Ireland is home to some of the most intricate and interesting art known in human history. Attributed to the ancient Celtic people, it is mysterious and rich in meaning with sign, symbol, and metaphor.
Due to Ireland’s embrace of Catholicism centuries ago, it is not surprising that many of these symbols were given new and deeper religious significance, used by the great missionary saints as handy catechesis tools to illustrate Christian doctrine to the pagan inhabitants of the island.
In modern times, much of this interesting symbolism is commonly found in Irish jewelry. Just as Christianity gave new meaning to these ancient and formerly pagan symbols, many of these symbols represent elements of Christian faith (with an Irish-Catholic flair) to those who wear them. Today Irish jewelry is internationally popular and is worn by more than just people of Irish or Celtic decent.
So, just what are these various symbols of Celtic jewelry, and what do they mean?
CELTIC SYMBOLS AND THEIR CHRISTIAN MEANING
Here is a quick guide to the meaning behind some of the most popular Irish/Celtic symbols commonly used in jewelry that evokes the essence of Ireland: the Trinity knot, the Celtic knot, the Celtic spiral, St. Brigid’s Cross, the Celtic cross, the Tree of Life, and the Claddagh. Find the Irish jewelry featured in this post, and more, here.
The Trinity Knot (also known as the triquetra) is an ancient Celtic symbol comprised of one interconnected line with three distinct ends. Once having pagan meaning, the symbol was adopted by Christians as a good illustration of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
The symbol received its common name, the Trinity Knot, and came to demonstrate the three-ness in one-ness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Trinity Knot is also circumscribed by a circle symbolizing eternity. This symbol often was used as an architectural adornment in ancient monasteries to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Today the Trinity Knot is commonly found in necklaces, rings, bracelets, and other Catholic jewelry pieces.
The Trinity Knot is one of the many varieties of Celtic knotwork – stylized and woven lines and knots used extensively for artistic decoration. These lines and knots symbolized the interconnectedness of all life and is often found with depictions of animals, plants, or humans. Celtic knots were adapted by Christians and used in monuments, such as the famous stone high crosses that dot the Irish landscape, as well as the beautiful ornamentation of illuminated manuscripts of Sacred Scripture painted by the ancient Irish monks. Taken from its pagan earth-centric meaning, the knotwork served a new purpose in the illustration of the Christian doctrine that in Jesus Christ all creation lives and moves and has its being.
Similar to the Celtic knot, the roots of the Celtic spiral are ancient and symbolize continuous growth, unity, and oneness of spirit. The spiral may be formed from single, double, triple, or quadruple swirls, while the gaps between the spirals stand for the gaps between life, death, and rebirth. More specifically, the symbol also stands for eternal life. When Christianity came to Ireland, the spiral was adopted by the Christian monks as a decorative motif in their distinctive Celtic-inspired illuminated manuscripts to symbolize eternal life.
St. Brigid’s Cross
St. Brigid is the patroness of Ireland and as such her cross is a symbol of Irish Christian heritage. It comprises a woven square in the center and four radials tied at the ends. The legend behind this popular cross is that St. Brigid was making the shape of a cross from a bunch of rushes. Her father, a pagan tribal chieftain, who in some accounts lay dying, saw her making the cross and was miraculously converted to the Christian faith as a result. The St. Brigid Cross has remained special to Irish Christians through the centuries, especially around the saint’s feast day on February 1st when it is prominently displayed in her honor.
In Ireland it is a popular legend that the Christian Cross was introduced to the island by Saint Patrick. The distinctive Celtic Cross is usually mounted on a circle, a Celtic representation of the sun and the circle of life, and often featuring Celtic knotwork or other symbolism. It has often been claimed that Saint Patrick combined the cross of Christianity with this circle to give the pagans an idea of the life-giving Cross of Christ by linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun. Other interpretations claim that placing the cross on top of the circle represents Christ’s supremacy over the pagan sun, symbolizing the God-man’s death and resurrection, and therefore His power over creation. These Celtic symbols received new meaning when Christianity spread through the island. The Celtic Cross is now the primary symbol of Irish Christianity.
Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is another common Celtic motif used in ancient Ireland that illustrates the interconnectedness of all forms of creation. The tree was a source of basic human sustenance; it provided food, shelter, and fuel. Because of this it was also believed by the pagans that trees had other spiritual mystical properties. However, the tree is also an important symbol of Christianity; the Tree of Life is a Christian symbol representing eternal life through Christ. In the biblical story of creation, God planted the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, from which humans were banned after the Fall. The Book of Revelation recounts how the sacrifice of Christ, made on the wood of a tree, restored access to the eternal Tree of Life.
One of the most well-known legends of Irish Christianity is how St. Patrick used the shamrock during his missionary work to illustrate the Three-Divine-Persons-yet-One-God doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While other symbols already existed and were “baptized” by the saints and given new meaning that pointed to the Christian God, the shamrock became famous because of Saint Patrick.
The Claddagh is one of the most popular ring designs today. Although not ancient or Celtic, it is still old enough to be an Irish tradition, dating to the 17th century. The Claddagh is a traditional Irish symbol of two hands clasping a heart, with the heart wearing a crown. Together the hands, heart, and crown represent love, friendship, and loyalty. You can find the claddagh symbol on all kinds of jewelry and many other gift items, but it has become an especially popular ring design to be exchanged between friends, the affianced, and spouses.
Irish jewelry is not only beautiful but also rich in meaning. It is a wonderful way to illustrate how man, unaided by Divine Revelation, picks up on, or can sense and know only dimly, the eternal and mysterious aspects of life and creation. So that when Divine Revelation is taught, such as by the Irish missionary saints, what is incomplete and imperfect is given new, deeper, and more perfect meaning. For Christians, Irish symbolism illustrates the Light of Christ and the truth of Christianity.
This article has been updated and was originally published in August 2014. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.