Considering the history of Irish art, it’s no stretch to say that the only thing capable of surpassing its magnitude is its complexity. Historians have established that somewhere around the year 300 BC, trade connections with Britain and northern European countries brought La Tène culture, or European (particularly Swiss) Iron Age culture to the island. Thus began the inception of Celtic symbols and meanings, which is incorrectly considered by many to be “authentically” Irish. With this, the groundwork was laid for the first examples of the Celtic artwork we recognize today. The La Tène influence was, however, as quick to fade as the Roman Empire was to rise, causing Ireland to suddenly be left alone and to its own devices. This gave the native people the time and space required to develop what they had been given into something that was well and truly their own: the intricacy and beauty of the world-famous Celtic knot.
But just what, you may be wondering, is the true Celtic knot meaning or appearance? It’s a question that many find confusing, and understandably so. Indeed, there are hosts of different patterns of Celtic knots and meanings out there. The truth is, none of them are wrong, because “Celtic knot” is, in fact, a general term used to describe a whole family of related images. Below, check out our definitive guide to the ancient of the myriad Celtic knots and their meanings, as well as the four most common Celtic knot designs.
A 4th century BC La Tene disc brooch discovered in France on display at the Cabinet des Médailles of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The brooch highlights a prototypical curvilinear fluidity that would later evolve into the Celtic knot design better-known today. (Gun Powder Ma / Wikimedia Commons)
The first use of the traditional Celtic images of spirals (representing the sun, and, in the case of double-spirals, the equinox), step patterns (suggestive of upward movement and progression through life) and, of course, our beloved knots are noted to have appeared in Celtic artwork long before Christian influence began to shape the appearance and subject matter of such pieces in Ireland.
Early examples of La Tene artwork and jewelry housed at the British Museum in London. (Johnbod / Wikimedia Commons)
In fact, many art historians theorize that Celts who inhabited pre-Christian Ireland favored the Celtic knot symbol because they were not permitted by their terms of worship to create other, more lifelike images, with many experts suggesting that the depiction of living beings was altogether forbidden by their faith. In the same way that Islam’s similar law gave birth to the detailed practise of Arabic calligraphy, this limitation may have served as the avenue through which the Celtic knot was born.
THE BOOK OF KELLS
Detail of an illuminated capital found in the Book of Kells, decorated with a distinctive celtic knot pattern. ( Public Domain)
Even after the Christian approach to aesthetics began to make itself known in Ireland, however, the knots persisted; indeed, they flourished, twisting their way into the beautifully-rendered anatomies of animals, plants, even humans, and then took root there, anchoring themselves in history in the shape of too many masterworks to ever dream of faithfully keeping track of numerically. These included pieces of hand-drawn art, architecture, and sculpture. One particular artefact, however, leaps out above the rest. For anyone with so much as a passing interest in Irish culture, the Celtic knot is most easily recognized as a decorative symbol inexorably associated with the Book of Kells, one of the world’s most noteworthy illuminated manuscripts and Ireland’s greatest national treasures.
Produced somewhere between the late 6th and early 9th centuries, the Book of Kells is today housed beyond the protective gates of Dublin’s Trinity College. Those lucky enough to have visited this iconic Irish artifact understand the intricacy of the artwork that covers its every page; those who haven’t yet had the chance to feast their eyes on it in person can get a pretty clear idea with a simple Google image search—but, as with most things, the breathtaking real-life experience trumps a picture on a screen every time.
The Book of Kells is one of the finest examples of Irish Celtic knot illustration in existence and has provided inspiration for countless works of Irish design, including this apron from Charles Gallen.
The knot-heavy aesthetic of the book has been charmingly echoed in everything from wearables to modern media depictions of early Christian Ireland, one well-loved example being French-Belgian-Irish animated fantasy film, The Secret of Kells, in which a late-stage action scene depicts main character and young monk-in-training, Brendan, engaging in metaphysical battle with Crom Cruach, a terrifying pre-Christian Irish deity appeased only, according to legend, by gruesome human sacrifice. As the scene develops from a chase between predator and prey to a battle of strategy and cunning, every move made by Brendan and the otherworldly beast is mapped out in powerful lines of light against a dim, subterranean background. The tightly-woven knot pattern that results is, when one considers the spirit and theme of the film, deeply satisfying for viewers who have come for the heartwarming adventure, and not blinked since as a result of its wonderful imagery. And of course, our hero Brendan bests Crom Cruach in his own element, leaving him trapped by his own snakelike form.
Irish filmmaker and animator Tom Moore described the look of The Secret of Kells as “flat, with false perspective and lots of color,” in an inspired effort to adhere to the traits of old Celtic and medieval art. Even the late-stage cleanup of the film’s look was geared towards obtaining a stained glass effect with thicker outer lines, the better to evoke the magnificent cathedral windows that would soon bring jewel-bright splendor to monastic settlements all over Europe.
Pages from the Book of Kells are held up by history experts as emblematic of the dedication and skill of Ireland’s early scribes, who laboured long and hard to seamlessly incorporate each and every Celtic knot we see into their art, working their fingers to the bone for the sake of precision; it would be quite some time before the printing press came along to let them take a load off.
TYPES OF CELTIC KNOTS
The Celtic Trinity knot is thought to predate the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, though today it traditionally symbolizes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and can be found in many pieces of Irish jewelry, as in these sterling silver Solvar drop earrings.
For many, the most important (and certainly the most instantly-recognizable) of all Celtic knots is the three-pointed Trinity knot, also known as the triquetra, which means “triangle” in Latin. In Christianity, the three points of this knot correspond to the distinct yet equally powerful natures of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, while pagans (who associate the knot exclusively with Celtic symbolism) see it as an analogue to the three main natural forces that govern our planet: earth, air, and water.
The Trinity knot has also been used as an icon of birth, death, and rebirth patterns, and in fact by innumerable different groups worldwide, as a way of describing the influence three separate important entities can have upon one another. In many of its depictions, the Trinity knot is bounded tightly by a circle. When used, this circle is commonly believed to symbolize eternity; for Christians, this implies that the nature of God’s love is unfaltering and without end, and for pagans, it evokes the reverence with which the circle of life should always be viewed.
Historically, it has been mostly accepted that the Trinity knot symbol first came to Irish shores as part of Christian monks’ arsenals in converting the native Celts to monotheism (more on that below). However, there are a few that argue that the knot itself is a Celtic creation, given its aesthetic similarities with so much of their pre-existing artwork.
The spiral swirl, used here on a contemporary ShanOre pendant necklace with Swarovski Crystal inlays, is one of the oldest motifs in Celtic art.
Another three-sided knot common to Celtic art is known as the spiral knot, which differs from the Trinity knot in that its points are made up of three curved spirals rather than pointed ends. Interestingly, these spirals are actually composed of one continuous line which makes up the entire pattern, evoking a powerful sense of interconnectedness and unity, and rightly so, since like the Trinity knot, the spiral knot is most often associated with water, earth, and air, the three forces of nature. The spiral knot is thought to be one of the very oldest of the Celtic knot family.
A classic celtic knot design, the eternal knot can be traced literally to infinity, especially when used as a ring design.
Something rather different to the Trinity and spiral knots is the “endless” or “eternal” knot: a highly significant cultural image that has very frequently been found in images associated with Tibetan Buddhism, which is also prominent in places such as Mongolia and Tuva, as well as Celtic art. This particular knot is also featured prominently in the design of many pieces of Chinese decoration (such as Chinese knots).
The endless knot is known for being an ancient symbol that represents the tangled nature of time and change within the spiritual path. Other interpretations of the endless knot include the everlasting continuum of the mind, the intertwining of wisdom and compassion, and the never-ending love of the divine creator, meaning that this is a pattern sure to resonate with anyone with a strong belief in the power of destiny.
For those who wish to convey the promise of a romance without end, a gift that incorporates the endless knot pattern is a fantastic way to surprise a partner. One can favor history and uniqueness in considering a piece such as this silver ladies’ ring, shaped into a bold endless knot weave.
BASKET WEAVE KNOT
Then, there is the fruitful basket-weave knot, which has over time begotten an entire subset patterns with minor deviations from the original shape. This group of bend and lanyard knots consist of a repeated pattern of over-one, under-one, over-one, and so on and so forth. The basket-weave knot takes its name, rather predictably, from plait-woven baskets, to which it bears a strong likeness.
It’s a little-known fact that examples of plait-weaves (that is, designs made up of woven, unbroken chords) actually predate knotwork designs in many cultures around the world, but the plait that signifies what’s known as “true” knotwork is broken and reconnecting. This technique began in the northern regions of Italy and the southern regions of Gaul, and and first integrated itself into Irish practise around the 7th century.
The basket knot is, as its title suggests, designed to resemble the weave of traditional Irish basketware, adding a sense of humbleness to any piece of jewelry it appears on, such as these Lucky Rhodium Shamrock Earrings.
The repetitive nature of the basket-weave knot’s pattern makes it ideal for more than just wicker creations; it’s seen today in a whole range of products, including pottery, clothing, and accessories, proving that, though its homely name might suggest otherwise, the basket-weave knot is far from the least glamorous of the Celtic knot family.
Another hallmark image of the Celtic knot in Christian usage is, of course, the high or standing cross, a free-standing monument erected from stone and often covered in highly symbolic decoration, blending religious figures with knotwork patterns and interlace. These crosses often featured a stone ring encircling the intersection of the cross, making a Celtic cross shape, as is the case with the high cross on the grounds of Kilree, a former Christian monastery in Co. Kilkenny. Many theorize that high crosses were used as “preaching crosses,” or monuments created with the intention of marking places at which holy men would preach the Christian faith.
Celtic knots are often used to decorate other symbols of Christianity and are commonly found in intricate detail in Celtic crosses. (Mullingar Pewter Celtic Cross)
What is it, then, that has secured prominent place held by the Celtic knot family throughout the history of Irish art, arresting creative attention since its first usage right up until the modern day? Perhaps it is the simplicity of the images, the strong and certain interweaving of lines uncompromised by the context of placement and color. There is also the strong possibility that the appeal lies with something quite different—for that which is simple very often lends exceptionally well delicious complication. There is a never-ending quality to every variation of Celtic knot; the way they self-sustain; and how the eye is all too willingly drawn through layer after deliberately-laid layer, bend after bend, and arrives, after a time, at something ancient and meaningful. Life, after all, wouldn’t be life without some good twists involved.