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Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction

Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction

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by George Bain

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The construction principles of Celtic art were re-discovered in the middle of the 20th century by George Bain. Until his writing, the intricate knots, interlacings, and spirals used in illuminating The Book of Kells and in decorating craftwork and jewelry seemed almost impossible, "the work of angels." In this pioneering work, George Bain shows how simple


The construction principles of Celtic art were re-discovered in the middle of the 20th century by George Bain. Until his writing, the intricate knots, interlacings, and spirals used in illuminating The Book of Kells and in decorating craftwork and jewelry seemed almost impossible, "the work of angels." In this pioneering work, George Bain shows how simple principles, no more difficult than those used in needlecraft, were used to create some of the finest artistic works ever seen. He also explains how you can use these principles in re-creating artifacts and in creating your own Celtic designs for art and craft work or even for recreational use.
Step-by-step procedures carefully introduce the simple rules and methods of Celtic knot work and the well-known designs from the great manuscripts and stone work. Later chapters build up to complex knot work, spiral work, and key pattern designs, with special coverage of alphabets and the stylized use of animals, humans, and plants. Altogether over 225 different patterns are presented for your use, with hundreds of modification suggestions, 110 historical and modern artifacts showing designs in use, a great number of letters including six complete alphabets and 25 decorative initials, and a number of animal and human figures used in the original Celtic works.
Artists, students, craftspeople, even children can work with these patterns and instructions for creating dynamic designs for use in leather work, in embroidery and other needle work, in metalwork, jewelry making, card design, borders, panels, illuminations, and in countless other ways. Mathematicians will find a great deal of pleasure in the geometric principles on which the patterns are based. Art historians and others interested in studying Celtic art will find a great number of outstanding art works and the best presentation in English for understanding Celtic design.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Art Instruction Series
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Product dimensions:
9.04(w) x 11.98(h) x 0.43(d)

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Celtic Art

The Methods of Construction

By George Bain

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1973 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31744-1


Elementary Knotwork Borders and Panels

The Chronology of the ornamental symbols commences with spirals. Chevrons and step patterns make an early appearance, along with key patterns that are really spirals in straight lines. Interlacings arrive later and are followed by knotwork interlacings. The imitation of the three dimensional arts of plaiting, weaving and basketry is the beginning of interlacing and there are few races who have not used it as a decoration for stone, wood and metal. The last phase of its use is that of the scribe who represented the third dimension by painted outlines and dark backgrounds. Knotwork interlacings are peculiar to the Pictish School of Celtic Art. Though this text book is concerned with the problems of the constructional methods of the Pictish artist-craftsman, and all other aspects of his art are reserved for another book, yet reference may be justifiable here to the similarity of the types of key patterns, requiring great geometrical and mathematical skill, that have been found in the Ukraine and Yugo-Slavia dating from 20,000 B.C. to 15,000 B.C. to those of the Pictish School. Many centuries lie between the earliest gropings and the high standard of achievement at this stated period. The imitation of the works of God was forbidden to many races and until the Christian Era even vegetation was tabooed as a motif for ornament to the Pict, hence his concentration upon geometry, mathematics and abstractions that were not copies of created life. Interlacing borders and panels based upon plaiting and basketry are to be found in the art of most peoples surrounding the Mediterranean, the Black and the Caspian Sea$. Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Persians, Turks, Arabs, Syrians, Hebrews and North African tribes have used this form of ornament in some way or other. A few thousand years B.C. the Chinese used small interlacing symbols. The finest achievement of knotwork interlacing are by the Pictish School. Interlacing limbs and bodies of humans, animals, birds and reptiles each with interlacing top-knots were developed in East Pictland and in Ireland to migrate at a later date to Scandinavia to become a decadent art.

As a symbol of continuity, interlacing knotwork is found on the ornamented cross slab-stones of East Pictland from Durham to Shetland and in the metal work and the earlier MSS. of Durrow and Kells. Continuity of interlacing knotwork is not insisted upon in the later period of the Lindisfarne and St. Chad MSS. and in the stone work of the same school. From Perthshire to Caithness there are many beautiful examples of intentional continuity of knotwork that form part of artist-sculptors' creations. Other stones show that the designers entrusted the carving to workmen who blundered, and there are a few stones by untrained designers and inferior carvers. The art of Iona and the West of Scotland is a Romanesque Celtic similar to the stone monuments of Ireland with the exception of the Irish Pictish work of the North-East. The work of Scotland east of Drumalban is similar to the finest of the MSS. Durrow, Kells and Lindisfarne. Different localities have different treatments. An incised line in the middle of the band was the fashion from Durham to St. Andrews. In Cumberland, Westmoreland and south-west Scotland the tendency was to break the plaiting into interlacing rings. Wales and the Midlands around Wolverhampton must be considered as greatly influenced by, if not part of, the Pictish School. The "St. Andrew's Cross" is the beginning of most circular knotwork of the Scottish and Irish Pictish interlacing panels. Interlacing knotwork is sometimes inspired by spirals and is sometimes in straight lines.



The Spiral as a symbol and as an ornament had a beginning at the dawn of man's intellect. It was the development of the inherited impulse that made man construct the first circular hut. With very few exceptions (if any) the constructions by insects, birds and animals are made by circular motions. The circle may be considered as man's first step in art. As a recapitulative impulse it is every child's beginning in drawing, and it is as much used by the educated doodler as it is by the uneducated female for pipe-clay decoration on the doorstep. The spiral is an application of its constructional methods that rapidly became magical. It could be performed to the right or to the left, sunwise or anti- sunwise.

The beauty of nature's spirals was probably observed by man's earliest ancestors, for the shell was also the container of his staple food.

From the terminating point to the opening in the shell to the food, the movement of the spiral is to the right or sunwise and the motion of extracting the food is to the left or anti-sunwise.

Most of nature's spirals are to the right with a notable exception in pairs of horns, which are symmetrical. The Scottish Highlander's sword-dance, being a war dance, is anti-sunwise, but finishes sunwise symbolical of victory.

An assessment of the dating of the commencement of the use of spirals as an ornamental and magical art may be conjectured from the fact, already stated, that highly developed key patterns, engraved on mammoth ivory were found in the Ukraine and in Yugo-Slavia, and are dated from 25,000 B.C. to 15,000 B.C. Key patterns are really spirals in straight lines, and man had to travel long in time before he "invented" the square. Although one-coil spirals are to be found in the arts of most peoples of Europe, Asia, Africa, Polynesia and the Americas, with the Greek Ionic as the acme, yet the finest developments of spiral ornament were made by the Celtic race, who at an early period found the methods of making two, three, four or more coils. There is a continuity of the evolution of the spiral three- dimensional art in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland from pre-prehistoric times, commencing with two incised points continued as two incised coils that have between them a raised spiral line that revolves back upon itself. This double spiral is also found in the metal bronze-age work of the peoples of the Baltic countries. The Mycenaean artist- craftsman used the spiral motive in a manner that suggests one of the courses of the migration of Celtic peoples to Britain and Ireland. The Egyptians used spirals as all-over motifs from 3000 B.C. to 1500 B.C.

It was in Britain and Ireland, however, that spirals found full artistic growth, first, in the enamelled bronze ornaments for the horse, the chariot and man, then, in the age of the ornamented stone monuments and the late Pagan and early Christian Jewellers' Art.

The noble spirals of Aberlemno, Shandwick, Tarbet, Hilton of Cadboll, Nigg, the Tara brooch, and the Ardagh chalice led the way to the great art of the scribes, who produced the supreme masterpieces of the world's decoration of books, profusely embellished with spiral art.

The few survivors of a great artistic period, the books of Durrow, Kells, Lindisfarne, and St. Chad will shed a light for future generations upon the greatness of the art and the other cultures of the Pict and the Briton.


Key Patterns

There are numerous references to, and a few descriptions of, Celtic Key Patterns by writers who have been blinded by the "classical" education that still claims to be the basis of all European artistic achievements.

J. Romilly Allen was of the opinion that the essential difference between the classical Key patterns and those used by the Christian Celts of Britain and Ireland, consisted in the introduction of diagonal lines by the latter.

The square Key patterns of the "classical" Greek fret type were seldom used in the art of the Pagan or the Christian peoples of Britain and Ireland. They occur still less in the Pictish School of Celtic Art. The diagonal cross, which at a later period had the Saint Andrew story grafted on it, became the St. Andrew's Cross that emerged in a new dressing to be symbolical of the Scotland that succeeded the Pictland of Malcolm Canmore. This diagonal cross is the basic construction of many key pattern panels and interlacing knotwork panels of Pictish art.

According to J. Romilly Allen, these diagonal arrangements, and the necessary adjustments to fill the spaces in order to fit the pattern to a straight line, are supposed to be the cause of the distinctive Celtic character, but the result, nevertheless, was merely an imitation of the Greek fret. Westwood, who preceded him, had less art knowledge but a greater vision. He described Celtic key patterns as "a series of diagonal lines, forming various kinds of Chinese- like patterns. These ornaments are generally introduced into small compartments, a number of which are arranged so as to form the large initial letters and borders, or tesselated pages, with which the finest manuscripts are decorated."

Some Chinese key patterns belonging to periods prior to B.C. 1000 are very similar to the Pictish key patterns. What is probably a reference to key patterns is in the Old Testament, 1st Kings, chapter 7, verse 31, in the description of the building of Solomon's House. This is dated B.C. 1005. "And also upon the mouth of it were gravings with their borders, foursquare, not round." This qualification "not round" suggests that the reference in 2nd Kings, chapter 25, verse 17 (Solomon's Temple of the Lord) is to spirals as a more customary form of ornament. "And like unto these had the second pillar with wreathen work."

In the British Museum there is a much damaged Egyptian carving in ivory of a priest whose robe shows a key pattern panel and interlacings on its borders. It is dated at B.C. 3500—B.C. 3000.

The most interesting of all discoveries are those of the square and diagonal key patterns engraved on mammoth ivories in the Ukraine and Yugo-Slavia and dated by authorities as the period B.C. 20,000 to B.C. 15,000. Many of these are panelled like the key panels of the Ornamented stones of East Pictland, from Durham to Caithness, and also like those of the Books of Durrow, Kells, Lindisfarne, and other Early Celtic MSS.

An example of this great art of distant prehistory is shown in this text-book on Plate 14. It is from a pair of bracelets made of mammoth ivory, and the pattern is engraved. The unit of the design is a swastika with anti-clockwise motion. The interlocking swastikas are part of an all-over pattern, and it will serve to draw attention to the mathematical and geometrical knowledge and the engraving skill that was necessary.

A very small percentage of the inhabitants of the present-day civilised Europe could copy it without the instructions given on the plate, and fewer still could make a new design comparable with it. On Plate 13 of the spiral text-book the triskele unit of the spiral group in the centre of the cross of the Aberlemno Stone is also anticlockwise and a portion of an all-over pattern. In both cases the symbols are magical and are probably charms to avert evil.

The Isle of Man Triskele symbol has suffered at the hands of a waggish invader, who added a foot to each of what looked to him like three legs. Later these legs and feet became encased in armour. This is on a par with those places having the Celtic name Reston or Restan that are on the top of a hill (being probably on the site of a hill fort). The wags turned the name into Rest and (be thankful).

There are many examples of human figures, animals and birds arranged in triskele and swastika designs on Pictish stones and in Celtic MSS. On Plate 13 of the Studio publication of a number of the finest pages of the Book of Kells in colours, there are six circles with diameters of less than half an inch and each containing three men with a forearm of each forming the triskele. Each man has a leg thrown over his forearm, and he is complete with hair, topknot, beard and clothing.

Four of the circles have clockwise and two anti-clockwise motion.

The Pre-Columbus Central American key patterns used by the priests of the Maya religion to decorate the interiors and exteriors of their temples of cruciform (Greek cross) plan, as at Mitla, are not carved or incised. They are designed so that the projections of the prepared stones or bricks produced the patterns, and the keys are both square and diagonal, resembling those of the Perthshire Pictish type named by Romilly Allen the "Tree key pattern." This special use of prepared stones or bricks by the Maya priests to produce key patterns in the building of their temples is proof that key patterns were long antecedent. The key patterns of the Pre-Columbus Central American, Mexican, and South American pottery that also contained the highly stylised spiral, animal, bird and human decorations have much that is comparable to Pictish art.

The first Spanish invaders of Central America were astonished to find in the Maya temples highly ornamented carvings of stone crosses that were held in the greatest reverence. The proportions of this type of cross are very similar to those of the Pictish cross-slab stones. The Maya priests were manuscript artists of great skill, who decorated their books profusely with colours. The religious intolerance of the Spanish priests led to the almost total destruction of this form of Maya art. The "Dresden" Maya MS. is one of the very few survivors of the fury that grew out of and obscured the simple teachings of Christ.

The manuscripts, records and chronicles of the early British and Pictish Christian churches suffered a somewhat similar destruction at the hands of the Augustine Church over the differences of dogma and over the use of the "Barbaric" native language instead of polished Latin in the writing of the Gospels. The manuscripts that survived were again greatly reduced in numbers by the Viking raids and, later, in the throes of the Reformation.

The connections between Scythian, Mycenaean, Cretan, Maltese and the British and Irish Celtic art cultures are very apparent in key and spiral patterns.

The labyrinth or maze and the meander symbols have both influenced the key patterns of the Pictish school of Celtic art. The labyrinth is to be found in the Books of Durrow, Kells, Lindisfarne, and probably in other early Celtic MSS. It is repeated four times on the X of the Christ name-page of the Book of Kells, and there is an excellent example of an ornamented stone with a labyrinth design in the National Museum, Dublin. The "classicists" will find difficulty in attributing Maya key patterns and other art symbols to Greek sources, though the connection between Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Maya, Chinese and Pictish key patterns becomes clearer when considered in juxtaposition with the B.C. 20,000—B.C. 15,000 Ukrainian and old Serbian key patterns. Viewed in this way, it will become apparent that key patterns and also spirals and interlacings, as represented by the fret, the Ionic spiral and the guilloche, are exotics in Greek art. They are invaders due to contact with migrating peoples.

From the first appearance of the Greek nationality that emerged from the union of the various tribes there does not appear to have been any religious prohibitions of the copying of created forms of life. The religions of many Asiatic races prohibited the copying of living things, "in the heavens, on the earth, or in the waters under the earth." The Pictish people appear to have been strictly forbidden to copy plants or any form of vegetation until the Christian era, and then it was used rarely and only symbolically until after the seventh century, when it commenced a decadence that finally destroyed the art. Before this period the plant which was used, with very few exceptions, emerged from a pot. The whole of its growth was continuous and it threw off branches that terminated in a horn or cornucopia to throw off other branches. It was sometimes developed into interlacings or knotwork with men, animals, reptiles, birds and occasionally fish. The leaves and fruits or berries resemble mistletoe more than the "classical" vine, and the potted plant symbol is probably the "tree of life." Taken with the other symbols mentioned, it is apparent that they are the total of living things. Man, animal, bird, reptile, fish, insect and plant are all on the X Christ name-page of the Book of Kells. This plant or tree symbol of life emerging from a pot is to be found on some of the Pictish ornamented cross-slab stones, for example at Nigg, and occurs in the Book of Kells where its minuteness has hitherto hidden most of it. It is connected with Persian and Chinese-Turkestan art. In a fragment of Maya MS., the "Borgian Codex," two priests each hold an inverted pot from which emerges a plant with one long stem with numerous willow-like leaves and terminating in fruits or berries. Beneath the archway thus formed is a small man, or his soul, undergoing an examination of a sort. There is a somewhat similar representation in Egyptian art.

The evidences available show that the key patterns of Britain and Ireland arrived many centuries before the Romans, and that the peoples who brought them made contacts in their migrations with the tribes that later became the makers of the Greek Empire.


Excerpted from Celtic Art by George Bain. Copyright © 1973 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic book, I use it all the time. It is not the most user friendly thing I have ever read, however, if you have the patience to work through the basics you will profit greatly from using this guide. I have used this reference for anything from designing tattoos to DIY projects around the house. Bain starts you off with baisc linear knots and slowly guides the reader through more intricate designs, many taken directly from old Celtic texts and stones. This is a wonderful resource, I have personally had lots of fun using it.
PyrateGirl More than 1 year ago
If you are a beginner to illumination, this is a good book to start with. It shows you step by step how to create some very difficult patterns. Art that looks complicated as a finish piece, tend to be simply to create with the know how this book provides.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book on my nook HD + to help me with drawing Celtic art. Unfortunately it is pretty much useless on the nook. The plates are so small and there is no way to enlarge them that it isn't possible to distinguish the patterns. I was extremely disappointed, I really wish there was a way to return Nook books. This one would have been returned within 5 minutes of reviewing it. I do not recommend purchasing this book for the Nook.
Sandy57 More than 1 year ago
The instructions are very easy to follow even for someone like me who doesn't do a lot of artwork!
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