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Celtic Art Eras

Hallstatt - 700BC - mainly geometric designs.

La Tene - 450BC - floral and geometric designs, often designed using compasses and french curves. In this era we see a development of wonderful swirling spirals, cleverly hidden faces and animals are often disguised within the art. Art Nouveau takes a lot of it's design elements from this era. Some examples would be the Holcomb Mirror, Wandsworth Shield, and the Battersea Shield.

Early Christian - 400AD - The spiral is now becoming more uniform, animals and people begin to appear in more recognizable forms. Near the end of this period (600 AD or so) we see an emergence of knotwork interlace, which is to become a defining example of Celtic artwork. Examples would be the Book of Durrow, and the finds at Sutton Hoo.

Late Christian or Insular - 750AD-1000AD - What is considered as the height of Celtic art is reached in works of gold, silver and vellum with jewelry such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Kells manuscript. Complex designs flourish with tiny interlaced animals mixed with spirals and knotwork.

Looking for more great information on Celtic art history? I highly recommend Celtic Art: From Its Beginnings to the Book of Kells by Ruth Megaw and Vincent Megaw. It's the absolute bible for early Celtic art up to the early Christian/Book of Kells era.

Styles in Celtic Art Throughout the Eras

Hallstatt - almost tribal feeling with the geometric designs. Maze type designs and repeated patterns make even simple designs feel complex. As these designs date back to the Bronze age, they are perhaps the most "elemental" feeling of all the styles.

La Tene - large amounts of spiral and leaf shaped designwork. Shapes of faces and animals may appear and disappear depending on how the design is viewed. Very organic.

Knotwork Interlace - this is probably the most commonly identified kind of Celtic art. Basically it looks like strands of woven or braided strips that bend and weave amongst themselves. The knotwork panel may be made up of a single strip weaving through itself, or any number of strips. One of the common designs in interlace would be what's normally called the Trinity Knot, which has 3 outer points or petals, and any amount of weavings occurring within the center.

Spirals - spirals may occur in double, triple or quadruple swirls. Spirals are typically joined to one another in either an "S" or a "C" type format. A relative in the spiral family would be the triskel, sometimes called the triskelion, which has 3 arms or curls radiating from a common center.

Zoomorphics (animals and plants) - typical animals would be the hound, snake, bird (usually either an eagle or peacock), the salmon, and lion. Dragons do not often appear in ancient Celtic art, although Pictish art may show dragons and modern made dragons can also be found in Celtic art. The animals are usually twisted upon themselves, with tails ears and body parts weaving in and out other parts, much like regular knotwork interlace.

Maze and Step Patterns - maze patterns (also called Key Patterns) look almost like angular spirals, and may range from a few simple turns to complex labyrinth type designs. Step patterns appear to be made up of combined lego type blocks, joined to form tile-like images.

People - men and women are both depicted in Celtic art, with various hairstyles and clothing. Usually their hair and limbs are knotted up much like the knotwork interlace designs. People are drawn either in a full front manner or in perfect profile, never in partial profile.

Meanings in Celtic Art

Unfortunately there is no list or series of meanings that can be attributed to a particular knot, according to archeological and anthropological findings. If you are going to use a design or knot for something personal, choose something that really appeals to you and that'll be the most accurate definition of all. Certain types of people or personalities will prefer spirals over knots for some reason, or animals over spirals, or whatever. This reflects better what the symbols mean that anything, given that the meanings used today are only romantic versions of what the Celts believed.

That said, people always ask for some mystical meaning behind Celtic art, so here are some of the published stuff that's out there. HOWEVER, keep in mind they are only romantic interpretations of any true meaning the ancient Celts may have held.

Knotwork Interlace - the interconnection of life and humankind's place within the universe. Common knots include the Trinity knot, thought to represent the Holy Trinity or the Triple Gods/Goddesses of the ancient Celts; and the Lover's Knot, representing 2 together as one (resembles intertwined infinity symbols).

Spirals - usually reflects personal spirit, and an individual's attainment of balance in the inner conciousness and outer self. May also represent the cosmos, heavens, and water (waves). A common spiral type pattern would be the Triskel, thought to represent the Holy Trinity or the Triple Gods/Goddesses of the ancient Celts like the Trinity Knot (above).

Maze and Step Patterns - an individual's journey through life (as in through a labyrinth), their path of experiences and learning.

Zoomorphics (animals) :

Lions - nobility, strength

Snakes - rebirth (Dragon or serpent designs may be interpreted the same as snakes)

Birds - purity (peacocks) or nobility (eagles)

Salmon - knowledge

Bull - strength

Boar - ferocity, strength

Additional readings on meanings and symbolism can be found at :

In Search of Meaning: Symbolism of Celtic Knotwork - by Stephen Walker