High Crosses of Ireland
If you have visited Ireland, you have probably seen the Celtic high cross at some stage! Today we are going to answer some commonly held questions about Ireland’s famous high cross.
What are the origins of the High Cross?
Historians are not certain as to the exact date that high crosses first appeared in Ireland, but the oldest examples are dated from around the 8th century. It is highly probable however, that similar wooden crosses were built before this time—likely with metal plates on them and painted in vivid colours. It is likely that they were a carryover from the Celtic practice of inserting stone monuments in sacred or important places (Claddagh Design, 2017). It is said that pre–Christian Celtic druids worshipped huge circular stones which represented eternity. Legend has it that when St. Patrick came to understand the meaning behind these stones, he drew a cross on the circular stone to give it his blessing—thereby originating the first Celtic cross (Ireland Calling, n.d.).
What was the function of the high crosses and their carvings?
There is still some debate as to who the carvings on the crosses were for. It is probably true that the intricately carved figures were employed to help teach the message of the Bible (Crowley et al., n.d.). The crosses were also objects of veneration. But it was with the Church Council of Paris in 825 A.D. that the strict rules prohibiting the use of images in religious art were relaxed to a certain degree. After that time, the church could use images in art more freely (Crowley et al., n.d.). Of course, the crosses may be viewed as symbols of Christianity, but some of the larger crosses were probably erected as symbols of authority. For example, the crosses at Clonmacnoise, Kells and Monasterboice highlight a legacy of the most powerful aristocracy and ecclesiastics of early medieval Ireland. This reveals the fact that these powerful individuals worked with the church to create these amazing stone crosses (Crowley et al., n.d.). These crosses also likely served as a meeting point, or a place for ceremonies or to declare a territory as being Christian (Claddagh Design, 2017), (Crowley et al., n.d.).
What were the symbols on the crosses for?
According to authorities, a lot of the symbolic significance of the high cross' geometrical and interlace ornamentation has been lost (Crowley et al., n.d.). But the presence of armed warriors, hunting scenes and chariots at the base of some of the crosses suggest that there was aristocratic involvement in cross building (Stalley, 2020). Some crosses featured "Celtic knot" designs. The meaning of these knots had their roots in Celtic symbolism. The Celts believed that meaningful things often came in groups of 3’s—for example, 'earth, sea and sky.' But the early Irish Christians (who descended from the Celts) would have likely interpreted such imagery in religious terms—for example, "Father, Son and the Holy Spirit" (O’Hara, 2022).
What about the symbolism of the shamrock on some crosses?
It is popularly believed that St. Patrick used the 3 leaved clover/shamrock to help aid his explanation of the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He showed that God is three beings, while at the same time being one God (McGrath, 2021). Thus, the shamrock is likely a strong reference to both Christianity and Ireland itself (McGrath, 2021), (Irish Around the World, 2022). Before Patrick arrived in Ireland, pagans in Ireland revered the number 3. This could have helped Patrick in his explanations of the Christian Holy Trinity. It is said however, that it was the pagan druids who started the shamrock off on its path to being one of the symbols of Ireland. The shamrock was originally used as a symbol for the Celtic goddess Ana or Anu, and for the Celts, the 3 leaves of the shamrock represented her status as crone, mother and maiden of Ireland (Irish Around the World, 2022).
What is the legacy of the high cross?
Ireland’s contribution to Christian art is nothing short of astounding. The high cross tradition is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the monastic era, during Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars. The stone crosses act as a reminder of our unique artistic history and Ireland’s contribution to education, art and architecture (Crowley et al., n.d.).
What is the meaning of the round circle of the Celtic cross?
As you have probably seen, there is a ring encircling the centre of the high cross, giving it its iconic form. Many suggest that this ring had a structural function on account of the stone arms being so heavy. However, there also appears to be a symbolic function to the ring—likely representing the cosmos—and that Christ’s crucifixion is at the centre of the universe (Crowley et al., n.d.). There are also some suggestions that the circle represented the sun in a throwback to pagan symbolism, while others say that it represented a Celtic shield (ShanOre Irish Jewelry, 2021).
Why were the crosses built?
The detail, scale and engineering on some of the larger crosses showed the authority and wealth of the monastery, but also the power and wealth of the patrons, as many powerful individuals would have commissioned the crosses (Crowley et al., n.d.).
What images are on the crosses?
Scenes from Biblical events were the central themes on most crosses, including the death and resurrection of Christ, the passion, the last judgement, the adoration and the crucifixion (Crowley et al., n.d.). At the same time that the great scriptural crosses were created, the pair of sandstone high crosses at Ahenny, Co. Tipperary were made—but instead of having Biblical scenes—they are both intricately decorated with interlace, spiral, geometric and animal designs. Interestingly, the style of the etched decorations clearly mirror those found on bronze objects of that era—emulating the metal work which had Celtic origins (Crowley et al., n.d.). There is also an alternate side to some of the images. On the carving of the last judgement at Monasterboice a demon can be seen herding souls down into hell with a pronged fork. A second demon can also be seen giving the damned a vigorous kick (Stalley, 2020). Originally, the high crosses were decorated with typical Celtic art—namely, Celtic knots, interlacing patterns, vine scrolls among others (Claddagh Design, 2017). As time went by carved images were introduced to highlight stories from the Bible to help priests more easily illustrate their preaching (Crowley et al., n.d.).
What about the use of high crosses for burial sites?
For the early Irish, high crosses were not used to mark burial sites (Crowley et al., n.d.). Today however, many Celtic crosses can be seen in graveyards across Ireland. The letters I, H and S can be seen at the centre of some Celtic crosses in graveyards today (Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland,2013). This is from the Latin words "Iesus Hominum Salvator" which means Jesus, Saviour of Men (Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, 2021).
Has there been an evolution in the development of the high cross?
The 800’s and 900’s A.D. saw important new changes in the style of the high crosses. They became more architectural and larger, while their shafts were divided up into panels. These panels were covered in iconography which were more ordered and elaborate (Crowley et al., n.d.). The 1100’s witnessed a new found revival in high cross creation—featuring novel artistic expressions based on Scandinavian styles. The usual circular cross head became more diminutive and occasionally even absent—while interestingly, less focus was placed on scriptural images. Over time, Biblical scenes had broadly given way to carvings of Christ and figures of bishops and monastical leaders. Along with this new emphasis came new features such as interlace patterns and geometrical designs. The shafts were typically covered in complicated animal patterns where diagonal beasts were featured while being entangled by snakes and fine interlaced designs (Crowley et al., n.d.).
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Crowley, B. Finnegan, N, Kelly, A., Mac Uidhir, D. McDonagh, L. Young, J.(Date Unknown). High Crosses c. 800 AD-1150 AD. Available at: https://heritageireland.ie/articles/high-crosses/ (Accessed c. 21st November, 2022)
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O’Hara, K. (2022.) 12 Popular Irish Celtic Symbols and Meanings Explained. Available at: https://www.theirishroadtrip.com/celtic-symbols-and-meanings/#:~:text=Many%20Celtic%20symbols%20have%20three,the%20present%20and%20the%20future. (Accessed 31st of December, 2022).
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Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church. (2021). JHS Meaning… Learn it’s History in Christianity. Available at: https://www.saintmarkschurch.com/post/jhs-meaning#:~:text=Originating%20in%20Medieval%20Western%20Europe,to%20refer%20to%20Jesus%20Christ (Accessed 31st of December, 2022).
ShanOre Irish Jewelry.(2021). The Rich Meaning and Symbolism of the Irish Celtic Cross. Available at: https://www.shanore.com/blog/the-rich-meaning-and-symbolism-of-the-irish-celtic-cross/#:~:text=The%20Celtic%20Cross%20and%20The%20Druids&text=The%20Druids%20used%20to%20worship,circular%20stone%20to%20bless%20it (Accessed 31st of December, 2022).
Stalley, R. (2020). 'Ireland’s High Crosses: Medieval Art and Engineering'. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/ireland-s-high-crosses-medieval-art-and-engineering-1.4230543 (Accessed c. 21st November, 2022)