The historical Background of the Celtic Cross

Unlike southern Britain, Ireland and most of what is now Scotland were never incorporated into the Roman Empire. Consequently, the traditions of the late Iron Age, which had come to an end in the rest of the Celtic realms, continued to develop. Classical Graeco-Roman art had transformed the sacred arts in Celtic parts of the empire, but it had relatively little impact in Ireland and northern Britain. There, the ancient Celtic art was perpetuated and developed along its own lines. In Ireland,...

Christian Monasticism And The Celtic Church

Christian monasticism arose in the deserts of Egypt and Syria. Either to escape persecution, or to flee from the follies of the world, some Christian priests became ascetics, and went to live in remote desert retreats, far from civilization. Seeking spiritual perfection, they adopted the ascetic traditions of the priests of the Hellenized Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis, copying some of their customs, such as shaving the head in a tonsure. Even the practice of living together in monasteries...

The Evolution of the Celtic Cross

7V t the end of the fourth century, the mission of St Ninian to the people who lived north of the Roman province of Britain led JL to the foundation of the first Christian church in Caledonia. This was the so-called Candida Casa White House at Whithorn in Galloway. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the Candida Casa was a centre of Christian missionary activity in northern Britain and Ireland. St Enda, founder of the early monastery at Killeany on the Aran island of Inishmore, was an alumnus of...

The Torc

The most characteristic artefact of Celtic culture is another round structure, the tore, which is literally a binding of metal. Originating in the fifth century bce during the La Tenc period, the tore is essentially a body ornament made of precious metal in the form of a curved rod with identical free ends that face one another, almost touching. In effect, tores are incomplete circles. Worn on the neck or arm, they must be flexible enough to enable the wearer to put them on and take them off,...

The Structure Of Celtic Christianity

The Celtic church had four grades of brethren, reflecting the quaternary structure of the land of Ireland, the symbolic image of wholeness. At the lowest level were the Juniores Alumni, students who served above them, the Operarii, lay brothers, who did the manual labour above them, the Seniores, elders, dedicated to prayer and teaching and over the whole community ruled the head, Abba Pater or Pater Spiritualis, who lived apart from the others on higher ground. The four circles inherent in the...

Personal Symbols In Ancient Europe

Pictish Celtic Tattoo

There are historic links between the Celts and the Scythians, and Scythian elements appear in the early Celtic art of the La Tene period. During the same period, aristocratic Thracian women were being tattooed. Thracian priestesses of Dionysos are shown with their tattoos on fifth-century bce Greek vases. Later, the sword-wielding woman attacking the bull on the base of the Celtic-influenced Gundestrup Cauldron first century bce is depicted with tattoos similar to those of Thracian priestesses....

Continuity And Destruction

Scottish Celtic Art

There are a number of surviving late medieval artefacts that demonstrate the continuation of traditional Celtic art. A notable Irish example is the fifteenth-century leather satchel made as a container for Tlie Book of Armagh. Kept in Trinity College, Dublin, it is stamped with patterns that reflect the full repertoire of Celtic ribbonwork and animal interlaces. The famous ivory and metal Eglinton Casket on show in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh , once thought to date from the...

Colour

Celtic Cross Landscape

Until the classical revival in the eighteenth century, it was customary in Europe to paint sculpture. In antiquity, Egyptian, Cretan and Greek sculpture was painted naturalistically, and later, in the Christian churches, images of God, Our Lady and the saints were similarly lifelike. Although in Britain we are accustomed now to seeing painted stonework only inside parish churches and cathedrals, this was not the case in former times, for all stonework was intended to be painted. The tradition...

The Navel Of The World

Irish Omphalos Stone

The concept of the navel of the world, now called by its Greek name, omphalos, was recognized as far back as ancient Egyptian times. The Egyptian world centre was more than a symbolic or theoretical place, for it was actually represented by an elliptical stone that marked the mid-point of the country. This was the geodetic point of reference at the place where the north-south meridian and the east west parallel crossed each other. In the Old Kingdom, the centre of Egypt was at Sakkara. The...

The Maypole

The general principle of the heavenly column appears to be very ancient, seemingly going back at least 3,000 years. A remarkable pointed conical golden object called a goldkegel found at Ezelsdorf, near Nuremberg, and dating from 1100 bce, is believed to be the top of such a pillar. Also, from the evidence of enormous post-holes, it appears that votive posts were erected in the Celtic sacred enclosures favoured in Germany and France. In more recent times, maypoles have been set up each year to...

The Wheel Symbol

As the means by which a vehicle travels, the wheel was a sacred object in its own right. In Pagan times, vehicles were buried frequently with their Celtic owners, perhaps to serve as the conveyance of the dead person in the otherworld. Both the sun and moon, worshipped as deities, were portrayed as driving chariots through the sky. In northern Europe, ritual vehicles were used to transport images of deities around the country in sacred journeys that sanctified or cleansed the land. Wagons...

Reconsecrated Stones

Megaliths Life People

Re-dedication of megaliths by churchmen is recorded in ancient accounts of the acts of early Celtic priests and monks. Brittany contains many standing stones that have been made into Christian monuments by having a cross carved upon them. There are probably more in that region than anywhere else in western Europe but it was commonplace throughout the Celtic realms. In his 'The Acts of Patrick' in The Book of Armagh, Tirechan describes how St Patrick carved a cross on a rock at Lia na Manach...

Natural Phenomena

Celt Sunwheel

Another forerunner of the Celtic Cross can be seen in a striking natural phenomenon. Under certain weather conditions, sun- or moonlight shining through airborne ice crystals produces halo phenomena. These are more common in northern latitudes, and there are many The patterns of sun-dogs, rings and crosses that surround the sun under certain icy conditions in northern latitudes. As manifestations of the cosmic realms, they appear to be the origin of the sunwheel as a holy symbol. Right An early...

The Celtic Spiritual Tradition

Although, geographically, the Celtic church in the British Isles may seem hopelessly isolated from Mediterranean religion, in actuality it was totally cosmopolitan. Celtic Christianity was composed of many threads it took the practices and theories from Egyptian, Greek and Frankish Christians while retaining and adapting elements of Celtic and Classical Paganism. According to the nineteenth-century Welsh bard, the Reverend J. Williams ab Ithel 'The Bards believed that all things were tending to...

The Cosmic Dimension

Celtic Carved Stones

Opposite The cosmic axis, according to Welsh bardic tradition. At the lowest level is Annwn. Above this is middle earth, Abred, with the eight directions and the central omphalos stone or cross. Overlying Abred is Gwynvyd, the heavenly 'White Land'. Finally, above that is Ccugant, the ineffable realm of deity. Behind are the underlying patterns of manred. According to the Welsh spiritual tradition, the underworld is called Annwn, the middle world Abred, and the upper world Gwynvyd. A Welsh...

The Ceetic Cross

Nigel Pennick

An iuustrated history and celebration First published in the UK 1997 by Blandford A Cassell Imprint Cassell pic, Wellington House, 125 Strand, London wc2r obb Text and illustration copyright 1997 Nigel Pennick The right of Nigel Pennick to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the provisions of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,...

Scottish High Crosses

Crucifix Circular

Outside Ireland, the Celtic Crosses on the holy island of Iona and at Kildalton on Islay in Strathclyde are closest in design to the Irish high crosses. The ninth-century cross in the churchyard at Kildalton is the most impressive surviving wheel-head Celtic Cross outside Ireland. Measuring 2.7 m 9 ft in height, the whole cross was carved from one piece of stone. It has a few bosses and serpents, but these are subordinate to spirals, interlace and panels containing episodes from the Old...

Early Celtic Crosses

The Celtic Cross did not evolve out of nothing, or even as the development of a single precursor. As we have seen, it is a syncretic structure that came into being under a particular set of conditions as the result of an accumulation of ideas, symbols and traditions. In its most basic form, the cross itself was not originally Christian, nor was it used openly in the earliest years of the Christian religion. Before it was adopted as an exclusively Christian sign in the year 680, the cross was a...

The High Crosses Of Ireland

The Celtic Cross attained its most refined form in Ireland in the shape of the high cross, and we are fortunate that the ravages of Puritan zealots were less thorough there than in Great Britain. Many excellent ancient crosses survive, some even in their original locations. Only their colour is lost, and, with the effects of time and weather, some of them are eroded. Nevertheless, they provide wonderful examples of the high level of skill and artistry of their makers. However, we should not...

Iconic And Aniconic

Although in the West we are used to images, the art of the sacred need not be composed of pictures that portray any specific aspect of the visible world. The division between those who believe that the sacred can be portrayed through images and those who claim it cannot lies at the root of the two opposing theories of sacred art the iconic, which portrays images of the divine and the aniconic, which suggests the presence of the divine through non-figurative motifs. Aniconic art lends itself...

Craft Techniques And Celtic Ornament

Book Kells Saint Bridget

Many researchers into Celtic Crosses have emphasized the close relationship between the designs used on ornamental metalwork and stone sculpture. It is evident that small items of metalwork, whether sacred objects, ornaments, jewellery or weapons, were easily transported from It is likely that the early Celtic Christians believed that to depict God literally in an image was as unnecessary as it was blasphemous. The cross-slab from Nash Manor, South Glamorgan, Wales, depicting a standing cross....

The Anglosaxon Tradition

Around 2,500 pieces of Anglo-Saxon sculpture are known from England and southern Scotland. When they immigrated into Britain, the Angles and Saxons were Pagan, but they came under the influence of Celtic Christianity when Irish missionaries arrived to found monasteries in Wessex and Northumbria. Later, Roman Catholic missions came from the continent, and it was this influence which proved more lasting. In Northumbria, Benedict Biscop and Wilfrid brought in stonemasons and glaziers from Gaul and...

Pagan And Christian Images

In the early Christian period, the distinction between what constituted a Pagan and a Christian image was unclear. In every age, Celtic artists have juxtaposed suitable elements from different sources. They have never adopted images haphazardly, but always in an appropriate way that reinforced whatever archetype of primordial holiness was required by the spiritual scheme they sought to portray. Thus, on Celtic Crosses, we find representations that can be interpreted equally as representing...

Cornwall And The Isles Of Scilly

It has been estimated that Cornwall has some 500 standing crosses or fragments, dating from between the ninth and the fifteenth centuries. This is a very high number for a relatively small area. More crosses seem to have survived in this county than elsewhere in England, perhaps because of its Celtic traditions where sacred places belonged to families rather than the church. In parts of England and Wales where the Celtic tradition had been weakened or extirpated, crosses belonged to the church,...

Manx Celtic Designs

Situated between Britain and Ireland, and with a history of being first an independent Celtic island, then a Norse kingdom, the Isle of Man has its own unique crosses. As other Celtic countries, the earliest Manx crosses are inscribed standing stones, some of which bear inscriptions in ogham or Roman script. Some of these memorial stones are bilingual. One, at Knoc-y-doonee, Andreas, which dates from the sixth century, had on one face the Latin Ammecat filius Rocat hie jacet Ambecatos son of...

Archaic celtic stones

Monster Turon Polska

In the Hallstatt period, generally after iooo bce, the Celts lived in central Europe, for they had not yet migrated westwards and northwards to the British Isles. However, Celtic traditions there arc recognizable as forerunners of what came later. In that period, the Celts set up aniconic stones as holy stopping-places in the landscape. In their form and location, they pre-figure the later Celtic Crosses. Many have a roughly humanoid form that continues the much older tradition of making stone...

Geometry And Symbolism

Celtic Scene

Laying out anything by geometry is a symbolic re-creation of the world. Because of this, ancient traditions portray the creator as the supreme geometer of the universe. In the fourth century bce, Plato stated that Zeus is the supreme geometer, and the Greek legend of how Apollo determined the location of the omphalos at Delphi employs a form of landscape geometry. Medieval illustrations of the creation show God the Father as the grand geometrician of the universe, compasses in hand, measuring...

Pictish Stones And Crosses

Pictish Angel

As the meaning or symbolism of these emblems is unknown, it is rather paradoxical that the name usually given to the stones on which they appear is 'symbol stones'. However, by drawing parallels with the customs of tattooing warriors in other cultures, it may be surmised that the tattoos worn by the Picts were in the form of such 'symbols', made in honour of the gods. As in many warrior societies, it is likely that each Pictish warrior was known by his unique...

Roman Mosaics

Simple Roman Mosaics

The patterns of Roman mosaics are important forerunners of the designs used to adorn and embellish the much later Celtic Crosses. Basic crosses are present as patterns in the tesselation designs of early Roman mosaics in Britain. For example, a mosaic from the Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex, made between the years 70 and 100, is patterned with equal-armed crosses. Another monochrome labyrinth mosaic dating from the fourth century, found at Cirencester, is concentric around an equal-armed...

Jupiter Columns

Another forerunner of the Celtic cross is the Jupiter Column. As a type of monument, it seems that Jupiter Columns came into being as the result of a remarkable incident. In 65 bce, the image of Jupiter at the Capitol in Rome was destroyed by a lightning strike, along with stone tablets of the law and a statue of one of the twins beneath the Roman wolf. The destruction of some of the most sacred images of Rome was recognized as a disastrous omen for Roman society and the future of the city....

The Rediscovery Of The Celtic Heritage

Designs Celtic Archibald Knox

This wholesale destruction of sacred artefacts had an effect on art styles. After the Puritan iconoclasm, Celtic interlace was no longer seen as an everyday part of life by all those who passed the local cross. It became a misty memory, whose nature was misunderstood and unrecognized. Thus, in learned circles, most understanding of the principles of Celtic art was lost, though in certain craft circles the knowledge was maintained among initiates. Also, especially in Ireland, knowledge of other...

Memorials And Crossslabs

Craig Narget

Most Welsh memorial stones dating from the fifth to the seventh century are megaliths, unworked stones whose natural shapes were appropriate for inscriptions to be carved on them with the minimum of effort. Like the earlier megaliths, they were intended to stand upright as memorials that marked the burial places of important people, or sometimes the boundaries between territories. The earliest inscriptions are in Roman capitals, recalling that it was only a few years since Varieties of crosses...

The Sign Of The Cross

Road Leading Cross

Like the ankh before it, the cross was invested with great power both to consecrate and to ward off harm. Writing in his De Corona Militis, at the end of the second century, Tcrtullian tells how the early Christians Opposite A Coptic tombstone from Armant near Luxor, Egypt, dating from around the year 400, carved with chi-rho, alpha and omega, crosses, ankhs and the Egyptian hieroglyph for 'union', denoting the continuity of Christianity with Paganism. used the cross as a universal protective...

The Gotland Memorial Stones

Before the year 400, the Pagan people of the Baltic island of Gotland, now part of Sweden, set up unhewn stone slabs, without, as far as is known, sculpture or other ornament. Around the year 400, however, there was a change, and people began to set up larger and more ornate stones. These were generally rectangular in shape, with painted images and symbols. Further progression in stone design produced monuments with horseshoe-shaped tops, and interlace pattern around the edges, in the manner of...

Tumulus Stones And Leachta

In Pagan times, it was customary to set up large memorial stones on top of the grave-mounds of the high and mighty. The ensemble of the burial mound with a standing stone or image on top of it is the forerunner of the Celtic high crosses, set upon their pyramidal or stepped bases. In Ireland, we can see other forerunners of the high crosses in the shape of the leachta. These are small rectangular drystone structures that resemble altars. On top of each leaclit is a stone slab, often incised...

Welsh Crosses

Roadside Crosses Wooden Crosses And

There are around 450 ancient sculptured stones, crosses and allied monuments known in Wales. Stylistic analysis of surviving early stones indicates that there were individual guilds of sculptors at various important monasteries, each of which worked in their own particular recognizable styles. Thus, antiquaries have been able to identify a number of distinct schools of ancient Welsh cross sculpture. In Glamorgan, for example, there were three major workshops at Llantwit Major, Margam and...