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Philosophy of Celtic Art

The meaning of Celtic art has never been easy to explain.  There is a very wide range of approaches to the study of this tradition and being one of Europe's oldest art forms there is a lot to examine through the passing of time.

In the market today there is a great demand for all things Celtic, and with this trend there are many people putting forth work that (in many cases) is no more than a copy of some ancient masterpiece.  Granted a certain amount of this is not a bad thing, however it does not help the tradition grow or flourish, but brings many people to the conclusion that the art form is static and only held potential (for new ideas and work) in the past.

On another side of the masses observing Celtic art are archeologists and people who are trying to discover the roots of the art form.  This and much more historical research has opened our eyes to the lives of the people and their work, which we may have in many cases may never have been known.  The once "savage" Scot, Pict, and Irish races may for the first time in history be viewed as a humble, generous people with an art form that would require periods of peace, concentration, and discipline to execute.  Hardly the description of a pagan, looting, immoral people.  At the same time however, many people involved in this research often totally ignore centuries of the oral tradition, myths and legends as if there is not an ounce of truth in them once so ever.

Cemetery; Celtic revival cross; photo taken in 1997 

Is all mythology nothing more than lies, exaggeration and not "speak plainly", enough to reveal its creators?  If it is shunned long enough maybe the world will loose yet another great sense of character.  Perhaps it is the product of a people with a touch of humor, poetic license and a creative way to veiled truths?

In my eyes both the archeologist's and the oral tradition have a lot to offer the world about the philosophy of the Celts, they both inspire my work in different ways, and I hope that this is not an uncommon case for many craftsmen.

I feel a responsibility to myself and a respect of the art itself to continue to show that traditional art does not always refer to work from the past, but that it is indeed a living part of the present and the future.

If I were asked (and when I am asked) what does Celtic art mean?  I often explain that very few designs have a specific meaning to one particular thing.  However there are a few such as the triad representing anciently the three sides or natures of women and man.  Later the early Christian church adopted the symbol to represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Several meanings are attached to numbers.  The number "4" for example can apply to many symbols that are illustrated on the "Wheel of life".  The Wheel is used in several cultures thought out the world, the Native Americans for example have such a wheel, that is very similar to the one used by the Celts.  

The Wheel (from the Celtic view point) is a circle that applies to many stages and things that have a sort of circular behavior, like the seasons and stages of life happening over and over.  

 

What does the Celtic Cross mean?

A contemporary view of the Celtic Cross.

By: William MacCrea

It is a very big part of the Celtic heritage, to be seeing things in a sort of never ending circler motion, things come from the earth and eventually return to it, so (my grandfather has asked the very thought provoking question) if material things are used over and over what happens to a human thought?  Things are changing in form, and seem to be reused in different ways.  You may  notice looking close to my work and other craftsmen working within this heritage that many of the interwoven lines have no beginning or end

and do represent a ongoing or infinite movement. 

To add even more complication to the Wheel, the circle also has the four directions upon which each has other symbols presented, for example, the four elements, archangels, a sort of spiritual relic (Most of which are not actual objects.  But are more or less, spiritual focal points), all of these things (and a few more) have a place on wheel.

I have been approached at art shows and have received some very interesting comments, and sometimes the questions help me from a greater understanding of the depth and meaning of Celtic art!  A person may ask, "Do the interwoven lines illustrate a sort of connectedness of spirit and matter?", another may say "it seems to speak of a sort of interweaving of masculine and feminine attributes.  With the sharp and rounded edges of knots, boxy sharp key designs and fluid like spirals!"  They are both right, knot work illustrates a sort of marriage.  

I know I am only just scratching the surface.  It is a vast and inspiring tradition, with many new things to learn all the time.