Like their design, Celtic knots seems to have no beginning and no end in our lives. They appear in the earliest cave art and are everywhere in our daily lives. They decorate religious objects, architecture, fashion items, furniture, book designs and business cards. Celtic knot meanings have become so important that many people wear these powerful symbols everyday in jewelry and tattoos. Their enigmatic, maze-like patterns have always been a source of fascination. Avoiding this endless source of design inspiration due to the seeming complexity of Celtic knots is a mistake. Whether you are learning how to create amazing designs for web or how to start a global fashion brand, Celtic knots will provide endless design inspiration.
Is it the significant meanings or enigmatic designs of Celtic knots that are behind their longevity? The answer is both. The earliest Celtic knots, in fact, had little meaning but instead served a functional purpose in art.
Celtic Knot Meanings and Religion
Religion has played an important role in the design of Celtic knots. Pagan laws had the greatest influence on this art form, according to Celtic art expert George Bain. The interlacing of human form and Celtic knots evolved from laws forbidding drawing portraits of human figures as this was tantamount to copying a work of the creator, “God the Almighty,” explains Bain in his book Celtic Art. Similarly, it was forbidden to draw animals or plants. Angels and mythic creatures, on the other hand, were not of the earthly realm. And Saints had departed this realm. Thus, Celtic knot patterns were used to represent most of the human form, while heads, appendages and tails were often depicted using more life-like representations.
Celtic art developed into a higher art form with the arrival of Christianity in 450 A.D. The Christians have long used art as a propaganda tool. From illustrated manuscripts to Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, art has been a key medium for conveying God, the HolyTrinity and the connection between the earthly and heavenly realms. The most famous work from this tradition is a Celtic manuscript, the illustrious Book of Kells from the sixth century whose pages are decorated with Celtic art and knots. The Book of Kells is part of a series of Irish manuscripts created from the fifteenth to tenth centuries, beginning with the book of Durrow in the fifth century.
The Pagan influence on Celtic art is prevalent even in these famous Christian texts, which allowed portraits of humans, animals and plants. The religious imagery and text of the manuscripts are turned into elaborate art work with the addition of Celtic knots and symbolism. The books famously decorate letters at the beginning of sections with designs that often intertwine animal, human and plant images with Celtic knots. The animals are often mythic-looking creatures with snake-like bodies. With the interlacing of the Celtic knots, the animal and human bodies twist and morph into magical beings. Similar Celtic art was carved on stone throughout the Irish and Scottish countrysides. The Merman of Perthshire, a representative piece, sits proudly carved on Scottish stone like a Buddha with his legs twisting into Celtic knots and ending in fish tails.
Throughout the millennia, the meanings ascribed to Celtic knots have prevailed. Their longevity is largely explained by the strong connection between the visual design elements and symbolic meaning, as is shown below in Celtic Knot Meanings. One meaning above all has prevailed. The interlacing, continuous design is the symbol of the interconnectedness and continuity of life. It also represents eternity.
Other cultures have ascribed the same meanings. Buddhists referred to them as endless knots. The meanings of Celtic knots are also influenced by other art movements. Scholars such as George Bain have drawn connections between Celtic knot meanings and Crete, Byzantine, Persian and Mayan cultures, among others. Parallels are drawn between the ‘Tree of Life’ in the Book of Kells and the Buddhist Tree of Life.
Celtic Knot Patterns
Celtic symbols appeared in art thousands of years before Christianity and can be found in the earliest art forms around the world. In the Celtic world, simple knot work was used, mainly spirals, key patterns and step patterns. The arrival of Christianity in Ireland played a central role in the development of Celtic symbolism, the design of more intricate and complex patterns,and the widerspread use of Celtic knots.
Basic Knot Patterns
The eight basic knot patterns identified by J. Romilly Allen are widely accepted. They are based on a three-chord and four-chord plait. The basic four-cord knot looks like three strands of hair braided while the four-cord plait is like the braiding of four strands of hair. There are many variations on both.
Spirals appear in early cave art and petroglyphs throughout the world, and are one of the earliest and most prevalent symbols in the earliest art work. They are often a continuous line forming multiple circles. Spirals are also found in the earliest drawings of animals – tails or horns, for example. And we cannot forget the snake spiral, also a symbol in early art. The basic spiral is circular and moves clockwise. Square-shaped spiral structures and mazes also appear throughout early and later art, such as the Book of Kells.
The spiral in ancient Celtic culture represented the sun. A double spiral represented the equinox – a time of year when the length of day and night are equal. In other cultures, two spirals represent the ying and yang.
Maze and step patterns are also well known from Aztec, Mayan and Egyptian art. They have come to symbolize progression and development in life. They may also symbolize the connection between the earthly and heavenly realms.
Interlacing in drawing and painting evolved from copying interlacing in basketry and weaving. The following section describes the meaning of interlaced knotwork.
Celtic Knot Meanings
Triquetra Knot – also known as the trinity knot, is the most well-known knot and is most often associated with the Holy Trinity. The joining of the three half circles creates a clover-like shape with three pointed ends. This early Celtic symbol predates Celtic Christianity yet has come to be represent the strongest symbol in Christianity. It may also represent the three goddesses, or sisters, of Irish sovereignty. This knot can be found in the illustrated manuscripts, as well as on crosses, chalices and other religious objects.
Sailor’s Knot – The sailor’s knot is a simple pattern of two intertwined ropes.
The Lover’s Knot– is formed by the two intertwined ropes of the sailor’s knot. One or more knots may be heart-shaped. A popular and simple pendant consists of a right-side up and inverted heart intertwined. The lover’s knot is used in pendants, earrings, bracelets and other jewelry designs.
The Eternity Knot – looks like a maze in an overall diamond shape. It often has squared edges but may also have rounded edges. It symbolizes endless life. In Buddhism, in which it is known as the endless knot, it also represents compassion and wisdom. In addition to being used in jewelry and design, this powerful symbol is a popular tattoo.
Shield Knot – Knots have served a number of protective functions. Knot patterns appeared on shields, and the shield shape with knots has continued to be a powerful symbol of protection. The shield knot is also believed to ward off illness and bad omens. In modern times, these protective symbols are more likely to appear on pendants or tattoos. Different designs are used in protective shields. A design with thick strands with tight intertwining patterns, often with some squared-off edges, emanates a strong, impenetrable barrier. The thick strands evoke the image of a strong, unbreakable chain.
The Celtic Cross – One of the most ornate crosses, the Celtic cross has a circular pattern at the intersection of the four beams, as well as a larger circle surrounding the intersection. It remains a popular design for religious crosses. The Celtic cross is also popular in jewelry designs. St. Brynach’s cross is the basis of many beautiful Celtic designs. It has four shorter, thicker beams of equal size whose wide rounded ends would form a circle if joined.
Birgit’s Cross – is made from straw and has a square knotted pattern in the center.
Many virtues have been associated with Celtic knots, including wisdom, strength, love, compassion, and honesty.
Designing With Celtic Knots
Celtic Knotwork provides instructions on how to draw Celtic knots, as well as information on general properties and meanings. Even today with advanced computer software design programs, it takes skill to apply the geometric patterns required to create many Celtic knots. Once you learn the basic design principles, designing with Celtic knots is easy.
If you are involved with design, you are no doubt constantly seeking new inspiration. Celtic knots can inspire all types of design, including How to Design a Logo and How to Create Ecards. The universally understood Celtic knot meanings have made them a popular theme of cards.
If you are looking for creative inspiration, consider incorporating Celtic knot meanings into your design process. For a creativity boost, enroll in the flexible online course Design Thinking – Innovate in Style or Design for Engagement – How to Design So People Take Action.