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 continues in western Europe in the Roman Catholic church, and on the medieval gatehouses of St John's and Christ's Colleges in Cambridge. Celtic crosses were no exception. Apart from the obvious comparison with coloured manuscripts and textiles, there are traces of colour remaining on some stones, for instance the Penally Cross, and it is clear that most, if not all, crosses were originally painted in bright colours.

Forensic studies of ancient crosses have shown that, sometimes, the stone surface was prepared with an undercoat of lime whitewash or gesso, upon which the colours were painted. Like traditional fabric dyes and inks for tattooing, the colours for stone-painting were prepared from natural materials. Black and white were made from lead, red from haematite, and green from verdigris. Carved inscriptions were coloured in, as can be seen still on the Samson Cross at Llantwit Major. It is possible that the plain panels of some seemingly uninscribed stones once had painted pictures or texts. The custom of painting memorial stones with traditional materials continued in North Monmouthshire and Herefordshire until the early nineteenth century. The secret of making colours from vegetable matter and lichens was maintained in the Brute family of Llanbedr, near Crickhowell, Powys, but the recipe was lost around 1840, and the practice ceased.

Contemporary aesthetic sensibilities make it unlikely that there will be a revival of the custom of painting stones in the foreseeable future. However, in 1993, at Gosda, near Cottbus in eastern Germany, the Runett und Bildsteinpark was opened to the public. It is a park in which are set replicas of ancient carved and painted stones. They include Gotland memorial stones, Scandinavian ruestones and Slavonic god-stones. Currently, the Runett und Bildsteinpark at Gosda is the best reconstruction of how the ancient stones looked in their prime, painted in colours, and set in the landscape.

British Cross Styles

There are many examples of different styles of Celtic Cross throughout the British Isles, from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to Wales, the Isle of Man, northern England and Scotland. These are described in detail below.

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