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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.
In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism). Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.
Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal: essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol. To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned. Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings. In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.
To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved. It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably. The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).
My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.
A knot garden is exactly what it sounds like–a formal garden laid out to resemble a decorative knot. The concept is known to date back to Elizabethan times and may be even more ancient. Renaissance knot gardens consisted of square compartments planted with different herbs and aromatic plants, however, as gardening developed, knot gardens took on more and more of the formal decorative elements of parterre gardens. Although today’s knot gardens are often based around boxwood parterres or other formally clipped topiary hedges, many knot gardens still have an herbal component as a reminder of Renaissance knot gardens (which were meant to have a culinary medicinal, and even magical purposes).
Here is a little gallery of various pretty knot gardens from around the world (although they mostly seem to be English).