by Stephen Walker September 20, 2013

There is a prevailing folklore that each element, each knot, spiral or interlaced animal, is a symbol. The notion that there is some sort of secret language to Celtic ornament is widespread and persistent.  One of the most common questions from the general public about Celtic jewelry is, “what does it mean?”  The creators and purveyors of modern Celtic jewelry, and other articles decorated with Celtic ornament, sometimes offer very responsible educational explanations for their wares, but others have taken a great deal of liberty. 

There is a stubborn expectation that any meaning for this ancient style should be the same today as it was fourteen hundred years ago. What meaning, if any, the ornamental details held in medieval times is sometimes unknowable. Certain motifs have well established symbolic meaning. Crosses, christograms, symbols of the Four Apostles, and other widely used Christian religious signs are rather obvious.  The animals of Celtic interlace are often difficult to identify by species, but many can be read as hounds, peacocks, doves or eagles, all of which have well established traditional symbolic meaning. Spirals and knots are less certain as anything other than ornament. But this does not stop them from being supplied with meaning as they come to be used very differently by modern designers and artists.
 
The most widely used knotwork symbolism is the “Trinity knot” or triquetra. This simple and beautiful knot has been consciously used as a Christian symbol during the 150 years of the Celtic Revival.  In recent decades revivalists have also appropriated it as an emblem of the “Triple Goddess”.  This concept, stripped of its religious implications, is now frequently presented as an appropriate gift for a grandmother to give her daughter and granddaughter as a token of the three ages of woman. 
A standard answer to the ‘meaning of knotwork’ question in recent times is that Celtic knots are endless paths and so represent eternity or continuum.  The Scottish art teacher George Bain published the book Celtic Art; The Methods of Construction in 1951.  This book became a standard reference and source book, especially after its re-release in 1973.  In it the author made a great deal of the single continuous path that is laid out in many ancient knotwork panels.  This observation leads quite nicely to ideas about the “circle of life” or “never ending… love, faith, loyalty”. These can be seen as metaphors for the interwoven-ness of life, or linking knots are frequently referred to as “love knots.”  To some these seem like trite, pat answers to the question of meaning, which may have more to do with marketing than with any authentic tradition.  But marketing is also part of the culture.  
Why would it be that continuum would be such an important concept that an elaborate symbology as knotwork would be contrived?  In modern times those who maintain an interest in Celtic things relate to the idea of continuum in their desire to affirm and preserve a culture they value, nobly surviving despite centuries on the margins of European mainstream.  Celtic Diaspora, whose interest in their roots have become a passion, especially relate to a message of continuum, as they strive to identify with their heritage in the multi-cultural melting pot.  If the modern motive for creating or viewing Celtic art involves a sense of heritage, the message of continuum works.
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Stephen Walker
Stephen Walker

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