Spirals and interlace

The popularity of abstract forms in Irish art continued into the Iron Age (c.350BC-400AD) through the influence of Celtic culture, which introduced new, more complex spiral and scroll-shaped designs, sometimes incorporating bird heads or trumpet-shaped terminals. With the introduction of Christianity a number of earlier, pagan designs were incorporated into Christian artworks, such as Gospel books.

Another form of abstract art that first appears on objects made for the early church is interlace, a motif which was probably imported from the Mediterranean. Initially this took the form of individual strands, sometimes in different colours such as in the Book of Durrow, and on jewellery.

Soon it developed to form complex designs, often incorporating animals or human figures. The use of spirals and interlace reached its apogee in the decoration of the early ninth-century Book of Kells, where they are used in a dazzling variety of different ways to fill the pages with ornament

Perhaps thanks to the Vikings, Scandinavian influence can be detected in the interlace designs of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. For example the decoration of the twelfth-century east windows at Tuam cathedral (Co. Galway) has interlaced snakes and animals similar to those found at Urnes church in Norway .

The long history of spirals and interlace in early Irish art led to their revival in the late nineteenth century as a reflection of a ‘national’ style;   their association with ‘Irishness’ continues to the present day, and they are found decorating Irish souvenirs, in the logos of many Irish companies, and even in tattoo art.

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