Like many of us I’ve often been mesmerized by the dense, luxuriant world of pictures, shapes and hidden meanings in the pages of the Books of Kells, Durrow, and Lindisfarne. Celtic art dazzles our eyes with its intricate and abstract detail: between complex interlace, meandering mazes and swirling spirals peer faces of animals and birds, big of eye and claw. Its elements are simple and symbolic, stirring an interest in ancient beliefs and ideas.
Celtic design is much associated in our calligraphic consciousness with Irish manuscript art, but it draws on some very old pictorial elements and perhaps this is the reason for its universal appeal. The Irish monks blended into the evolving Christian art form motifs and symbols which reach back to prehistoric times and around the planet. Spirals, mazes and interlace appear the world over in ancient and indigenous arts: on Cretan pottery, on Mesoamerican walls, in Roman mosaic work, in Coptic manuscripts. Strong similarities may be found between Celtic art and Byzantine or Persian art, the most obvious being the carpet pages of the Books of Kells and Lindisfarne.
The study of Celtic art using Aidan Meehan’s Celtic Design series touches on some of these themes as well as the practical aspects. His extensive study of the subject led him to begin publishing a magazine in 1983, The Celtic Art Coracle, out of which he developed the eight-volume Celtic Design series, published by Thames and Hudson, London and New York. Since completing the Celtic Design series, he has finished a new book entitled Celtic Patterns Painting Book in the U.K. edition, and Celtic Patterns for Painting and Crafts in the U.S. edition, published in 1997.
Since its beginning in 1991, Meehan’s Celtic Design series has arguably become the most complete manual for this sort of decoration, though at eight books the entire series is a considerable investment. Each book in the series is 160 pages but there is basically no repetition of exercises and there are many exercises to work through. At the beginning of producing the series, Meehan hand-lettered the entire text. Eventually, however, seduced by the siren call of Fontographer, he translated his lettering into a font. The later books in the series have the look of the earlier ones, but are typeset. The decorated letters beginning the chapters and the small accent illustrations dotting the text provide delightful grace notes and are a resource in themselves for ideas. All of the books are copiously illustrated in great detail, with the steps of construction well broken down, for those who prefer visual over written instructions. Some of the geometry causes my eyes to glaze over, but much can be accomplished without an advanced degree of mathematical ability.
The complicated patterns of Celtic art are deciphered by seeing the simple underlying skeletons or grids: the repetition of straight lines under the key pattern, the central thread under the knotwork, the triskele (a three-legged symbol) under the triple spiral. It is this underlying simplicity which makes it so appealing and even easy for the beginning artist to learn. Once it is broken down into its elements, Celtic art may be drawn in a vast array of configurations, layer upon layer.
The first two books in the Celtic Design series do much to decipher these underlying patterns and could be considered sufficient in themselves for those unsure of making the complete investment. Meehan’s approach is thorough and resonates with plenty of history and lore. I must confess here that I began using these books as the texts to accompany the class I took with Meehan at the Soundings conference in 1996, so my understanding of the grids was certainly amplified by blackboard demonstrations and personal instruction over the unclear parts. Since then I have used the books’ exercises to increase my understanding.
Celtic Design, A Beginner’s Manual is a good introduction to the basics of Celtic decoration, except knotwork, which merits a book all to itself. The manual begins with a simple exercise in step patterns, which resemble weaving, and then a basic key or fret pattern. All straight lines, key patterns may be combined to produce mazes and labyrinths, symbolic devices which are also found in ancient Chinese, Hopi and Egyptian art. Key patterns are essentially spirals in straight lines. As with all the books, there are many recreations of designs on metalwork and stone crosses as well as manuscripts. The book also has a good introduction to spiral art, which can be pursued in Meehan’s later book Spiral Patterns. Spirals are again universal and ancient symbols, in the sense that symbols are pictures that tell stories about themselves. George Bain wrote in his classic 1951 book Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction, “The spiral is an application of its constructional methods that rapidly became magical.” The natural world is filled with spiral shapes: in a shell or fern frond, in water going down a drain, or a satellite picture of a typhoon. Drawn spirals can be embellished with seagull shapes, hooks, commas, lenses and lunettes (little moons), shapes that mimic the spiral’s roundness but are connecting parts, filling space.
A Beginner’s Manual continues with a section on how to decorate letters, with a serviceable lesson in a pen-made half-uncial alphabet. There are also some useful grids for making knots in the stems of letters. There is a rather strange section on drawing uncial letters with compass and grid as practice for using these supports in the drawing of the designs themselves. This betrays Meehan’s deep love for geometry and recalls the deconstruction of Romans as done by Durer in the 16th century and David Lance Goines in the twentieth. There is some doubt as to how “lively” these letters can really be, but for doing something on a large scale the grids are useful for reproducing these classic insular letters. The book also gives instructions on how to lay out a manuscript page, store and cut paper (7 pages on cutting paper!), ruling up, and pens and ink, thus fulfilling its mission of being a manual for beginners.
Knotwork, conceivably the design most associated with Celtic art, is deciphered in Knotwork, the Secret Method of the Scribes. Here, the author’s logical, didactic writing style takes you through his three-grid system with which you can fill any space with knotwork. Early on we are introduced to Solomon’s Knot, also known as the “Emblem of Divine Inscrutability” and we know we’re in for a dose of metaphysics. All of this contemplation and reflection does slow down the process of drawing knots, but then slowing down is the best way to learn this art. Knotwork evolves from plaitwork, another age-old motif, done by first peoples in imitation of braiding. Plaitwork continues along in one direction, while knotwork turns back upon itself.
Meehan draws his knotwork as a central strand on a diamond grid, and then fills in the lines on either side. The diamond grid is arrived at by drawing three grids, the primary, the secondary and the tertiary. It is very illuminating to see the diamonds underlying the strands. Knotwork needs to be laid down on a strong central line. Then one can draw the outer two edges, making decisions about how wide to make the strand and how much background space to leave showing. The dots of the secondary grid should show in the spaces between the interlace. The strand must cross over another strand before crossing over itself again, always weaving.
To compare Meehan’s methods with others is difficult, since this is the sort of technique that tends to “imprint” on you according to how you first learned it, like tying shoes. Forever after, perhaps, that is the method that will make the most sense to you. I had tried another method without success and found Meehan’s process to be the simplest and most adaptable. I have managed to draw knotwork to fit a space, using the tertiary grid system. Iain Bain’s patterns of diamonds are too bewildering for me to figure out how to adapt, though I know of people who have learned that way first. Mark Van Stone’s method is essentially the same as Meehan’s but omits the tertiary grid and works with the outlines of the knotwork between the secondary grid dots. I find the path of a strong central line easiest to follow through the maze of interlace.
One difference between the class and the books is that in class Meehan encouraged us to do all of our drawing freehand, without straightedges or compasses, and to divide our lines into equal parts without measuring with a ruler (music to my ears). We were surprised at how accurately we could do this. There is no reason to use grid paper, unless absolute precision is necessary, and there is something more satisfying about a hand-drawn piece of art. There are plenty of computer-drawn Celtic knots, complete with instructions on the Internet, but drawing your own grid gives you a better understanding of the forms. The more often we draw it, the better we will be at doing so. By the same token, the better we get at doing this sort of artwork, the smaller we will make it, seeking to approach the virtually microscopic painting of the monks of old.
There is something soul-satisfying about drawing a single endless line of knotwork and here the sacred aspects of this art glimmer through. It is not hard to see that an unending line of interlace is a good symbol for eternity. For a continuous line, start by using a grid with two sides whose number of squares don’t match (like 3 and 2). The secret is in an unmatching number of squares on the tertiary grid. An odd number of secondary dots will produce a line that circles back on itself. This and other secrets are revealed in the book, including a breakdown of the great carpet pages of Durrow. There are many examples of spiral knots, though for an analysis of the great circular knotwork patterns you will have to refer to other instructional books.
There is a strong natural attraction to drawing abstract or geometric patterns, perhaps a desire to break down the world into manageable parts. Pattern is sometimes called “primitive” art, but it is primitive in the sense of being prime or first, for it was done by the first peoples in the childhood of humankind. These kinds of shapes – circles, spirals, dots, lines and curves – are still found in the early drawings of children today, welling up from a vast universal memory. Drawing repeating patterns can be compared to saying a mantra or counting the rosary, in that it preoccupies the conscious mind and frees the “other” mind in a meditative way. In Celtic art you will sometimes see the intentionally imperfect piece of the puzzle or the uncolored section, a tradition that is expressed in many cultures, in an Amish quilt or Navaho blanket, the ages-old expression on the part of the maker that only the Supreme Creator can make a perfect thing.
Though Celtic art is not calligraphy as we think of it, its elements speak an older pictorial language. The Celtic tribes in their travels ever westward from some eastern heartland brought their ancient symbolic images with them. Speaking to us from within the decorated letters and margins of these great sacred books are spiritual images from older pagan cultures which predate the Judeo-Christian era. Today as modern political and geographical borders dissolve and the global community becomes smaller, old cultures and ethnicities are surfacing, with a resultant cross-fertilization. Designs with symbolic elements which tap into archetypal images represent a preverbal language which speaks across cultures and centuries; thus does an art have universal elements and constitute world art. As Aidan Meehan wrote in Spiral Patterns, “The reward of this ‘engrossing quest’, as George Bain described his life study of Celtic art, is the realization that this medium of art lets us travel through time to share the ideas of strangers from the deep past.”
Parts of this article first appeared as a workshop review of Aidan Meehan’s summer 1996 workshop at the Soundings calligraphy conference, in Alphabet, Volume 22, Number 2, Winter 1997.
The review of the book series was later published in 1997 in the newsletter of John Neal, Bookseller
All illustrations and calligraphy by Cari Ferraro.