Celtic knot designs

example of Celtic knotwork from the Lindisfarne Gospels f. 91v

Celtic knot designs, or ‘interlace’ as they are also known, are beautiful examples of eye-trickery based originally on the form of a plait.

These uniquely flowing patterns seem to have originated thousands of years ago with the tribes who came to inhabit Britain before the arrival of the Romans and, later, Anglo-Saxons. These earlier Celtic tribes developed the elaborate ‘woven’ patterns which we now see in museums as decorative elements on surviving objects such as shields, cauldrons, Celtic stone crosses etc.

Similar Celtic knot designs were still known and used centuries later during the Anglo-Saxon period. And sometime before AD700, knotwork designs were adapted to ornament the astonishingly elaborate, luminous carpet pages and decorated initial letters in Irish Christian and other manuscripts – most famously, the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels (as illustrated above).

What is so special about Celtic knot designs?

The mystery of Celtic knot designs, and interlace in general, lies in the seamless perfection of the finished item, which both baffles and delights the eye and mind with its precisely interwoven forms and exuberant colour. “How on earth,” one wonders, peering at the elaborate detail, “did they manage to do all that with just one line?”

This is one of the most intriguing features of many Celtic knots; starting at any point, you can follow the thread all the way over and under, up and down, back and forth, right round the design to come back to where you started. It is a lovely metaphor for variety in unity.

Celtic knot designs -- ‘knot’ as hard as they look!

Ok, I apologise for that. But it’s true that the basic ability to draw a Celtic knot design, like knowing how to write a sonnet, has less to do with inborn talent than with understanding the underlying principles and practising the skills. With not too much effort, therefore, you can both grasp the essentials of how any Celtic knot has been designed and also start creating your own interlace patterns.
analysis of sample knotwork

These pages outline methods by which you can develop the skills in Celtic knot design and execution which are most likely to be immediately useful to a calligrapher. I will also recommend ways to marry up your finished designs to calligraphy, suggest other uses for your knot patterns, and refer you to the authors on my bookshelf who can take you far deeper into the subject of Celtic patterns in general and Celtic knotwork in particular.

Celtic knot designs: benefits to the calligrapher

• You’ll gain a creative cache of ideas for illuminated letters, border designs and decorations, especially good for complementing calligraphic work in roundhand, uncial or (of course) ‘Celtic’ scripts.
• Celtic knotwork is a popular form of decoration so once people know you can do it, they will likely ask you for it.
• You’ll hone your instincts for effective page layout, letter design and use of space. Your telephone doodles will never be the same again. And it’s a lot of fun.

… Also, your finished examples of knotwork may cause onlookers to suspect that you possess superhuman artistic powers of prediction and precision :-)

Having said all that, if you want to preserve the mystique of your ability to turn out Celtic knot designs, you shouldn’t let people see you doing it – they’ll realise they could probably do it too.

Still wondering whether you can create your own Celtic knot designs? Please, stop wondering and have a go -- here are some Celtic knot designs 'how-to' pages.

example of knotwork from Durham Gospel Fragment 1

Time to think

Like the Irish monks, all you then need is a little time.

Granted, the ambitious complexity of the Celtic knot designs in the great manuscripts sets a standard of patience that most of us can only envy – while carefully proportioned mathematical structures underlie the fabulous panels of knotwork which decorate the carpet pages.

However, depending on how many hours you wish to invest, you can create any number of extraordinarily elaborate and complex ‘knotted’ designs in a traditional Celtic style. How much time is enough? Well – half-hours, hours, days or weeks! It comes down to how large your design is, and how quickly you can draw tiny lines and colour in tiny boxes.
Example of knotwork from the Canterbury Codex Aureus Like calligraphy itself, though, the benefits of drawing interlace are not restricted to the final product.

As you design and draw your Celtic knots, you may find the process to be a similarly relaxing, almost meditative activity in which alertness and creativity combine with simple repetitive movements. It’s a good time to set the world aside and let your mind unhurriedly put its affairs in order.

But, if you are in a rush, bear in mind that scanners and image software make it easier to manipulate and reproduce sections of interlace quickly. And any time invested is well repaid if you keep a master-file of your finished Celtic knot designs which you can then use over and over for later pieces.

Example of knotwork from the Gospel of St Willibrord

Other traditions of knotwork on the calligraphic page

In fact, knot patterns and interlace of one kind or another are not restricted to the Gaelic Celts or the early medieval period. Such designs decorate many other artefacts and illuminated pages both on the Continent and in later ages. Often, they accompany beautiful calligraphy. Perhaps their latest flowering before modern times in Europe was the white-vine decoration beloved by Italian Renaissance bookmakers as a border for the period’s exquisitely clear humanistic script.

Islamic art, too, has a long and parallel tradition of geometrical knotted patterns as part of architecture, metal decoration, carpet pattern and other ornament. In the Islamic tradition, as in the Celtic, knotwork designs find a kind of culmination in illuminated manuscripts of sacred texts.

It is well worth seeking out facsimile copies of the illuminated Qur’an as well as other, secular works from Muslim culture. My personal favourite for jaw-dropping beauty is the Persian masterpiece The Emperor’s Album, created for Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. Be warned, it is not a cheap purchase unless you can find it second-hand or at clearance price. But it gives you page after page of absolutely exquisite miniatures and decoration.

Celtic knotwork designs: bibliographical note for those interested

There are several, only somewhat differing methods which can be used to construct Celtic knotwork and related patterns. All of them are based on a grid layout and ways of placing diagonal lines. I don’t go into all the methods here: it’s a big subject with its own specializations and theories and I don’t claim to be an expert. Like anything else on this site, I’ve presented what seem to me to be the most immediately workable methods for the needs of an amateur calligrapher.

However, everyone’s eyes and minds work differently and if you don’t find that the methods outlined on these pages are sympathetic to your own way of working, you might like to study from some of the excellent books available on the subject.

(Where possible, I've provided links to the titles in Amazon.com ... I'm working on links to Amazon.co.uk for my UK visitors! Any proceeds will go towards site upkeep. Don't forget to check the 'used' section for bargains -- I do.)

A visitor to this site, Camille (USA), recently directed me to Sheila Sturrock and her Celtic Knotwork Designs, published by Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications (ISBN 1-86108-040-9). She describes the method in this book as using graph paper to draw curves and connect them with lines. (Thank you, Camille!)

In my case, the learning process for working with Celtic pattern and knot design started with Iain Bain’s important book from 1986, Celtic Knotwork. He goes into useful depth and provides step-by-step details of how to form many elements mathematically. The aim of his work, as he explains in the Introduction, was to render more comprehensible the research and work of his father, George Bain, in the seminal Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction.

However, I found (and still find) that although Iain Bain is reassuringly thorough and methodical, he can be too detailed for my needs as a (non-mathematically-inclined) calligrapher. That said, the maths is not hard – it’s just that it’s there – and I do plan to sit down for a week and work through the whole book as it’s clear I will thereby learn a great deal more than I know now.

Aidan Meehan more recently published a popular series of at least seven books on Celtic design, including the ones most relevant here: A Beginner’s Guide and Celtic Design: Knotwork : The Secret Method of the Scribes. (Recently he has also brought out a three-books-in-one volume which is useful.)

Meehan's method of using rows of dots to draw Celtic knotwork designs, whether or not it is the same as that employed by the creators of Kells etc, was quicker for me to apply on an immediate basis than Bain’s and I used it for some time to produce Celtic border patterns and one-off designs. The rest of Meehan’s series includes books on Celtic Design: Spiral Patterns, Viking-influenced Celtic Design: Animal Patterns and illuminated letters. They are beautifully laid out and written in a reader-friendly roundhand throughout.

Still investigating interlace methods, I then discovered Jack MacKinder’s Celtic Design and Ornament for Calligraphers (1999). As the title suggests, MacKinder emphasises the very useful distinction between design and ornament, or structure and decoration, in the great manuscripts. Laying out a page to look like something from Kells or Lindisfarne is one thing; decorating an initial with knotwork or key patterns is quite another. For the calligrapher who may want to use Celtic patterns in non-traditional contexts, for example by creating a knotwork border design or a fill round a poem or certificate, the exercise of designing knotwork is something else again.

I also found that MacKinder’s methods build usefully onto Meehan’s. They go into more depth without going over my head, and give me a better understanding of how the knots are constructed. Like Meehan, MacKinder has presented his whole book as a calligraphic work, written in a narrow but handsome quasi-Carolingian roundhand.

Other works are available, and it is also very useful to possess at least a few facsimile pages of the original masterpieces from Kells, Lindisfarne and Durrow so that you have an idea of the tradition in which you’re working. Apart from anything else, they will encourage you to use a palette of softly variegated colours to balance the absolute geometry which characterises Celtic knotwork designs.

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