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Celtic Knotworks : History and Symbolism

Celtic knots are a variety of (mostly endless) knots and stylized graphical representations of knots used for decoration, used extensively in the Celtic style of Insular art. These knots are most known for their adaptation for use in the ornamentation of Christian monuments and manuscripts, such as the 8th-century St. Teilo Gospels, the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Knot work was unknown before the Christian influence on the Celts and during that era the only known Celtic artwork consisted of geometrical patterns like key patterns, spirals, step patterns etc. It is suggested that the Celtic religion prevented the Celts from depicting the creators work in the form of designs like for example they were restricted from using designs that replicate animal, plants or humans. Celtic artwork was mainly restricted to geometrical patterns.

The use of interlace patterns had its origins in the artwork of the late Roman Empire.[1] Knot patterns first appeared in the third and fourth centuries AD and can be seen in Roman floor mosaics of that time. Interesting developments in the artistic use of interlaced knot patterns are found in Byzantine architecture and book illumination, Coptic art, Celtic art, Islamic art, Medieval Russian book illumination, Ethiopian art, and European architecture and book illumination.

Spirals, step patterns, and key patterns are dominant motifs in Celtic art prior to the Christian influence on the Celts, which began around 450 A.D. These designs found their way into early Christian manuscripts and artwork with the addition of depictions from life, such as animals, plants and even humans. In the beginning, the patterns were intricate interwoven cords, called plaits, which can also be found in other areas of Europe, such as Italy, in the 6th century. A fragment of a Gospel Book, now in the Durham Cathedral library and created in northern Britain in the 7th century, contains the earliest example of true knotted designs in the Celtic manner.

Examples of plait work (a woven, unbroken cord design) predate knotwork designs in several cultures around the world,[2] but the broken and reconnected plait work that is characteristic of true knotwork began in Northern Italy and Southern Gaul and spread to Ireland by the 7th century.[3] 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.

For example Celtic knots are alternating knots and are encoded by planar graphs with the same sign on each edge (say left). So if you want to draw a Celtic looking knot, follow these rules in order to reconstruct the knot diagram associated with it:

* Draw a planar graph, with edges of approximately the same length and angles not too obtuse or acute.
* Place a crossing at the middle of each edge.
* Connect each bit of thread to one another following a maze-like algorithm.
* Work out the over/under pattern.

The Celtic simple knot alone has several meanings. Some believe they were designed to defeat the forces of evil, the more interlaced knots were perceived to be more powerful in providing protection. Probably, the reason many earlier Irish flags carried a wide range of interlaced knots. Another belief attributed to the knots was the belief of never-ending life. That the cycle of life never ceases to exist and individual life is treated as a strand woven in the fabric of time and space. The interweaving of knots are associated with eternity and all that surrounds life; past, present and the future. Each loop believed to be an individual and is looped or interwoven into the whole, as in life with all dimensions.

Endless knots come as mystic/mythological symbols have developed independently in various cultures. It is an important cultural marker in places significantly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism such as Tibet, Mongolia, Tuva, Kalmykia, and Buryatia. It is also sometimes found in Chinese art and used in Chinese knots.

The endless knot has been described as "an ancient symbol representing the interweaving of the Spiritual path, the flowing of Time and Movement within That Which is Eternal. All existence, it says, is bound by time and change, yet ultimately rests serenely within the Divine and the Eternal.

Knot work is generally viewed as metaphor that explains the unique tapestry. In general, knots express the life on earth that is deeply interconnected. Celtic knots expressed the Biblical aphorism 'We reap what we sow', which is similar to the Eastern karmic thoughts.

It is true that knots hold specific meaning that relates to sacred geometry. Geometry defines nature like the shape of the earth, eyes, trunk of the trees, shape of the leaves etc. Same is the case with knots that use the circular pattern. Celtic knot work was highly influenced by the pagan Celtic sources. Plait work is one of the earliest forms of knot work, but it is not unique for the Celts. Knotwork patterns can be formed by reattaching the plaits and the first examples came to light during the early 700 AD in Italy.

Some believe that the knots did not denote specific symbols. Knots did not use specific patterns or concepts and knots were simply used to fill space. The symbolic connectedness and continuity seemed apparent to simply denote knotwork patterns.

Square knot motifs carry more stability and structure which is why buildings have a particular shape like a square foundation and numerology also plays a considerable part in the ancient culture. The number five represents the four directions and the center point or the five senses.

Oval knot work like the shape of an egg has something to do with generative creativity and birth. The elongated planetary path is also denoted in the form of oval and if you squeeze two oval figures together then you would get the lemniscates the symbol of infinity.

The Celtic Trinity Knot
The Celtic trinity knot is made using a single strand that is inter-weaved onto itself to form the three-dimensional singular design. According to the Christians, the Celtic trinity knot symbolized their faith of god being one with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To the Pagans, the triangle symbolized harmony and co-existence of the mind, body and spirit. According to modern belief, the triangle stressed upon the unity among many three elements in all aspects of life, like the past, present and future; land, sea and sky; mind, body, and soul, or the Eve connection shared by grandmother, mother and daughter.

Although, Celtic knot meanings have changed and evolved over the years, their basic tenet hasn't. Today, most of these knots and Celtic knot symbols have been incorporated in designs that are modern yet bear the distinct influence of the Celt age.

For centuries, the Celtic Trinity Knot has endured, remaining a touching symbol of faith in God. For those of Celtic heritage, the Trinity Knot can be a potent reminder of the strong spiritual traditions of the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh people. Each point of the delicate, trefoil Trinity Knot design represents the Holy Trinity: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit.

In the sixth century, The Insular Art Movement began in the British Isles, and Trinity Knots began to appear on stone monuments, metal artifacts, and illuminated texts. The Book Of Kells, one of Ireland’s most stunning national art treasures, depicts the Gospels with colorful illustrations that are often bordered in mystical, almost hypnotic Celtic interlace. Today, The Book Of Kells can be viewed at the Old Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

In time, the Irish became well known for their mastery in metal work, and they created timeless works of art, such as The Ardagh Chalice, with its bronze and gilt design, and the ornate Tara Brooch. These priceless pieces are often the inspiration for today’s Trinity Knot designs, which appear on wedding jewelry, artwork, and crafts.

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