundred years later. By 800 A. D. Ireland had already begun her fourth century of Christianity.

Sorry to be such a spoilsport, but all you pagans decorating your paraphernalia with interlace designs are frequently getting clip art that originally came from the pages of Bibles. But take some consolation in this; the earliest Christian art of Ireland, that of the 5th and 6th centuries is not all that different from the pagan Celtic art that preceded it. The La Tène style of spiral ornament dominated Celtic Art until the 7th century. Even then the La Tène style did not die out when interlace appeared, it just got better. The spiral compositions that coexist with interlace designs are referred to by art historians as “Ultimate La Tène”.

My third dispute will come from those who will object that interlace is common in many primitive cultures all over the world. They will argue, “Knots, braids and weaving are universally common. You cannot say that art derivative of actual fiber interlace spontaneously begins in Celtic Art at such a late date when it was so generally practiced by so many other cultures.” True, the Christian Celts were not the first or only artists to draw or carve knotwork. They certainly wove and knotted actual cords as all cultures have.  What is significant for our understanding is that renderings of interlace were not part of the graphic vocabulary used in this culture until suddenly it was everywhere and quickly evolved to a degree of sophistication and complexity that is unsurpassed in other cultures that have made interlace designs. By the 8th century interlace was the defining characteristic of Celtic/Irish/Insular Art.

There are two schools of thought about how interlace entered the vocabulary of Celtic Art. The Germanic/Nordic influence position on the question claims that with the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity in the early 7th century, there was an artistic cross-pollination. In 635 a new monastery was established on Lindisfarne in the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. King Oswald of Northumbria had taken refuge on Iona during years of dynastic turmoil and exile from his kingdom prior to him ascending the kingship. There he became fluent in Gaelic and studied with the monks, whom he eventually invited to send a mission to his kingdom. The earliest Christianity practiced in Northumbria was thus based on the Irish church. Interlaced abstract animal forms, although much simpler than what was to emerge later, were a part of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tradition. The animal interlace in Celtic Art almost certainly grows out of this tradition. The term Hiberno-Saxon Art has been used to describe Celtic Art of this school.

The second school of thought has it that there are Coptic or Syrian prototypes for the manuscripts such as the Book of Durrow, There are manuscripts in from the Middle East and Coptic Egypt from the 5th and 6th centuries with knotwork interlace ornament as well as iconographic similarities in the figurative illustrations. How, we might well ask, did books from such distant places ever make it to the Insular Celtic world? Why should we prefer to think that influences from these sources are credible given the Northumbrian connection being so much easier to explain?

The Venerable Bede records that in the 7th century a Frankish bishop named Arculph who was returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land lost his course in a storm and landed on Iona. Abbot Adomnán had the man dictate a description of Palestine which was entitled De Locis Sanctis [Of the holy places]. Trips of this kind were still very rare but they were beginning to occur with more frequency. It is possible that Arculph or someone like him introduced books from the Middle East decorated with interlace ornament in this way. It should also be noted that were numerous displaced Christians resulting from the rise of Islam and the expansion of Arab culture at this time. By the time of Adomnán, people were coming to Iona to study from England and the Continent. Contact with Rome was reestablished after centuries of isolation. Ideas were beginning to travel in ways that they had not since the fall of the Roman Empire. This flow of ideas went both to and from the Celtic world.

The distinctive coloring peculiarity of some of the early knotwork also provides a clue. In the Book of Durrow bands of interlace frequently change colors as they pass under another band. Middle Eastern knotwork follows the same convention. The endless path is also maintained in these prototypes as they do in the Celtic examples. Roman and some other knotwork traditions do not do this and will have a beginning and an end to their strands.

Both of these theories have merit and perhaps both are right. The suggestion of Northumbrian (English) innovation possibly being central to the development of Celtic Art is not a very welcome idea to popular sentiments in Scotland and Ireland. The claim implies that the English are trying to take credit for what ought to be recognized as a Celtic achievement. The inclusive term “Insular Art” softens the issue and recognizes that in the 7th to 10th centuries this was an international style.

There are two main types of interlace in Celtic Art. Knotwork that is composed of closed paths of bands or cords is very formal, following a number of simple but strict rules. The first rule is that crossings must always alternate over and under, over and under. Two or more overs or unders in a row are considered a mistake and are very rare in the ancient examples of Celtic interlace. The second rule is that the path should be endless. Knotwork is made of convoluted circles. The consistency with which endlessness and the regularity of over and under is achieved is evidence that for whatever reason these were considered important qualities. Only two strands cross at any given point, never three or more as we occasionally see in modern Celtic revival knotwork. There is a tendency in the better examples of knotwork to achieve a single endless path, rather than a series of several separate strands in the entire composition. This not a universal rule but it must have been an important consideration since often very clever compromises in symmetry will be made to accomplish single rather than multiple paths.

The second type of interlace is animal or zoomorphic interlace. The same rules of over and under regularity apply as with knotwork however since the forms of birds and beast branch out in limbs, tails, tongues and crests it is often impossible to maintain that rule absolutely. Study of the best examples shows that a great deal of thought has been given to keeping the integrity of the alternation of crossings as regular as possible. The compromises are made where least obvious and cleverly hidden when unavoidable. These interlaces by their nature have terminals, unlike pure knotwork. Tails and tongues will end in curls or spirals and legs will end in feet. Strands of interlace never end abruptly except debased examples from later dates when the art goes into decline.

Knotwork of the first type described above is frequently blended with Ultimate La Tène spiral work. When used for this purpose all the rules remain the same except that strands are allowed to end in spirals. Observation will quickly show that there is a consistency about how this is done that preserves a sense of continuum that many would argue has symbolic importance.

Part 2 of this series appeared in Dalriada Magazine in August 2000 and discusses the survival and revival of Celtic Interlace down to the present time. Part 3 will appear in November 2000. Part 4 will discuss symbolism and cultural relevance. 

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