The Dark Ages - Age of Light
Waldemar Januszczak

Celtic Interlacing

The Men of the North

The Dark Ages: Age of Light

Anglo-Saxon Art
Anglo-Saxon Art

Christianity arrived in Britain from three directions at once, in a three-pronged religious assault. In the South, in ancient Kent, a team of monks led by St Augustine were sent here by the Pope in Rome. They brought with them the official Roman version of Christianity.

Up here, in the north of Britain, it was Irish monks from across the sea, who came over to convert the pagans, and they brought with them a harsher, more basic, more penitential form of Christianity. They deliberately built their monasteries in difficult locations, and where they produced glorious art with an ecstatic and insistent tone to it, like the chanting of a great monks' choir.

The third type of Christians found in Anglo-Saxon Britain, were the ones who were already here.

Remember, how the Romans converted to Christianity, under Constantine, and how one of the earliest known Christian house churches was found in Roman Britain, in Lullingstone, in Kent.

We don't know much about these existing Christians, they were a modest Christian presence. But perhaps, tiny droplets of this modesty were thrown into the melting pot, as well.

Lonan Funeral Cross
Lonan Funeral Cross

The Anglo-Saxon custom of burying the dead with things that would be useful to them in the afterlife, was, of course, a pagan custom. And, unfortunately, when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity, that custom was stopped.

For a Christian burial, you buried the body and that was it, so nothing as sumptuous as the Sutton Hoo treasure has survived from the Christian era. Instead, we get another kind of Anglo-Saxon treasure.

It's a treasure made of granite and limestone… the resilient spiritual treasure that is the Anglo-Saxon funeral cross.

Earlier on, we saw how the Vikings commemorated their dead, with these mighty standing stones covered in runes. This idea, that stone is somehow eternal, and lasts much longer than you, is something that was shared by all the voyaging tribes of the north.

There is something splendidly basic about these Anglo-Saxon crosses. They are supposed to be Christian, but somehow, their Christianity feels superficial and confined to the surface. Underneath, you can still sense the atmosphere of Stonehenge – a connection with the faraway past, and the central mysteries of creation.

Mysterious Beauty
Mysterious Beauty

See all this decoration? It's called interlacing, it's Celtic in origin, you get it on the Anglo-Saxon crosses, but also on the great manuscripts written later in the monasteries like Lindisfarne.

A lot of people have written a lot of books on the subject of Celtic interlacing – what it means, why it was used. It's so beautiful to look at, but also, so intrinsically mysterious.

They said that its origins lie in basket weaving and plaiting, and we'll never know for sure, but my guess is that this is also an attempt by the dark age mind to grasp and mimic the rhythms of creation, to convey the sense that the cosmos goes on and on, and that everything in it is interrelated.

Dot Grid
Dot Grid

The interlacing on the Lonan cross in the Isle of Man, is particularly clear.

We're going to be seeing a lot of this Celtic interlacing in the marvellous manuscripts that are coming up, so I just wanted to show you quickly how it was done.

It looks immensely confident, but it's actually relatively simple.

So first, you need to mark out a grid. Say we want to do a decorative border on a gospel book, so, if here's the border, and we know from unfinished bits of manuscript the monks have left behind that their way he did it was to make this great with dots to guide them.

Then you start filling in the spaces in-between. Now the big rule in interlacing is that one line goes over… and the other line goes under. There who are. A bit of Celtic interlacing.