Only a small sampling of the Celtic art created has survived and is scattered around the world with absolutely no information about how or why it was created. The Celtic civilization and Celtic culture that mastered the art form so long ago has long since ceased to exist.
It is only since the Celtic Revival, (late 19th to early 20th centuries) have we really begun to piece together this part of the past. Centuries have passed from when Celtic art went out of fashion and the beginning of the Celtic Revival.
Compound that with the fact that so little was recorded by the Celts. The Celtic traditions and knowledge was passed down orally. The Celts didn't begin recording their stories and traditions until around the eight century.
What are Celtic Knots?
As a general rule, Celtic knots are decorative interlaced strands that often form geometric patterns. Celtic knots also frequently incorporate plants, animals and people into the interlacing. Celtic knots are used to decorate everything including the human body.
What we now refer to as Celtic knots or Celtic art was not originally created by the Celts. The various art forms now associated with Celtic art have been used by almost every civilization at one time or another.
We now refer to it as Celtic art or as being in the Celtic style because the Celts are the ones that mastered the art form. The Celts demonstrated a level of skill and artistry that no one has been able to match, therefore earning them the right to have the art forms named after them.
The Hallstatt and La Téne cultures are considered to be the starting point for the Celtic society and Celtic art. The reason being that although the designs now called Celtic art may have originated elsewhere it is the Celts beginning with the Hallstatt period that developed them into a unique style and demonstrate that symmetry was an important part of the designs and their art (see below).
By the time of the La Téne settlements, the Celts had wider trading contacts with other cultures. Importing designs and styles from these other lands, but the Celtic artists quickly evolved their own interpretations and created the stylized style we now call Celtic knot or Celtic art.
Celtic Knots Throughout History
Let's review the various Celtic art styles starting with the oldest.
Celtic Chevron Designs
There are two styles of design that historians call chevron.
The above image is of a pair of bonze bracelets circa 800 BC to 750 BC, by Musée de Die, CC BY-SA 4.0 provided to us by Wikimedia Commons. I modified image by changing the file format, scaled it down and compressed it so that it will load faster for you.
Historians call the designs engraved on the surface chevrons (I guess) because they angle up and down like chevrons but the designs above are more herringbone pattern than chevron patterns.
In the lower left corner of the image below is a true chevron design.
The above image is part of a Bronze hoard, Mendolito di Adrano, Sicily. Archaeological Museum of Syracuse by Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0, and provided to us by Wikimedia Commons. I modified the image by changing the file format, scaled it down and compressed it so that it will load faster for you.
Chevron designs have a long history. They are the oldest of the designs now referred to as Celtic or in the Celtic style.
I saw a video on YouTube about recent archeology discovery of a cave where sections of the cave paintings were separated with chevron designs. The art in the cave was dated to over 40,000 years old.
When I relocate the video I will embed a link to it here.
The lower left item above you can see how the points of the chevrons are equally spaced and the angles of the lines are equal, and how other parts of the design are also equally laid out. In other words the design is symmetrical.
Below is a carved stone ball, from Towie in Aberdeenshire (dated from 3200 BC to 2500 BC) notice how the chevrons on the top are not symmetrical.
As you can see when you compare the two that the Celts at the Hallstatt settlements definitely demonstrate a higher level of skill than those before them.
Celtic Key Pattern Designs
Celtic key pattern designs are often described as linear spirals or line spirals. They predate the curved spiral designs.
Another name for Celtic key patterns is Celtic step patterns, because sometimes sections of the design are jagged like steps leading up to the design.
The key pattern design is the second oldest design style now associated with Celtic Art styles. Pictured above is the oldest example I have located so far, it is carved into mammoth ivory. The above image is from ResearchGate.net and is dated 20,000 BC.
And if you look to the right side the key pattern panel there is a series of chevron designs separating the displayed key pattern panel from another key pattern panel. If you follow the link above they show the entire carving laid out flat.
Again you can see the difference in the design symmetry from pre- and post-Hallstatt culture art.
Celtic Spiral Designs
The spiral design is an integral part of Celtic art, but again the Celts didn't create the style. They just made the style more intricate and complex that no one has been able to beat.
Below is the oldest example of a spiral design that I have located so far it is a fresco with rosettes and running spirals with papyrus flowers in the angles, palace at Tiryns, 13th century BC. Archaeological Museum of Nafplio.
The image was created by Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0 and provided to us by Wikimedia Commons. I modified the image by changing the file format, scaled it down and compressed it so it will load faster for you.
As you can see the spiral designs are quite primitive when you compare them to the spiral designs in the image below.
The image above is the decorated back of a Celtic bronze mirror from Desborough, Northamptonshire, England. Showing the spiral and trumpet decorative theme of the Early Celtic La Tène style in Britain, it is more complex and symmetrical than designs from other cultures.
Decorated mirrors of this type are uniquely British, very few are found elsewhere. The majority of the finds are from graves dating between 100 BC and AD 100.
Above is another example of Celtic spiral design that appears frequently in Celtic art.
Celtic Knot, Celtic Braid or Celtic Plait
The new kid on the block and the most popular, when people talk about Celtic art they are mainly referring to the interlaced designs, something similar to the design below.
The above image is from Celtic Designs from Paul K collection and provided to us under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License. I modified the image by scaling it down and compressed it so it will load faster for you.
Unfortunately this style of Celtic knots with interlaced plants and animals was the later phase of the Celtic knot evolution.
The Beginning of the Celtic Knot
Several centuries earlier the Celtic knots started out as simple interlacing like this.
Interlaced patterns like this one did not appear until the third and fourth centuries. These original knot patterns were actually braids or plaits as the historians prefer to call them, like the Celtic braid above.
The above picture is a small part of the Roman mosaic (called the Great Pavement) at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, England. The mosaic is 48 feet by 48 feet (15 meters by 15 meters) and uses 1.5 million pieces of stone, each 0.5 by 0.5 inches (12 mm by 12 mm). Once the floor of a main hall of a Roman villa, it was laid around 325 AD. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone in 1972 (the last time the mosaic was on display).
Will the Real Celtic Knot Please Stand?
What defines a Celtic knot as a knot is the breaking and rejoining of the strands within the design, like the one below.
This breaking and rejoining of the strands, thereby creating examples of true Celtic knot designs did not occur until the seventh century. In the centuries that followed some of the great masterpieces of Celtic art were created, the illuminated manuscripts, the most famous one being the Book of Kells.
The image above is folio 292r from The Book of Kells, circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John.
The above image is just one of hundreds of decorated initials in The Book of Kells.
The Demise of the Celtic Knot
Many historians claim that the Viking raids were the cause of the decline in Celtic knot art. According to the same historians the Viking Age ended in 1066 AD yet Celtic art was still relatively popular through the 12th century with examples of Celtic art being created as late as the 16th century.
There can be many contributing factors in the decline in the popularity of Celtic knots and Celtic art. The biggest one, I think is simply the shifting beliefs and customs of the people we call Celts. With adopting new ways the old ways fall aside and are soon forgotten.
Celtic Knot Timeline
- 40,000 BC to 800 BC - Art created in the Celtic style by other cultures, some identified and others not.
- 800 BC to 475 BC - Hallstatt culture - The accepted beginning of the Celts - Art created in the Celtic style by both the Celts and other cultures.
- 480 BC to 100 BC - La Téne culture - Expansion of the Celtic influence and adaptation of new designs.
- Third and Fourth Centuries (201 to 400 AD) - Introduction of interlaced designs (braids or plaits).
- Seventh Century (601 to 700 AD) - Introduction of the Celtic knot, the breaking and rejoining of the interlacing.
- Eighth Century (701 to 800 AD) - Creation of the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts considered masterpieces of Celtic knot art.
- 793 to 1066 AD - The Viking Age - The Vikings conduct large-scale raids on monasteries and other art centers taking the treasures and killing or enslaving many who created these treasures.
- Twelfth Century (1101 to 1200 AD) - Celtic art popularity declines significantly.
- Thirteenth Century (1201 to 1300 AD) - Celtic art still being created but with far less frequently.
- Sixteenth Century (1501 to 1600 AD) - The last few noted creations of Celtic art.
- 1601 to 1800 AD - A few attempts to revive the Celtic knot and Celtic art with little success.
- 1860 to Present - The Celtic Revival and beyond - Renewed interest in the Celtic culture, Celtic knots and Celtic art.
- Today - You reading this blog post on The Interlaced Celt.
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