The Continuum of Celtic Interlace
Part 2 in a series Click here for part 1
Copyright 2000 Stephen Walker

When I was a youth learning to play the Highland bagpipe, I copied a chart from one of my tutors that showed who studied with who, from the living masters that my teachers learned from, back to Angus MacKay, the piper to Queen Victoria and through him back to the MacCrimmons, the hereditary pipers to the chiefs of the MacLeods.  From Finlay MacCrimmon in the 16th century down to myself I recorded nineteen generations of tuition. In the not so distant past the only way to hear and to learn music was to hear it live and this is still the best way. Recordings and broadcasting have transcended time and space somewhat, but the rare earliest recordings are now barely over a century old. Written music is of course older, but the fact remains that most traditional musicians learn their art from others on a face-to-face basis. Tunes and influences from recordings are still for the most part learned directly from other living musicians.

Our heritage of traditional music is dependant on an unbroken chain. Until the present era of recordings, only real time human contact has been the way that tunes, lyrics and musical technique have been passed from one generation to the next. In the visual arts of graphics and sculpture this limitation is not the case. While we can only hear the music of ancient times as it survives in a living tradition, we can see surviving examples of artwork hundreds or thousands of years old and the observant student of art can acquire images, influences and techniques directly from the distant past. Unlike musicians, most Celtic artists and designers working today are self-taught and only a few have had the benefit of a one-on-one teacher. Yet every day thousands of people are exposed to monuments of Celtic design that have stood on the same spots for a thousand years. The survival of monumental stone carvings in the form of the High Crosses and other monuments has meant that Celtic design has been a constant part of the visual world in the Celtic lands even when sometimes for generations the art was not practiced.

Writers telling the story of Celtic Art usually convey the message that the style “died out” over several centuries as a result of the devastating raids of the Vikings, the Norman invasions and subsequent shifts towards more mainstream European fashions of decorative arts. To state that the current revival of Celtic Art is a continuum of the Early Christian tradition requires a bold imagination. One cannot honestly say that Celtic design traditions have been passed from master to apprentice down to the present. The design tradition did continue in this way until at least the 16th century.

The emergence of complex interlaced designs in the 7th or possibly 6th century begins the style that the art historians call Insular Art or Hiberno-Saxon Art. This style is what we commonly call Celtic Art. More correctly Celtic Art describes the older style of spiral and trumpet designs. The native pre-Christian style combined with animal and knotwork interlace, step and key patterns and Early Christian figurative art to create a very eclectic and exuberant style. At the time that this new style burst forth, Ireland and Britain were coming out of two centuries of isolation that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Germanic and Mediterranean influences contributed motifs to the new art but it quickly took on a very distinctive character of its own.

Much debate has occurred in the past century about where and when this synthesis occurred. As timelines become more plausible after several generations of new discoveries, research and argument, the consensus is emerging that the Insular style, characterized by interlace, sprang forth and spread rather quickly sometime between the years 630 and 690 A. D. The style is most commonly associated with the Celtic lands but it was also practiced extensively in England and was exported to Europe by Irish and Northumbrian monastic activities on the continent. In modern times Celtic Art is popularly thought of in terms of national identity and therefore specifically Irish, Scottish or Welsh. To properly understand the true history of the style it is necessary to reign in patriotic passions and accept that Insular Art was an international style for several centuries after it first emerged.

The Book of Kells is to many the greatest accomplishment of Celtic Art. This highly decorated manuscript of the four Gospels is thought to have been made on Iona around 800 A. D. Arguments for other dates and origins in Northumbria or Ireland are characteristic of the controversy one encounters when researching Celtic Art. Ireland, Pictland and Northumbria share the earliest “schools” of Hiberno-Saxon interlace. By the end of the 8th century Celtic Art was at its peak. The monastery founded by St. Columba on Iona, off the west coast of Scotland was also at the peak of its influence at that time. Physically located between Ireland, Pictland and Northumbria, Iona, in what was then Dalriada, was at the crossroads of religion, scholarship and artistic development during the Golden Age of Celtic Art.

Viking raids in the early 9th century changed things considerably. Iona, Lindisfarne and other coastal monasteries were all plundered. Iona relocated most of its resources to Kells in Ireland. Manuscripts and other portable objects such as jewellery were still produced in the Insular style but during the Viking Age the massive stone sculptures that are the High Crosses were made.

Stone carving has been a part of the artistic record of early Celtic Christian period even before interlace designs became common. The Cross of St. Patrick at Caradonnagh is one of the earliest surviving examples of Celtic knotwork. The elaborate Pictish stones also incorporated a great deal of highly developed interlace in the 7th to 9th centuries. It is easy to imagine that the shift in emphasis to larger stone monuments was a way of keeping artistic activity alive at a time when the possession of treasures that could easily be carried off attracted violent raiders. The high crosses are part of a trend influenced by the Culdees, Servants of God, that were a reform movement within the Celtic Church. Culdees increasingly emphasized scripture. Crosses came to have more of their decorative carvings illustrating Bible stories, although interlace and other elements of Celtic design persisted as well.

The turbulent Viking period is difficult to understand in terms of how it affected Celtic Art. The Vikings brought an interlace animal design tradition of their own that is related through the Germanic/Nordic heritage of the Saxons to that of the Insular tradition. Sorting out what was stolen, what was copied and what were just parallel developments of related traditions is beyond the scope of this discussion. The Viking interlace style tended to be more chaotic and tangled. The regular over and under interlace alternations were not always followed carefully by the Vikings. What began as raiding eventually became settlement, trade and conversion to Christianity. This contact influenced the design traditions of both worlds.

The Norman conquests of the 11th and 12th centuries replaced the popularity of Celtic design with mainstream European tastes. When the secular and ecclesiastical leadership of the Gaelic and Welsh worlds adopted the up-to-date fashions of England and the continent, Celtic designs became an old fashioned folk art, that when it survived tended to be in the more isolated and impoverished areas.  Never the less the creation of Irish high crosses persisted.  Self-conscious use of what was by the 12th century an archaic style made the statement that these late monuments connected their patrons with the distant past.  This is the same way that modern Celtic crosses are made to establish a link with ancient heritage.

As the fashion for Celtic design declined, interlace began to be used as an emblem of fidelity to older ways and Gaelic roots.  The physical survival of ancient Celtic monuments as well as painted Gospel manuscripts and metalwork have lingered like embers and have fanned to life new creations that survive from every century since the art went into decline. 

Celtic interlace never faded away completely.  It was always being done somewhere, even if only on a limited scale. Monumental carvings that include interlace designs persisted in the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides at least until the 16th century. This area was highly affected by Viking activity but was barely affected at all by Norman influences. The Lords of the Isles maintained an autonomous Gaelic society throughout the middle ages. Much of their regalia and artifacts were highly decorated with interlace, which by later times were knotwork patterns and interlaced foliage motifs.  Many of the best examples exist on Iona, where the Lords of the Isles supported the monastery, nunnery and Cathedral. MacLean's Cross on Iona is one of the latest examples and dates from the late 15th century. 

The Protestant Reformation brought the tradition of Celtic interlace closer to extinction than any previous point in history. When Marion MacLean, the last prioress of Iona gave up the nunnery lands in 1574, the most recent monuments already lacked the interlace designs that had persisted until earlier that century. Knotwork ornament continued to be used to decorate the Highlanders’ weapons and brooches right up until the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Chances are that there are some major gaps in the succession between generations of artisans in the later centuries. By the time of the Jacobite period the style has taken on a primitive, rustic look that while it preserves the interlace tradition, is a far cry from the design sophistication and technical mastery seen a thousand years earlier.

When discussing the Celtic Revival of the 19th century other writers have looked for a seminal event, such as the discovery of the Tara Brooch or the publication of J. Romilly Allen’s books as the beginning of the story of the revival of interlace designs. It is my premises that interlace designs never became totally extinct. I realize this is a very risky thesis for two reasons. Many objects cannot be reliably dated and no continuum of practice can be demonstrated. The continued presence of ancient monuments combined with the survival of Jacobite era heirlooms meant that visual prototypes were not lost for future designers even if very little interlace was created during the century following the ‘Forty-five.  

Victorian tastes for busy eclectic ornament combined with a romantic nostalgia for medieval themes gave rise to the revival of Celtic design beginning with the promotion of the “Tara” Brooch.  Discovered in 1850 by an Irish peasant woman in Meath, the brooch was purchased by the Dublin jewellery firm Waterhouse & Co. that then made copies for sale to the gentry. This began not only the production of Celtic design objects by modern manufacturing methods of multiples, but also of marketing and advertising of these items.  The Tara Brooch was promoted as “national ornaments worn by [Ireland’s] princes and nobles in ages long since past”. When Queen Victoria purchased one for herself and one for Prince Albert at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851 the royal association further validated and it was also very good business for Waterhouse. Archeology met marketing again when reproductions of Irish High Crosses began to be mass-produced as gravestones. The fashion for these things soon was followed by designers who created new designs and adapted old images as well in the revival of the entire vocabulary of Celtic design.

As interest in native Insular antiquities grew, museum collections were formed and books and articles began to appear giving shape to an historical understanding of the Celtic Art.  Margaret Stokes, herself a gifted artist, published a book in 1887 titled Early Christian Art in Ireland.  She writes,  “It is therefore for those who practice these handicrafts in the present day that we hope to show the advantage of a close study of such of these ancient writings, relics and monuments as have, through the energy and learning of our antiquaries, been discerned and preserved for our instruction.” Earlier, in 1861 Stokes had illuminated the title page for Samuel Ferguson’s Cromlech of Howth.  Her original graphic design was based on the style of the Gospel manuscripts, but it showed mastery in her ability to create new compositions rather than just copy and adapt those from the past.  Stokes was writing in interesting times as the Irish Literary Revival was inventing a new identity for Ireland and at the same time social and artistic theories were forming the Arts and Crafts movement.  These two trends came together in the Emer Guild.

The Emer Guild was founded in 1902 outside Dublin by Evelyn Gleason, and Susan and Elizabeth Yeats, sisters of the poet William Butler Yeats.  They had a very direct association with the Arts and crafts movement of William Morris that attempted to use the dignity of honest handcrafts as a social antidote to the impersonal Industrial Revolution.  Susan Yeats had worked as an assistant embroideress to William Morris’s daughter Mary.  The Emer Guild produced textile embroidery, carpets and tapestries incorporating interlace and other traditional Irish images.  Some of their greatest projects were commissioned for the Church.  Banners and vestments were produced for St. Brendan’s Cathedral, Longhea and others as Celtic Revival church design gained favorable patronage in the early years of the 20th century.  

The sensuous tendrils of Art Nouveau have much in common with Celtic interlace and there are several instances where the two overlap.  The dense interlace ornamental details of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan have been associated with Celtic design, perhaps as much because of his Irish surname as the similarities of the style.  Sullivan was not deliberately making a statement about ethnic heritage.  His work was part of design trends that were based in modern concepts and concerns.  Another Chicago designer, Thomas A. O’Shaughnessy was making a very deliberate and conscious effort to connect his work with his Irish roots. 

Trained in stained glass and working in an Art Nouveau style, O’Shaughnessy designed a series of windows and interior stencils for Old Saint Patrick’s Church in Chicago, a project begun in 1912.  “Old St. Pat’s” was and still is a focal point of the often-passionate Irish-American community in Chicago.  Legend claims O’Shaughnessy designed his first church at age 12 and that he inherited his grandfather’s revolutionary glass making secrets.  When touring the church earlier this year I was told that when he went to Ireland to study Celtic Art he was the last person allowed alone with the Book of Kells.  The result of O’Shaughnessy’s work at Old St. Pat’s is a spectacular effect on a grand scale. Close examination at first shocks the viewer who is knowledgeable about Celtic Art.  The strict conventions of over-under alternation and endless cords are not followed at all.  The splendid overall effect seems to be marred with uncountable errors of Celtic design grammar.  As is the case with many modern revivalists of Celtic Art O’Shaughnessy was calling his own tune.  O’Shaughnessy was reinventing Celtic art for new purposes.  The figurative content of his windows, Irish Saints and their stories speak of the heritage of the American Irish and their Catholic faith.  Celtic design was a new discovery for his audience.  It is doubtful that hardly anyone noticed the inconsistency of his interlace designs for decades.  

Especially influential on the revival of the art was the work of J. Romilly Allen.  Early Christian Monuments of Scotland was published in 1903 and Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times in 1912. Allen’s books were made for the historian rather than the artist, but the artists found them useful.  J. Romilly Allen was an engineer from Wales who went to Scotland to work on dry docks in Edinburgh.  His fascination with ancient monuments led to a second career as an archeologist.  Allen systematically studied the methods of construction of Celtic Art and cataloged existing monuments with descriptions and illustrations with an untiring eye for details.  The contribution to archeology was fundamental to the understanding of the dates, origins and styles of early monuments, especially those in Scotland.  His contribution to the revival of practical application of traditional designs was a result of his work being used both a source book for designers and the best source in print of understanding how interlace designs, especially knotwork, are to be composed.  The fashion for Celtic design monuments that immerged in the middle of the 19th century and persists to the present was greatly assisted by the availability of Allen’s books.  

Note to reader: When this article was published by Dalriada Magazine, it was ended here due to space limitations with the 3rd part run in the following issue. If you continue reading you will have the article as I originally wrote it, or click here and skip to a revised and somewhat longer part 3: Continuum Continued.

Celtic design in jewellery and the goldsmith’s craft spawned some lasting trends in the revival of Celtic interlace. The reproductions and copies of brooches that were popular in the 19th century were a fashionable appropriation rather than a continuation of a design tradition.  Towards the turn of the century craftsmen and designers began to experiment with original Celtic designs adapted to contemporary fashion needs.  The Manx designer, Archibald Knox studied Celtic design and fused it with the design sensibilities of the Arts and Crafts movement.  Knox designed an attractive range of jewellery and fashion accessories that were manufactured by the London firm of Liberty and Company.  This was a very upscale and mainstream market sold at the company’s emporium on Regent Street or by catalogue “from John O’Groats to Land’s End.” 

In contrast to the cosmopolitan product of Waterhouse in Dublin and Liberty in London, a small enterprise on the Isle of Iona was to bring Celtic jewellery back to it’s roots and ironically also to establish Celtic design items as tourist souvenirs.  The age of rail and steamship was giving rise to increasing middle class tourism.  Recreational tourists as well as religious pilgrims were increasingly making their way to Iona.  Alexander Ritchie and his wife Euphemia, both Gaelic speaking natives of nearby Mull established a jewellery, metal craft and embroidery business called Iona Celtic Art.  Building on the designs of the ancient monuments on Iona, the Ritchies developed a fluency in the language of Celtic design.  There is a slightly rustic look to their work, but for the most part it was much more sophisticated than the naïve folk art that the setting conjured up for the viewer.  During the winters the Ritchies studied art in Glasgow and they quickly learned to utilize a mix of modern mass production outsourcing to manufactures in Glasgow and Birmingham.  At the same time they maintained hands-on craftsmanship for brass repousee and embroidery on the island.

From 1899 to 1941 Iona Celtic Art had very little competition in Celtic jewellery and during this time the audience and cultural context evolved.  In the 19th century Celtic jewellery was a gentrified affectation.  The Ritchies’ work was more affordable and became both the treasured heirlooms of Scottish families as well as souvenirs for the well traveled.  Both of these trends continue in Celtic design to the present day.  The antique look of Iona Celtic Art gives the impression that these types of things had been around longer and more commonly than was actually the case.  Many have been disappointed to learn that the hallmarks on Gran’s brooch are not nearly as old as assumed.  Designs that deliberately make a link with history, when successful can create their own myth of continuity with the past.

The Ritchies were sensitive to the dignity of the heritage they drew upon.  The ethics and sensibilities of the Arts and crafts movement were certainly known to them, but they really were in a league of their own.  The success of their enterprise led others to produce cheap knock-offs for the tourist trade as well as influencing the design of quality-crafted goods generally sold through highland outfitters.  The Victorian thistle motifs of Scottish regalia have been gradually shifting towards more Celtic designs throughout the 20th century.   

After the war several firms and individuals continued to the Ritchie’s designs as well as new beginning new trends in Celtic jewellery.  One trend of particular interest is the techniques of piercing out interlace patterns so that the background is open space and the knotwork becomes a lattice.  This is now nearly a universal practice in Celtic jewellery but seems as if it must have always been done.  In fact the transition to this approach happened in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  A pioneer of this style, John Hart, working in Glasgow, created a large number of original designs in this manner.  Hart’s designs are still in production by the firm Hebridean Jewellery on South Uist, run by his son John Hart Jr.

The publication of George Bain’s textbook Celtic Art the Methods of Construction in 1951 presented the work of J. Romilly Allen through the medium of a gifted artist, experienced teacher and enthusiastic advocate.  During his career as an educator in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Bain pursued a passionate interest in Celtic design.  After his retirement he published his landmark book and tried to establish a school dedicated to Celtic art in the Highlands.  These were the days of the “Picasso craze” and Bain’s book had little impact until it was re-released in 1971.  Then it became the bible for a new generation that was ready to learn his methods and create a new renaissance of Celtic art and design.  The career stories of most living Celtic artists include exposure to George Bain’s book as a watershed experience.  Celtic Art the Methods of Construction was intended as a secondary education studio arts textbook to teach the fundamentals of Celtic design through a series of charts and drawings, many that were taken from the Book of Kells and other ancient sources.  The book also contains many of Bain’s original designs and photographs of projects done by students.  Unfortunately it has been far more common for his book to be used as a clip art source book than as a guide to mastering the idiom and to go on to achieve original designs.

Since the 1970’s a great deal of new Celtic art has been appearing.  The crafts movement has resulted the reemergence of the artist/entrepreneur.  The availability of training and materials, the sales venues of craft shows, an increasingly appreciative and well-informed audience, as well as new technology have enabled numerous creative individuals to pursue artistic careers.  Widely distributed books, cards and prints by such popular Celtic artists as Jim Fitzpatrick and Courtney Davis have also served to bring Celtic design to a wider audience and at the same time serve as role models to the next generation. 

For most of the 20th century Celtic Art has been seen as a “lost art” and those who practice it have done so in relative isolation.  In the past 20 years the increase in the number of artists practicing Celtic design and rising popularity of Celtic art has resulted in the publication of new books both about historical subjects and instructional technique approaches.  Many people have found George Bain’s instructions bewildering.  His approach relied on a certain amount of intuitive ability on the part of the student.  George’s son Iain Bain published a book on knotwork that approaches construction in a more engineered way.  Aidan Meehan has published a series of books on Celtic design since the 1980’s.  His book Knotwork; The Secret Method of the Scribes identifies the “triple-grid method” derived from carefully studying the original sources.  Other how-to books have also appeared in print.  Due to the increasing number of artists competing in the marketplace, quality and originality have been improving.  If O’Shaughnessy were not the only Celtic designer in Chicago in 1912 it is unlikely that his interlace would have strayed so far from historical standards.  In the past decade the number of Celtic jewelers has exploded.  In 1990 it was still common to hear people say how long and hard they had searched for an authentic Celtic knotwork ring.  Today there is so much more to choose from that jewelers cannot afford to be lax in quality or design.  More practitioners of the art not only means more art but also means that it is far more likely that an artist or designer will be subject to the pressure of competitive rivalry. Many now benefit from association or observation of a peer’s techniques and ideas.  We live in an age of unprecedented communication and information.  Exposure to diversity of ideas and approaches is stimulating and beneficial.

Interlace designs are not the only elements of Celtic Art.  The spiral and trumpet designs have an older tradition and can more authentically be called “Celtic”.  For whatever reason, interlace designs became the hallmark of the Insular tradition and have been more recognizably Irish, Gaelic or Celtic for the past several hundred years.  To most non-scholars it is specifically interlace that makes Celtic Art distinctive.  From the 7th century interlace designs became a vibrant international style that was part of the expanding world of Celtic Christianity and scholarship.  As invasions and continental influences replaced Celtic Art as the dominant style, it became a self-conscious link with the past by later medieval times.  Rediscovery by various individuals in the past 150 years have gathered together the legacies of both the distant past and more recent ideals of national identity, ethnic pride, romantic nostalgia and spiritual discovery.  The next article of this series will address the social context, meaning and symbolism of Celtic interlace. Click here to skip part 3 and go to "In Search of Meaning, the Symbolism of Celtic Knotwork

Sources In addition to the books mentioned in the text:

T. J. Edelstein, editor, Imagining an Irish Past, The Celtic Revival 1840-1940 Smart Museum of Art, Chicago 1992

J. Lang “Survival and revival in Insular Art”  The Insular Tradition Karkov, Farrell & Ryan editors, State University of New York Press 1997

L & J Laing Art of the Celts Thames and Hudson 1992

I. MacCormack The Celtic Art of Iona, New Iona Press 1994

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Walker Metalsmiths Celtic Jewelry

Interlace Article from Dalriada
Overview Part 1

Continuum Continued Article from Dalriada
Part 3

In Search of Meaning Article from Dalriada
Part 4

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updated 2013