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Celtic Symbology and Motifs

Geometric motifs have always prominent in Celtic artwork Some of the motifs or symbols date back to 3000 BC and can still be seen today on stone carvings. Newgrange in Ireland, is one of the oldest burial mounds in Europe and is highly decorated with stone carvings depicting spirals, lozenges, chevrons and key patterns.

This is the entrance stone to Newgrange.

Newgrange Stone

Single Spiral The single spiral is the oldest and most recorded of these motifs. It has symbolized the concept of growth, expansion, and cosmic energy, depending on the culture in which it is used. To the ancient inhabitants of Ireland, the spiral was used to represent their sun.

 

Sun Spirals A loosely wound anti-clockwise spiral represented the large summer sun.

A tightly wound, clockwise spiral represented their shrinking winter sun.

 


Double Spiral A double spiral is used to represent the equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length

 

Double Centered Spiral The dual centered spiral is also prolific in stone carvings. It has associations with motifs from other cultures such as the Yin Yang symbol. It signifies the duality of nature and balance.


Triple Centered Spiral Triple centered spirals were used by the early Christian monks in their illuminated manuscripts. The motif depicts a trinity of spirals emanating from a single source and may well have been used by the monks to represent the Christian holy Trinity.

 


Chevrons Chevrons resemble arrowheads used by hunters and warriors alike and were a symbol of power among the Celts. The motif is nearly heart shaped and occurs as repeat band patterns in ornamentation.

 



Scroll Flowing scroll patterns were used for decoration rather than symbolic purposes. the Book of Durrow, an illuminated manuscript contains many fine examples of such patterns.

Scroll & Lion

Knot Celtic knotwork designs vary from the elegant single knot and double knot patterns to the very sophisticated interlaced patterns.

Two Knots

Ulbster Cross The Ulbster Cross depicted here is a fine example of interlaced knotwork. A single thread is used, symbolizing eternity.

 



Keywork The key patterns of Celtic art are really spirals composed of straight lines. It is another universal pattern attributed largely to the Greeks, but in fact originated in the Ukraine some 15,000 years earlier.

 

Ropework 1 The borders of the illuminated manuscripts, the Book of Kells, Book of Durrow, and the Book of Lindisfarne are adorned by various patterns - spiral patterns, key patterns, interlacing, plaiting and ropework.

Ropework 2

The variations on the motifs and patterns presented here are limitless The above is merely a selection of interest to the craftsman. The motifs have been interpreted and adapted by John Frayne.


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