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Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot). Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).
Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture. Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear. Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries. It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.
During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory. As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire. Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.
By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.
Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter. Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture. For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.
Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life. Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers. In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany. Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.
Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus. Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens. Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees). Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies. Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.
By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished. To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong. Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war. The garden was never finished. Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city. By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins. The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.
Based on the ongoing “gothic” thread, it will probably not surprise you that I love gothic architecture. However, although I naturally esteem the great stone edifices of Medieval Europe, I equally admire small houses manufactured in the nineteenth century Gothic Revival style. As a first example of these lovely cottages, here is a stock design by Rodney Pfotenhauer, a contemporary architect (or possibly a magical being who lives in the forest).
With its emphasis on elegant vertical lines, its charming fretwork decoration, and its noble finials, gothic revival architecture is a perfect expression of nineteenth century aesthetic values. But I think the graceful style has a place in the future as well. As the great recession finally begins to recede, it seems like builders will at last start picking up their tools to make some new houses. Hopefully the burgeoning small house movement can look back towards gothic revival work for inspiration. I’d like to see strange lovely gingerbread cottages sprouting up in place of the charmless Mcmansions which have been in vogue throughout the eighties, nineties, and ‘aughts (or whatever we are calling that crummy decade).
I am already fantasizing about parking my little robot car out front of my green gothic-revival mini house. I can knock back a future drink (possibly into my regenerated liver) and wonder into my flower garden of glowing transgenic super roses and giant mutant aloes! Come on already future innovators! Don’t you guys dream about anything other than stupid PDAs?
Oh well, the future will probably end up featuring underground concrete mazes or something equally dystopian (along with increasingly expensive and fragile PDAs hosted on defective AT&T networks). In the mean time here are some other beautiful small gothic revival houses to help you while away the winter and pretend that dystopia isn’t drawing ever closer.