The Apotropaic Function of Celtic Knotwork in the Book of Kells
By Diego González Hernández
Bachelor’s Thesis, University of Valladolid, 2015
Abstract: There is a large volume of published studies on the Book of Kells. Naturally acclaimed for its exceptionally elaborate decoration, so far, however, there has been little discussion on its knotwork, its intricacy being perhaps too difficult to conceptualise. The first serious analyses on the structure of Celtic knotwork date back to Allen and Bain in the first half of the 1900s; those on its function only include James Trilling’s “Medieval Interlace” (1995), which anticipated its specific apotropaic function beyond the merely decorative. Through a revision of the iconography of both full-page portraits and illustrations and an analysis of their knotwork panels, this dissertation will suggest that knotwork in the Book of Kells (or the book itself, for that matter) may have been thought to perform an apotropaic function of protection from evil, for the reader, the community or the book itself, either through individual contemplation or public display.
Introduction: Our approach to the field of study of this B.A. Thesis proceeds from general to particular, from Celtic ornamental art to the most intricate parts of the illuminated pages of the Book of Kells. Early Irish ornament very rarely occurs without interlace, in either of its two different varieties, which are the plait and the knot. Such ornamental knotwork and interlace patterns as they appear in the full-page portraits and illustrations of the Book of Kells will be the concrete object of study of the following pages, their possible apotropaic function, their particular focus.
One of the first scholars to interest himself in Celtic plaitwork and knotwork was John Romilly Allen, who pioneered studies on their structure and composition devices in 1904, with Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times. Afterwards, George Bain, but mainly his son Ian Bain, elevated the topic of the structure of plaitwork and knotwork to the qualitative level that it required with their books The Methods of Construction Celtic Art (1951) and Celtic Knotwork (1986). However, it was not until 1995, when James Trilling published his article “Medieval Interlace Ornament: The Making of a Cross-Cultural Idiom,” that Medieval interlace ornament in the Christian and Islamic traditions was described to perform a function beyond the decorative, which he defended was apotropaic, that is, turning evil away. His exemplification of the case with complex interlace in Insular manuscripts went unnoticed for specialists in Insular manuscripts.