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The Interlace

Ithell Colquhoun



Some of Cornwall's old stone crosses are carved with the interlace design typical of Celtic sculpture and painting: a good example stands in the churchyard at Sancreed (picture right and below) which, like Paul and St. Buryan, has several crosses in the vicinity. According to H, O'N Hencken, the sculptors '.... filled the space with pattern, always one of the first concerns of the barbaric artist' but in this he shows, like too many archeologists, an incomprehension of the myth making mind. The Interlace is no mere pattern, and had we less ignorant eyes we should discern at once the message conveyed by its different twinings. We should first have to abandon the idea that literacy is needed for a high degree of civilisation. According to Hebraic tradition, writing was taught to humanity by one of the fallen angels: "Man was not created for such a purpose", as the first Book of Enoch declares. Though our civilisation (or whatever it is) depends on writing, this is not the only means of communication. Another means is through the twisting and knotting of cords in a number of ways, wherein each different coloured strand modifies the significance. This method has been in use as a sacred 'language' at various times, literally from China to Peru, in the latter country the knots being called Quipos. The ribbon-like and strap-like designs of Celtic manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the complicated rope-like reliefs of Celtic sculpture could represent in a decadent state a version of this language; whether they repeat the sense of the gospels written words or say something quite different will only be revealed by deciphering. Possibly they convey the esoteric meaning of a text or monument. It is noticeable that the Interlace decorates objects which have (or once had) a numinous value, found chiefly in what we call today ecclesiastical art.

In The White Goddess Robert Graves suggests that the Gordian knot was a means of conveying a message, therefore Alexander the Great's action in cutting it through was inappropriate. He destroyed the message
without unravelling it. That we can still use an image taken from weaving like ‘unravel' to describe the process of elucidation shows that our thought is not completely dominated by the written word. Since weaving is based on the crossing of weft and warp, it is an apt ornament for a cross. - and this, just because it is more than an ornament.

The ‘Cord language‘ may have been brought over with other Druidic lore by the Ouldcos when they entered the early Celtic church. In the same way, some of the traditions of ancient Egypt are preserved in the Coptic church even today, and the Interlace was first used in Christian art by the Copts.

(first published in 'Quest' 1970)