Living Celtic Knotwork

Celtic knots are magical. The complexity of the most ancient Celtic art works seems to fly in the very face of what I posted about in my article on focus; there seems to be nothing to focus on at all. The sheer number of knots, changes, patterns were said to have been so intricate that only angels could have possibly carved them into stone or illuminated the pages of ancient manuscripts. But the focus is there. The focus is not on the knot, but on the piece itself as a contained system.

When I finally took the plunge into the artistic construction of Celtic knots it was through the help of George Bain’s book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction. Mr. Bain has spent his life studying the artwork of the ancient Celts in an attempt to understand them and recreate a lost art form. No small task, I set out to follow his guidance and started tentatively into a journey that ultimately began to transform me.

Even as I learned how to weave together a simple dirk knot and began to move into more ornate borders and spirals, I soon learned that if I was going to continue I was lacking skills that I had forsaken long ago; mathematics. I suddenly had a reason to care about geometry and ratios in order to plan out spaces that would meet very tangible space requirements in order to be properly filled with the design I desired. I had to teach myself old compass and straight-rule tricks for the making of geometric objects. My spatial awareness began to blossom to a mantra of over, under, over, under as I wove three-dimensional lines into a two-dimensional medium. Knot construction is ultimately a meditation similar to the care taken by monks in the construction of a mandala.


What do I mean by that? To borrow words from the preface of Mr. Bain’s book, a self-imposed restriction was necessary if chaos was to be avoided.” That takes a certain choice and commitment on the part of the artist. But what did these meditations reveal? Why did these symbols from my ancestral past call out to me so strongly? What was I drawing? This required a bit more study outside the proper venues of art, but I did eventually find them. Connectivity. Life. Energy.

The Celts can’t claim a monopoly on knots, spirals, and key patterns. Many cultures from the British Isles to Norway, France, Italy, Greece, and even China have created similar, intricate, artistic expressions of interwoven, continuous lines. Even famous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer and Michelangelo have portrayed this theme in splendid pathways and labyrinths for the eye. There I found the first revelation. Something so pan-cultural seemed to reveal an exploration of connectivity within the values and ideas of the cultures themselves. You were never alone, just a distinct part of a whole that cannot be excluded without the whole suffering for it.

The second revelation was that knots move. They breathe. They invite the eye to wander down confined pathways the way you move through some place like the labyrinth of Chartes Cathedral. Every inch of the piece is explored no matter where you start looking. The line continues around until you end up back where you began, greeting the entire surface of the piece in the process. Lines intersect and shapes are formed in relation to the other lines that are present making each composition unique. All is constructed in an organic interconnectedness with the other elements. Once you have met every inch and you start looking to the whole again, you see a living organism made from an otherwise inanimate object.

Which leads to the third revelation; the lines are restless and cannot be still. The reason that knotwork seems to be alive even while we know they can’t move is that one feels like the lines writhe on their own. There is the convincing illusion that they could move. Something that is alive has energy. It moves itself. The successful completion of a knot does that. It moves on its own once connected by the hand of its creator. Tiny ecosystems begin to appear and thrive, supporting one another to create something larger than themselves without sacrificing themselves as an individual component.

The focus is on the whole, not the part. The focus is also on the movement and flow, not a static point. The meditation of knotwork is the creation of something living. It takes forethought, yet spontaneity ensues as the dominant shapes begin to fill in. New spaces begin to appear; some asking to be filled, others asking to be left blank to reveal something larger within the composition. What I’ve found about working with Celtic knots is that through the process of transforming a page into a collective of continuous lines, some part of you is transformed with it, whether you set out to be transformed or not.

Knots are magical like that.


If you’d like to see more of Ben’s knotwork and Celtic artwork, it can be found on his deviant Art gallery.