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 symbol of land-measure, employed by diviners and the agrimensores, members of the Roman guild of surveyors. In his De Divinatione, Cicero, who was an augur, tells that in his time the staff carried by the Roman augurs was in the form of a cross. As time passed, however, the generally sacred symbol of the cross gradually developed a more specific, Christian meaning.

Images close to the later Celtic Cross existed in the Coptic church. A good example can be seen in the Coptic manuscript known as the Codex Brucianus. Preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, it has an illuminated cover in the form of an ornamented ankh-cross. In Egyptian religious iconography, the ankh or crux ansata was the symbol for life. The Coptic Christians took the symbol and amalgamated it with the wheel and cross. The Coptic funerary stela from Armant near Luxor (see page 62) shows how they integrated the older Egyptian symbols for life with the newer Christian ones. Interestingly, the scribe of the Codex Brucianus has illuminated the ankh-cross with interlace patterns and tesselations that today are the epitome of the Celtic Cross.

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