About the Artist
By the Fall of 1979 I had possibly run through one career already, or at least the beginning of one: I'm not sure. From '76 to '78 - still a teenager - I did some illustration work for TSR's magazine The Dragon and for a couple of companies that published either supplements for, or alternatives to, TSR's Dungeons and Dragons rule books.
Samhain, ink and watercolor, 1982
I'd been awarded a Fellowship by an arts foundation and was about a week away from a trip to Europe when I found a copy of George Bain's Celtic Art: the Methods of Construction. I'd seen knotwork before - mainly in art history books - but I'd never seen a book that explained how I might make those patterns myself. I bought the book immediately and then packed it away, since I was about to head off on my European trip. It was five or six months before I dug the book out and went to work with it.
Death of Cuchulain, 1983
So first with traditional border patterns, and then with original ones, I spent a large part of the 80's doing knotwork: borders on drawings and paintings, decorations on musical instruments, on covers and illustrations for small presses, LPs, cassettes, and then CDs; in my mural for the Thousand Oaks Public Library in California; on leather and wood; and, I guess, on anything that would sit still long enough.
Cover for the Cold Iron Song Book (Leslie Fish/Rudyard Kipling), 1986
Even when I made the transition to working digitally in 1988 I used knotwork borders; I animated a couple of them. I found uses for knotwork in several game projects and even now, long afterwards, I return to my knots from time to time.
In 2007 I collected some of my original celtic knotwork borders into a book, where each border's shown in multiple sizes and (often) in circles as well as sub-divided rectangles.
So that's my story; I'm sticking to it. Here at The Celtic Art Works I've gathered together just about all of the Celtic artwork I have in print, in books and on one kind of merchandise or another.
Bradley W. Schenck
About The Celtic Art Works
The Three Rules of Celtic KnotworkIt's much simpler than it seems to be.
1. As you follow a band within the pattern, it must pass alternately over and under in the same way that a simple basket (or tabby) weave does. When a band passes over another band in the pattern, it must pass under the next band it crosses.
2. There should be no loose ends in the pattern: every part of the pattern should form a single, continuous loop.
3. In addition, most of us believe that in its ideal form a knotwork pattern should be composed of only one band, with no other bands or rings in the design.
When this style of decoration emerged and found its home in illuminated manuscripts, on standing stones, in jewelry designs, and elsewhere, no one was writing about what they were doing. Writing itself, especially in book form, was quite rare - and books themselves were unbelievably expensive to produce (all by hand, of course).
Now... did they ever break the rules on purpose? In forms of knotwork that show animals or plants we sometimes see loose ends in the designs - in places like the ends of tails, or claws, or wings, for example. There are cases where those loose ends turn into abstract bands of patternwork; but there are also cases where the ends seem to have been left there deliberately, to clarify the shape of the animal or plant.
Today we believe that these three rules matter, and we think they mattered in medieval times as well. Now, Celtic knotwork has been revived and reinterpreted before and it doesn't always work just the same way in every generation - if you look at the Celtic Revival work from the early part of the twentieth century you'll be more likely to find some broken "rules", and also a unique tendency to make internal splits, like holes, in bands that may still respect the rules. (Other parts of the pattern obey the over-and-under rule as they weave through these holes.)
What Does it Mean?You know, I really hate that question.
I get a lot of questions about the meaning of this or that design - or requests for "the Celtic symbol for..." - but that's simply not what the designs are for, or ever have been for. It's just what we want them to be.
We monkeys want to assign meanings to things: we're built that way. It's got nothing to do with whether those meanings were there already. These patterns in their historical form were not symbols, and didn't represent specific ideas; and anybody who tells you differently is probably trying to sell you something.
Odds are, you may not believe that these patterns are abstract images and don't represent ideas like "loyalty", "peace" or, for all I know, "the ineffable excellence of wombats". Because, like I said, we want to find meanings. And I don't suppose it does a lot of harm if you get a tattoo that (you think) is praising the wombat. So, you know, go for it.
Where Does It Come From?While this is more complicated than it seems to be.
What we call Celtic knotwork design isn't uniquely Celtic; at one time or another similar motifs have emerged across the globe, from China to Africa. It's probably not even originally Celtic.
The early Celts picked up design influences from those Greeks and from the Scythians, and learned some new tricks as they spread west across Europe, over the English Channel, and beyond the Irish Sea. You can see a lot of Scythia in that beautiful early Celtic design - sweeping arcs, stylized animals, golden granules and fine lines.
By the sixth century the Celts had become pretty well settled in the island of Britain. They were the Britons, after all. The Romans came, and made a lot of roads, and whipped a lot of people, and then left. The Britons might have had a chance to figure out who they were again, but that's right about when the Saxons showed up.
When the Saxons poured out across Britain, though, it was another thing entirely. In all of what's now England - south of Scotland, east of Wales - you almost never find a Celtic place name. That's because, when the Saxons looked across the field, there weren't any Britons left for them to ask, "What do you call that river?" So they had to make up their own names for everything.
The Britons who were left alive ended up in Wales, in lowland Scotland, and across the Channel in Brittany. During the seventh century the Saxons tried to continue their conquests in the North. Up there they found a mixed bag of Picts - who'd been in Britain longer than the Britons - the remaining Britons, raiders from over in Ireland, and Scandinavians. The Saxons came up from the south and the fact is that no one knows exactly what came next.
That's why, way up above the history, I said that it's not uniquely, or even originally, Celtic. This is a style of art that came out of the violent collision of several different cultures. Once they had it, it appeared on everything they made, from stone monuments to jewelry and metalwork to some of the most beautiful books - handmade, illuminated manuscripts - that anyone has ever made.
Some Further Reading
Celtic Art Books
Bain, George - Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction
Merne, John G. - A Handbook of Celtic Ornament
Crawford, H.S. - Irish Carved Ornament
Henry, Francoise - The Book of Kells
Stead, I. M. - Celtic Art in Britain Before the Roman Conquest Larmour, Paul - Celtic Ornament
(a small collection of Celtic Revival art)
Early Saxon Art Books
Bruce-Mitford, Rupert - The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
Leeds, E. T. - Early Anglo-Saxon Art and Archaeology
Anything at all by Rosemary Sutcliff;
Chadwick, Nora - The Celts
Chadwick, Nora - Celtic Britain
Cunliffe, Barry - The Ancient Celts
Cunliffe, Barry - Iron Age Communities in Britain
Markale, J. - Celtic Civilization
Powell, T.G.E. - The Celts (Ancient Peoples and Places)
Myth, Legends, and Poetry
Ford, Patrick (tr) - The Poetry of Llywarch Hen
Ford, Patrick (tr) - The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales
Kinsella, Thomas (tr) - The Tain
Gantz, Jeffrey (tr) - Early Irish Myths and Sagas
Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone (tr) - A Celtic Miscellany