Celtic Spirals Designs
Spiral Art: Origins, History, Styles: Newgrange Triskele.

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Celtic Triskele/ Triskelion

Celtic Square Spiral

Celtic Spirals Designs

Although strongly associated with Celtic designs, spirals are one of the oldest abstract geometric motifs in the history of art. Employed by Paleolithic and Neolithic draughtsmen, in megalithic art - notably on engraved stones around 3,000 BCE at the Newgrange megalithic tomb, and the Knowth megalithic tomb (both part of the world famous Brú na Bóinne complex in County Meath, Ireland), spiral patterns appear on many forms of Celtic art and craftwork, including monumental pagan stone sculpture, Iron Age weaponry, equestrian items, household artifacts, personal ornaments, jewellery, ceremonial objects, precious metalwork, illuminated manuscripts and High Cross sculpture.

History and Origins of Spirals

There is no known origin for spiral designs. Spirals in the form of petroglyphs (rock carvings) have been found by archeologists at prehistoric sites, dating from at least 5,000 BCE, on every continent except Antarctica. Neolithic carvers were already utilizing the Triple-Spiral ("Spiral of Life") in their engravings and other megalithic art at Newgrange as early as 3,000 BCE.

For the history & development
of the iconography, zoomorphic
patterns and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Interlace Designs
Celtic Knots Designs
Celtic Crosses Designs

For facts about the craftsmanship,
artistry and artisanship for which
the Celts were justly famous, see:
Celtic Weapons Art
Celtic Jewellery Art
Celtic Sculpture.

For a guide to the historical
connections between Ireland
and the civilization, culture
and heritage of the ancient
keltoi traditions, see:
Iron Age
Celtic Art: Early Style
Celtic Art: Waldalgesheim Style
Celtic Art: Coins/Coinage
Celtic Art: Late European
Celtic Metalwork
Broighter Collar
Petrie Crown
Gundestrup Cauldron
Celtic Art: in Britain/Ireland
Celtic-Style Christian Art
Illuminated Manuscripts
Irish Monastic Art

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.

For a chronological list of dates
and events in the development
of painting, sculpture, ceramics
and metalwork, please see:
History of Art Timeline. For details
of the evolution of artworks from
the Stone Age epoch, please see:
Prehistoric Art Timeline.

Other early spiral patterns at Gavrinis, an island of the Brittany coast, date from about 3,500 BCE. Varying in complexity from the very rudimentary to the highly complex, these spiral motifs were at some point absorbed by artists and craftsmen among the pagan Keltoi or Celt tribes who moved into eastern and central Europe from the Caucasus, around 800 BCE.

Hallstatt Spiral Designs

Being a practical people, the art practised by these early Celts was never going to evolve like Greek sculpture or pottery, although it borrowed quite heavily from Greek art. Instead, it focused on the decoration of functional items (weapons, chariots, armour, personal accessories), and the ornamentation of brooches, rings and the like. Archeological finds from the Hallstatt Celtic culture (c.800-475 BCE) reveal the widespread use of geometric spiral patterns as well as animal designs (zoomorphs), knotwork and fretwork.

La Tene Spiral Designs

During the succeeding and more prosperous La Tene Culture (c.480-100 BCE), Celtic art remained largely within the confines of utilitarian craftwork although La Tene artists made significant advances in forge and metalworking techniques which, along with greater knowledge of Carthaginian, Etruscan, Greek and Scythian art, led to a more sophisticated design idiom.

Spirals became more complex, more organic, and employed a wider range of symbols and animal imagery. The impact of La Tene culture on the development of Celtic designwork was immense and its effect on later Hiberno-Saxon art (also called Ultimate La Tene) was incalculable. Interesting examples of La Tene-style spiralwork can be seen on megaliths from the Neolithic era, late Iron-Age monumental sculptures in Ireland, such as the Turoe Stone (c.250-150 BCE) in Galway, the Killycluggin Stone in County Cavan, the Mullaghmast Stone in County Kildare, and the Derrykeighan Stone in County Antrim.


Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art Spiral Designs

Like other pagan motifs of Celtic culture (eg. knotwork, zoomorphs) spirals were rapidly accomodated into early Christian art by Christian monks in the monasteries of Ireland, Iona and Northern England, and employed in the illumination of the great religious manuscripts like the the Durham Gospels (c.650, Durham Cathedral Library), the Cathach of St. Columba (early 7th century), the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.690, British Museum), the Book of Durrow (c.670, Trinity College, Dublin), the Echternach Gospels (c.715, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris), the Lichfield Gospels (c.730), the Book of Dimma (7th/8th century), and the Book of Kells (c.800, Trinity College Dublin). The Chi/Rho Monogram Page in the Book of Kells is particularly exquisite.

In addition, spiral designs appear on numerous High Cross sculptures throughout Ireland (c.750-1150), such as the early 9th century South Cross of Clonmacnoise, County Offaly; the 9th century St. Mullins Cross, County Carlow; and the 10th century Ullard High Cross, County Kilkenny, among many others.

In Scotland, Celtic spiral motifs can be seen on the 8th century Pictish Aberlemno Cross Slab, Angus; the 8th/9th century Pictish cross slab at Farr Church in Sutherlandshire; the 9th century St. Madoes Cross, near Perth, the 10th century Inchbrayok Cross, Angus, Scotland, and many others.

Types of Celtic Spiral Art

Spiral designs may be formed from single, double, triple or quadruple swirls. Typically they are joined to one another in either an "S" or a "C" shape format. An example is the triskele (or triskelion), a three-pronged spiral also known as the "Spiral of Life". During the early Christian monastic art period, the triskele was employed to represent the Holy Trinity - God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Another basic type of spiral arrangement is a "step pattern" or "key pattern". These key patterns are really no more than spirals in straight lines. Another type is the "maze", a similar variety of straight-line spiral decoration which early Christian monks developed with great ingenuity. Early Celtic mazes or "labyrinths" have been discovered among carvings at sites in the Camonica Valley, one of the largest valleys of the central Alps, settled by the Celts around 800 BCE.

Meaning of Celtic Spirals

The real significance or interpretation of these spiral symbols remains obscure. The single "S"-shape spiral, the world's oldest type, is seen as emblematic of the Yin/Yang concept, the sun/moon concept and many others. The more complicated triple spiral - a design which was also employed in Mycenean art, and on items of Greek pottery - has been interpreted as representing the "three realms" - Land, Sea and Sky, or a number of gods/goddesses, or a fertility symbol for the 9-month term of human pregnancy.

• For more about the history of Irish culture, see: Visual Arts in Ireland.
• For more about painters and sculptors, see: Famous Irish Artists.
• For information about the cultural history of Iron Age Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic spirals designs, see: Homepage.

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