Uncork the Color

Celebrating a Creative, Joy-filled Life

Celtic Art: What Do All Those Designs Mean?

Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co. Clare

So, one of the things that you know about me even if you’ve only known me for a very short time is that I have an interest in Ireland. Okay, let’s be honest. It’s an obsession. I admit it. Like many Americans, my family has Irish ancestors. That is the case with both branches of my family tree. However, it’s on my mom’s side where we’ve been able to find the individual who emigrated from Ireland and where he came from – County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. So, I suppose I come by this obsession honestly, as the saying goes.

Glanmore Lake, Co. Kerry

The Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork

Slea Head, Co. Kerry

Portmagee, Co. Kerry

Part of what I love about my “Enduring Roots” series is that it has given me the opportunity to honor my Irish heritage and indulge my Ireland obsession a bit by incorporating Celtic designs and crosses into my artwork.  Ireland, of course, is well known for Celtic art, artifacts, etc. and for being a place where remnants of Celtic culture and language can still be found.

Since I’m often asked what, if anything, the Celtic designs in my work mean, I thought it might be good to write a post about it.  So, here goes.

I still have much to learn on the subject, but as I understand it, the Celts were a group of people whose culture and society are generally thought to have emerged around 500 – 450 BC in parts of what are now Germany and France.  Over the centuries, their territory expanded across much of Europe and into Britain and Ireland until the Roman conquest.  The Romans’ reach, however, did not quite stretch to Ireland which is at least partially why much of the Celtic culture remains or can be seen there.

While we can see what designs were most used in their artwork, because the Celts left very few written records, it is impossible to know for sure what those designs meant to the Celts.  However, we do know that the number three seems to have been a sacred or important number as many of their motifs reference that number.  (This information can be found in Miranda Green’s book “Celtic Art: Symbols & Imagery” and Ruth and Vincent Megaw’s book “Celtic Art: From Its Beginnings to the Book of Kells”.)

That being said, through the years, many of these Celtic designs have been attributed with symbolism and meanings that seem plausible or appropriate.  Those are some of the meanings that I have chosen to work with in my art.  So, let’s take a look at those.

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Celtic designs can be separated into three categories: Knotwork/Interlace, Spirals, and Maze/Key patterns.

Knotwork/Interlace:

Celtic knotwork, sometimes referred to as interlace, are those designs where a string or line appears to weave in and around itself or with other strings/lines.  Some say that a “true” Celtic knot uses only one string that connects back to itself.  Because of this, these knots can symbolize eternal life.  They have no beginning and no end.

Those designs where more than one string or line are used can symbolize the interweaving of the physical and the spiritual paths of our lives.  So, for me, this brought to mind the times where we can see or know in some way that God’s hand has been at work in our lives, guiding us along the path we need to take.

Traditional Trinity Knot

Some Celtic knots have been given names with associated meanings, but the one that seemed most plausible to me as well as the one that held the most meaning for me is the Trinity Knot.  It is also called a triquetra.  This is a design that clearly references the number 3 as it forms a triangle with three points.  Again, we do not know what this design meant to the Celts, but it is a design that easily fits with the Christian religion referencing the Holy Trinity – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, three in one.  When I incorporate this design or variations of it into my work, I use it with that symbolism in mind.  In fact, most any time I use a design that forms a triangle or appears in sets or patterns of three, I am doing it as a reference to the Holy Trinity.

And that brings me to spirals and especially triple spirals.

Spirals:

There are a couple of ways that spirals have been interpreted.  One is in reference to nature and the cosmos as spirals can be found in snail shells, plants, galaxies, whirlpools, etc.

The other interpretation takes meaning from the direction of the spiral.  This is the interpretation I tend to gravitate toward.  If a spiral rotates in a clockwise (or sunwise) direction, it is said to represent victory and/or Gaelic blessings.  If it rotates in a counter-clockwise direction, it is said to ward off evil.  The interesting thing here is that spirals can often be read either way, especially if they have an even number of “whorls.”  So, they can symbolize both a blessing and a protection against evil at the same time.

Triple spirals, those with three “whorls,” can have an added symbolism again referencing the Holy Trinity, or some other set of three like birth, death, and rebirth.

So, I like to use them in reference to the Holy Trinity and eternal life, but I also like the idea of blessings and victory.  (It sure doesn’t hurt to ward off evil either!)

Maze/Key Patterns:

Maze patterns have a few associated symbolisms.  The one that seems most obvious to me is that of representing life’s journey – the twists and turns of life.  Maze patterns are also seen to be a never ending path and as such can symbolize permanence.  Others see it as symbolizing life, love, and faith.

I am always amazed by the skill, precision, and mathematical genius of the Celts and Celtic-Christians who had mastered these designs.  The height of this art form can be seen in the masterpiece the Book of Kells that was created in the late 8th or early 9th century AD.  The photo here of the Chi-Rho page illustrates my point.  If you’re interested, you can view the Book of Kells online at Trinity College Dublin’s website here.

Chi-Rho Page from the Book of Kells

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Detail of the Chi-Rho Page from the Book of Kells

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Celtic Cross with equal arms
High Cross Glasnevin Cemetery

Celtic Crosses:

 

The last symbol that I use in the “Enduring Roots” series is the Celtic cross.  The unique identifier of a Celtic cross is the circle or wheel that connects the four arms of the cross.  Early Celtic crosses typically had equal arm lengths, but they evolved into large carved stone crosses called “High Crosses”.  The signature circle/ring/wheel on these crosses is believed by some to reference pagan sun symbols.  It can also be seen as a wreath of victory, a halo, or a symbol of eternity.

I still have much to learn about the Celts, the Celtic-Christians, and their amazing artwork.  I’m so thrilled, though, to have a way to incorporate my Irish heritage as I seek to honor Christ through my artwork just as the Celtic-Christians who created the Book of Kells did.

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