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Kells and Knotwork

Poster: "Terry L. Neill" <Neilltl@ptsc.slg.eds.com>

I pulled this off the An Tir E-mail list.  It is posted here with the
permission of the author.  She's responding in the middle of a thread, but I
think this post is fairly complete unto itself.


        - Anarra

Date: Tue, 25 Feb 1997 12:38:50 -0800
From: "Turner, Joann" <jturner@img.net>
Subject: Kells and Knotwork

Greetings, knotty people, from Olwen Pen Aur,

My goodness, I go away for a week, and I come back to find my mailbox 
choked and constipated with steps-digests! Yikes! I think there was a 
tiny little gap sometime between 1:38 am and 5:36 am on Monday morning 
when no digest was produced, but otherwise, it's been pretty steady.

Anyway, I sent ISBN and publication info to Myfanway about my edition of 
the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Both books are still 
available in bookstores. They're not perfect, and they're not the 
glorious facsimile editions that will force you to mortgage your house to 
own, but they'll do. Book of Kells, Peter Brown, (London, Thames and 
Hudson, 1980), ISBN 0 500 27192 5, paperbound. The Lindisfarne Gospels, 
Janet Backhouse, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), ISBN 0 
8014 1354 0, hardbound. If you want a general reference about 
Hiberno-Saxon art in its historical context, the production of 
manuscripts, and so on, I would recommend the Backhouse book, which is 
also available in paper. The Brown treatment of the Book of Kells isn't 
as thorough. But it has lots of colour plates. I own both, and wouldn't 
part with either. But I'd start with the Backhouse book if I had to make 
a choice. 

For actually reproducing the artwork, I have studied George Bain's book. 
When I first got interested, it was the only one around (dating myself 
here). The problem with it is that you can't just flip it open and say, 
"oh, I like that one, I'll copy that," and follow his method. You pretty 
much have to sit down at page One, diagram one of the knotwork section 
and go through every example and every step to be able to follow his 
logic. Otherwise, it might as well be undeciphered hieroglyphics for the 
sense it makes.

But if you decide to do that, you CAN get to the point of being able to 
make your own freehand knotwork that will work out every time. I suspect 
that Bain's approach is likely a lot more complicated than was actually 
used by the illuminators of the Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts, but it does 
work. He was also the first person to sit down and study the works and 
come up with ANY kind of method that explains every form of knotwork 
consistently. Others have done it, and more simply, since, but George 
Bain was the first.

Bain also covers all of the other characteristic motifs of "Celtic" art 
(which was produced in England by non-Celtic Saxon scribes as well, and 
much of which was derived from Scandinavian sources combined with Saxon 
and Celtic forms. So it's really a misnomer to call it all "celtic")

I have done knotwork freehand as embroidery, using chain-stitch. 
Chain-stitch and stem stitch (which I have never mastered and have no 
intention of doing so. Life is too short to do it all) are the only 
stitches you can use for both outline, and to fill in spaces. 
Chain-stitch can also be documented to way way back, so you can use it 
for anything in period (don't ask me for a citation right now, I don't 
have one handy). So I use it for everything. If you do it with 3 or more 
threads of floss, or with crewel yarn, it gives you nice bold honkin' 
lines, and if you do it with a single thread, it gives you delicate 
embroidery that will blow people's minds. It's very versatile. It's also 
easy to master.

Most of the knotwork we know of was done in manuscripts before the 9th 
century, and most much earlier. The heyday of the Hiberno-Saxon style 
(which includes everything we generally consider period "celtic", 
including knotwork) was between the 6th and 8th centuries. So I've had 
people tell me that knotwork isn't really very period for anything past 
about the 7th century. BUT I have seen, with my own eyes, stone monuments 
in Wales that are reliably dated, by the National Museum of Wales, to the 
tenth century, and which feature knotwork panels.

There are some subtle differences between the work of Irish scribes and 
the work of Saxon scribes. Most of us will never be able to spot this 
difference unless we want to take courses in advanced paleography in 
London or Dublin. They're very, very subtle. But as a rule, the Irish 
scribes are a bit wilder. The Saxon artists can do a panel of perfectly 
executed knotwork and spirals, but it may not have any surprises. An 
Irish artist might add some unexpected little curlicues and doo-diddlies, 
or go crazy stretching out sections of one letter so you can't even 
recognize it as a letter anymore. But you can get into Saxon artists 
trained in Ireland working in a Scottish monastery copying a Frankish 
manuscript, and then all bets are off. 

The Welsh monuments are rather crude compared to manuscript art. Mind 
you, that's to be expected if you're dealing with a smooth surface like 
vellum or parchment as opposed to something rough and lumpy like stone. 
But Irish stone monuments and stone crosses are smoothed off to create a 
more regular surface, where the Welsh ones are not. I don't know if this 
indicates a different material that isn't as easy to smooth out, or a 
different aesthetic. But the rougher, more irregular surface of the Welsh 
monuments forced the artists to have a more free-wheeling approach to the 
knotwork. Some of it is just cruder. But some of it had a quirky, 
rhythmic charm I liked. It also showed that the person who did it knew 
the style so well they could extemporize and free-flow a bit. No grids 
for these guys!

Earlier on in this thread, someone (Sheridan, I believe) commented that 
it was too bad some well-meaning owner had bound the pages of the Book of 
Kells into a book rather than leaving them loose-leaf. I rumbled through 
the book, and as far as I can tell, it was created as a bound book, and 
has always been a book in codex form. The codex is the type of bound book 
that we call a book, as opposed to scrolls and other forms of books 
produced in other cultures.

The Book of Kells has been periodically bound and re-bound. As with all 
manuscripts of this type, it would originally have had a very ornate 
cover, as well as another outer protection like a box or pouch. Both the 
cover and especially the outer covering would have been works of art in 
themselves. Thieves often stole these works more for the gems and inlay 
on the covers than for the pages.

But during one of these re-bindings, apparently an 18th century 
bookbinder trimmed the pages, and in the process managed to cut off some 
of the artwork. But probably what Sheridan was referring to was the fact 
that by the 20th century, many of the pages had come loose. In 1953, the 
Book of Kells was completely rebound into four volumes, using modern 
binding and conservation techniques. However, the pages were never 
intended to be looseleaf pages, they had simply started to fall out of 
their binding. The 1953 binding was undertaken by the current owners, 
Trinity College of the University of Dublin, which has owned the 
manuscript since 1814.

Actually, when it comes to manuscripts, the tragedy is rarely when a book 
is rebound (unless the pages are trimmed!) The tragedy occurs when a 
manuscript is separated and the individual pages are sold as separate 
works of art. The original concept is thus destroyed, and the work's 
value to future scholars has been reduced or ruined. When I was in 
graduate studies in Art History, we studied a facsimile edition of a 
Persian manuscript, the Shah-nameh or Book of Kings. This manuscript was 
owned by Mr. Houghton of Houghton elevator fame, and was known as the 
Houghton Shah-Nameh. The facsimile edition was produced because Mr. 
Houghton decided, for some reason of his own, to break up the manuscript 
(after 350 years!) and sell the pages individually. It was a glorious, 
wonderful class to be able to work with these pages, but it was also 
heart-breaking to know that the original book, as it was intended by its 
makers, was gone forever and existed only in a facsimile.

We are very fortunate to have so many manuscripts from the Hiberno-Saxon 
era of art. I've seen the Lindisfarne Gospels several times, and it will 
never cease to thrill me. 

As an interesting side-note, the Lindisfarne Gospels is much smaller than 
you would expect. It's slightly smaller than the hardbound book about it 
that I own. Roughly the height of letter-sized paper, but it's wider, 
more nearly square. Which means all of those exquisite little details are 
a lot smaller than you probably can imagine.

Having toured the Manuscript room of the British Library several times, I 
can assure you that most scribes were almost certainly very near-sighted. 
There is no possibility that an adult of normal vision could tolerate 
such intense close work for long enough to produce these things without 
magnifying lenses. I have no way of proving this, but I'm very 
nearsighted myself (one eye is -9 lens-power, the other -8.5. If my 
vision could not be corrected, I would be legally blind), and I normally 
take off my glasses or contacts, AND use a large magnifying lens to do 
most of my illumination. 

But presumably nearsighted people existed in those times. And what use is 
a very nearsighted person? You can't let them out alone, they can't work 
outside. All you can do with them is set them to tending smaller animals 
in confined spaces, weaving (they couldn't even set up the loom alone!), 
maybe some limited kitchen work. Or you send them to a monastery, where 
they can be trained to produce glorious works of art that 
normally-sighted people can't do. Teeny-tiny detailed scribal arts is the 
one area in which a near-sighted person has the advantage.

How about teeny-tiny needlework, you say? Uh uh. You'll stab yourself in 
the face with your needle because you have to hold the cloth THIS close. 
Moderate near-sightedness, maybe, but extreme near-sightedness, no. If I 
can see 5 inches without correction, and my thread is 18 inches long and 
has a very sharp on one end, well, you can see the problem immediately. 
Not to mention the hazard to everyone else in the room!

So my theory, which I will never be able to prove, is that when 
nearsighted people were born (which presumably was rarer then than today, 
since it's produced by a combination of genetics and what you do 
ahbitually with your eyes, such as close work or reading), they were 
either an extreme liability to themselves and their families, or were 
regularly shipped off to a monastery, where they could live in a safe 
sheltered environment where they wouldn't come into much physical danger, 
and where their physical peculiarity could be used to adavantage. In 
other words, most scribes became scribes BECAUSE they were near-sighted 
and not much use for anything else. Not all scribes were near-sighted, of 
course, just as not all are near-sighted today. But it's a guaranteed 
certainty no scribes were far-sighted, and once presbyopia sets in around 
40 or so, even a normal sighted person would have to stop doing very 
intricate close work. Where an average nearsighted person can continue to 
do close work for the rest of their life, so you aren't wasting ten years 
of training to produce a scribe with only 15 years of productive time 

This is my theory.

I'm happy to discuss knotwork anywhere anytime. 

Near-sightedly yours, 
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