Celtic knotwork first appeared in Ireland, Scotland and northern England in the early 7th century, when Irish missionaries were evangelizing in Northumberland. The missionaries’ main base was on the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, and Picts in the north and Anglo-Saxons to the south quickly learned the scribal techniques of knotwork. The illumination of sacred books was spread along with literacy and other forms of art and learning. This was a time of traveling and progressive ideas. Celtic monks, as well as those influenced by them, spread across northern Europe in the next several centuries while scholars from the continent flocked to Ireland, Iona, Linisfarne and many other insular Celtic centers of learning.
While there is no direct historical data linking Adomnan, the 9th Abbot of Iona, to the Celtic artistic tradition of artwork, the three most famous manuscripts known for their interlaced ornamentation, the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, and the Lindisfarne Gospels, were all products of the community that would have been in place under Adomnan’s leadership. The Book of Durrow might have been written during his lifetime along with the other two, and many more like them, made in the next century. During Adomnan’s life, artistic representations of knotwork became not only an international style, but also a new advancement in artistic development for the Christian Celtic world.
It is frequently misinterpreted and repeated that knotwork was a survival from an older Celtic-Druidic tradition, which was renewed by Christian Celtics. This may be true of spiral motifs, which had a history in Celtic art going back for thousands of years, but not so for knotwork. It is true that ornamental and symbolic knotwork have been practiced by many cultures, some much older than the 7th century, but despite beliefs of Henry O’Neill and others, knotwork burst forth on the insular Celtic scene quite suddenly.
Various sources have been suggested for the introduction of knotwork – one of the most interesting is that it came from Coptic Egypt, as there are many parallels between Celtic Manuscripts and Coptic Scribal techniques, materials and a very similar knotwork tradition. A 5th century copy of the Acts of the Apostles, preserved in the Morgan Library in New York City, is seen by a number of scholars as the “missing link” between the Celtic and Middle Eastern knotwork traditions.
However, any of the various knotwork traditions that could have possibly served as inspiration for the great Celtic interlace style barely anticipate the mind-boggling complexity and imagination that developed after knotwork was adopted by the Christian Celts. Not only manuscript illumination, but also Celtic jewelry, metalwork, stone and bone carving and likely crafts in more perishable materials were saturated with knotwork and animal outlines. Knotwork was the most prevalent Celtic ornamental style from the 7th to 10th centuries. The style spread across Europe during the early Middle Ages, and although the Celtic style was not only the artistic source of the period it was by far the most complex and sophisticated.
Examples of Celtic knotwork can be found in every century up to the present, although they get to be few and far between before the Celtic Revival of the 19th Century. By the later Middle Ages, the style was the strongest in the Scottish Highlands, where a style known as the Gaelic revival continued a tradition of stone carved interlace until the 16th century. Celtic jewelry and weapons carried the tradition through the Jacobite period; the handles of dirks (short daggers with a pointed blade) were still being carved with knotwork at the end of the 18th century. By this time, the style had become a self-conscious statement of cultural and political identity.
The majority of old knotwork that survives is part of an elaborate message that is more than meets the eye. The Book of Durrow, for example, is loaded with knotwork, but the book is not about knotwork; like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, it is about the word of God. The knotwork, symbolic or decorative, exists to glorify the Gospels. In the same way the wonderful brooches of the same period were highly embellished with knotwork, but their form was the conventional form of a brooch.
All this began to change when designers like Archibald Knox and Alexander Ritchie started to make brooches in the forms of knots, and knotwork became more the subject of designs, rather than taking a back seat to other messages or interests. When these modern designers began to take elements such as single knots and make these the focus of designs, or even to make a single knot the entire object, this was a profoundly creative act. Knots and details were beginning to take on lives of their own as standalone statements.