This Wednesday, March 17, we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. This is the religious feast day for Saint Patrick (circa AD 385-461) and marks the anniversary of his death. This day is celebrated in many cultures. For example, it is a national holiday in Ireland: a public holiday celebrated among Irish communities in the Republic of Ireland, Canada, United Kingdom, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.
St. Patrick was said to use the three-leaf shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. The shamrock was worn in celebration of the holiday as early as the 17th century. Many people associate the intricate crosses and lacings with the Irish also. So, today, we’re going to take a look at…
When I began my research, I thought the Celts were only from Ireland. I soon learned how wrong I was. There was a region of peoples known to the Greeks as "Keltoi" or Celts. The first controversy I found was how many nations are considered to be Celtic. The Celtic League recognizes six nations: Alba (Scotland), Breizh (Brittany), Cymru (Wales), Eire (Ireland), Kernow (Cornwall) and Mannin (Isle of Man). Galicia (Spain) is not recognized because their language moved the Celtic to a Romance language called Galego many centuries ago.
Next, I discovered the history and interpretation of Celtic designs are also in dispute. There are some interesting theories about the development of the artwork; however, none can be absolutely documented. Just like the legend of the Leprechaun, they add a bit of mystical spice to our discussion. What is generally accepted is that Celtic art was around thousands of years before Christ. Early examples are available throughout the region often found on stones embellished with knotwork, key, and spiral designs.
Perhaps the oldest Celtic symbol was the spiral. The triskele, or triple spiral, is found on many ancient Irish sites. Here is an example on the entrance stone to the Newgrange passage tomb. (reference link) Many theories exist for the meaning including land, sea, sky; the trimesters of pregnancy; the Trinity, or our inner balance/yin-yang. Early Christian monks used the triple spiral throughout their elaborately illustrated manuscripts.
Knotwork is the Celtic design most people recognize and admire in awe. Its original symbolism has been lost; however, most people today use it is a symbol for eternity. The original artists, the ancient Picts, possible ancestors to the Celts, believed it was forbidden to copy anything created by God, which included animals and vegetation. So, they used mathematics and geometric shapes to create their art. Some artists took it to the extreme! The Book of Armagh was completed in 807.
When some of the illustrations were examined under a magnifying glass, Professor Westwood said “I have counted in a small space, scarcely three quarters of an inch in length by half an inch in width, in the Book of Armagh no less than one hundred and fifty-eight interlacements of a slender ribbon pattern formed of white lines edged with black ones.” (reference link) And to think that I find working on 32 count fabric trying! Can you imagine what artistry went into this work?
The St. Andrew ‘s cross is the beginning of most circular knotwork of the Scottish and Irish Pictish interlacing panels. This cross is a saltire (X-shaped) cross. It has been said the apostle Andrew told his executioners he was not worthy to be crucified on the same cross style as Jesus. Thus he was hung on this X-shaped cross. It is interesting to note this X-shaped cross intentionally appears in many flags throughout history.
Even great masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were engaged in a form of Celtic knotwork. Leonardo’s Concatenation is a wonderful example. This work contains a lot of symbolism which is explained in a paper by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy called "The Iconography of Dürer’s ‘Knots’ and Leonardo’s ‘Concatenation’." (reference link) A fascination with knotwork found its way into fashion with elaborate designs on military jackets, continuing into the Victorian period with designs on women’s jackets and skirts. Of course, the Japanese have been creating elaborate braids for centuries. The Samurai soldier’s armor was laced together with Kumihimo braids.
Key and step patterns are also called Celtic maze patterns. The overall pattern serves to remind us of the journey we call life! They were often created with more angular lines and leant themselves to the design and creation of maze gardens. The Chatsworth Garden in England is an example of a garden maze.
These beautiful works of art are distinctive, today holding a religious significance. It is prudent to remember that cross designs have been revered symbols throughout history, often by pagan groups. High Crosses, which are large stone creations, are found in Celtic lands from at least the 9th century. The Celtic cross has a circle around the center where the two "arms" cross. Some refer to that as the "halo" or a circle representing eternity. Another legend is that St. Patrick came across a stone that had a circle carved into it, representing a moon goddess. In trying to evangelize to the gathered group, he drew a Latin cross through the circle and blessed it, thereby creating the first Celtic cross. What we do know is the cross was not a common Christian symbol until the 4th century!! This photo was taken in Yorkshire. Visit the website Brits At Their Best and read more about Patrick, his kidnapping, slavery, escape, and return. (reference link)
Does this Celtic Art form fascinate you? Here are several books and patterns in a variety of techniques:
And here are some needelework tools showcasing Celtic art:
Okay, so Celtic Art isn’t done just by the Irish. What can I include today that is attributed to Ireland and is pretty well known? How about the Claddagh ring? Again, the legend varies a bit but the general history is that the ring was designed in the middle 1600’s in an Irish fishing village named Claddagh. There was this romantic fisherman who had it made for his wife as a token of his love. The hands symbolize friendship, the heart for love, and the crown for fidelity. The ring is to be a family heirloom passed down from mother to daughter. There is a certain way to wear the ring to show your marital status.
If one is dating, the ring is worn on the right hand with the heart facing outwards.
Once engaged, the ring is still worn on the right hand, but turned so the heart faces inwards.
When married, the ring is worn on the left hand with the heart turned inwards, often worn as the wedding ring.
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
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