Easter greetings, everyone! Here’s a recently finished Celtic knot cross; my latest in a series of Celtic motif paintings. I’ve also just completed a major update to my website. While I love all styles of medieval art from Mozarabic to International Gothic, I’ve changed my quatrefoil logo to a Celtic knot logo to reflect my particular love for the Early Christian Art of the British Isles. I think Celtic knotwork speaks of the eternal— the underlying harmony and order of the universe necessary for life and beauty to flourish.
I’ve been wanting to write more on the subject, especially in response to some great content on Substack recently, but some technical difficulties kept me from easily sharing my Blogger posts. That’s solved now, but my domain name “ardanziger.com” redirects here to my old Blogger handle “ionascribe.blogspot.com.” That seems somehow appropriate these days. I don’t want to jump onto a trendy new platform; I’d prefer my articles remain accessible to everyone and for you to think of me as your curmudgeonly Xennial ancestor toiling away with antiquated technology.
Stories of the missionary monk scribes at Iona had long ago captured my imagination, but I began to really think of myself as some kind of island hermit at the beginning of the pandemic when the West Seattle Bridge (our connection to the rest of Seattle) was shut down for repairs. My neighborhood quickly became what locals dubbed “Accidental Island.” All activities outside the home ceased, but I found a new freedom to think and create.
Also, in 2020 I was interviewed on “Faith Matters with Phillip Campbell,” a show on Good Shepherd Catholic Radio that airs in Jackson, MI. Phillip is a friend, a prolific author and teacher, and a long-time client (I’ve designed several covers for his self-published history books), so it was a lot of fun to have a chance to chat about Celtic art and St. Columba:
At around 23:00 minutes in, Phillip expresses frustration at Celtic art being co-opted by the New Age movement and asks my opinion, so I just wanted to expand upon my comments on the show a little more:
Some of the decorative elements people use today were definitely present in Pagan times, (though today’s Neo-paganism has little connection with this ancient history and this is what he was getting at). Spirals, key patterns, and interlaced animals on pottery, carved stone, and jewelry existed prior to Christianity in the British Isles and was later incorporated into the Christian Gaels’ artistic vocabulary.
However, there was an unprecedented explosion in creativity following the introduction of Christianity where all of these elements are combined together with elaborate interlaced knotwork and Christian symbolism in a stunning new way. The Insular illuminated manuscripts, standing high crosses of Ireland, and the class II Pictish stones of Scotland represent a new development during Christian times. Catholics need not shy away from incorporating these forms into contemporary designs for religious purposes the way these early Christians used them to embellish Gospel books, liturgical vessels, and sacred art.
However, do I mind if Neo-pagans or New Agers admire and use designs from the Christian period in Celtic art? Well, no, not all, and I’ll tell you why. Two quotes by C.S. Lewis on friendship come to mind. You may have read the first one before:
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, What, You too? I thought I was the only one.
As I mentioned in the interview, I really enjoy participating in the “Discussion of Celtic Art” Facebook group. Though we all come from wildly different backgrounds and spiritualities, there is something about the beauty of Celtic art that captivates us all. When every other corner of the internet was filling up with polemics and politics, this was my one refuge; the place where I could ask “Do you see the same beauty that I do?” St. Thomas Aquinas shows us that all beauty is a participation in God’s beauty, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to envision that we are all being moved by this aspect of God, even if others don’t have the same way of conceptualizing this.
The second quote is a bit longer:
Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are curiously ignorant of--something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat's side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it-
-C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
There is a Secret Something…a Someone…behind that sense of beauty and longing we share. I know that this is God, trying to break through to us in experiences like this. As much as I have a distaste for post-Vatican II Catholic buzzwords like “accompaniment”...I have to ask, who of us Catholics are going to be there alongside people to tell them the name of this Someone when He starts knocking at their door?
I think this is an area where Catholics have room for growth. We tend to excel at apologetics, and I don’t at all want to denigrate that. It’s really vital for people who have honest intellectual questions to find that there are solid answers here. For example, I have major respect for how tirelessly Phillip Campbell writes about history in a way that addresses and corrects so many falsehoods about the Church. But what I don’t think we do well all the time (in part because our polarized culture sends us scrambling to take sides on the latest issue in every news cycle) is finding commonalities with those different from us, listening to their spiritual needs, and helping them to connect with some experience of God’s presence and love. I’m still trying to work out the “how” of this. Not everyone wants me to invite them to Mass, most people are closed off to debate, but just about everyone has at least a moment of pause and contemplation when they see one of my paintings.
There has recently been a wave of conversions to Orthodox Christianity by people who never thought they would have become a Christian. Some, like Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw, had experiences of the Divine in nature, even though it took them a while to realize that it was God reaching out to them.
This all reminds me of the story of St. Paul and his sermon on Mars Hill.
In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 17, St. Paul has just spent a lot of time and energy debating just about everyone in Athens: Jews, Gentiles, Stoics, Epicureans, etc. But people really start to respond to him when he is able to tell them something about the Unknown God that they already worship:
23 For passing by, and seeing your idols, I found an altar also, on which was written: To the unknown God. What therefore you worship, without knowing it, that I preach to you: 24 God, who made the world, and all things therein; he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is he served with men's hands, as though he needed anything; seeing it is he who giveth to all life, and breath, and all things 26 And hath made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation. 27 That they should seek God, if happily they may feel after him or find him, although he be not far from every one of us: 28 For in him we live, and move, and are; as some also of your own poets said...
Here St. Paul quotes their own revered pagan poet/prophet Epimenides:
“In him we live and move and have our being,”
…which is the same truth that Celtic art speaks into my soul.