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 lose sight of the fact that many ancient crosses have been destroyed, and those that remain are only part of the story of the Celtic Cross.

Stylistically, seven classes have been identified by commentators, but, surprisingly, there are no high crosses in the south and west of Ireland. The first class of high cross is the Ahenny group. The two fine crosses at Ahenny in Tipperary arc considered to be the earliest existing examples of Irish free-standing wheel-head crosses. Dating from some time soon after the year 700, they have relatively little figurative sculpture. At Ahenny, the South Cross is carved with spirals and interlace. There are also five bosses, one for each of the arms of the cross, and one marking the centre. On top of both of the Ahenny crosses are tapering cylindrical caps that resemble the tops of some Slavonic Pagan pillar-stones. Another notable cross of the Ahenny kind is at Kiltieran.

The second class is the Bealin Group. Named after the cross-fragment at Bealin in Wcstmcath, which has a round, shieldlikc centre, this group includes the North Cross at Clonmacnois. Dating from the late eighth or early ninth centuries, these crosses have interlace and spiral ornament, and some images of horsemen. The third group includes the crosses at Castledermot, Moone and Old Kilcullen, all in County Kildare. Like those of the Bealin Group, they date from the late eighth or the early ninth centuries. They arc good examples of the playful way that the crossmakers used mixed motifs with classical Celtic inventiveness. The eastern sides of the two crosses at Castledermot have crucifixion scenes at the centre of the wheel-head, for it is customary for the crucifixions depicted on Celtic Crosses to face towards the east. The South Cross at Castledermot mixes panels depicting human scenes with interlace and spirals. The east face has human panels, while the west is interlace. There is a notable depiction of the patron of monks, St Anthony of Egypt, in combat with beastly demons. The undcrworldly base of this cross has the usual hunting scenes common elsewhere.

The Celtic Cross at Moone is over 5 m (i6V£ ft) high and is set upon a tapering base surmounted by a pyramidal crown that in turn supports the shaft. This cross is believed to be the earliest that has a coherent scheme of decoration where episodes from the Old Testament and New Testament are arranged thcmatically. The basal stone is carved with various figures. The eastern front bears 12 figures, assumed to be the 12 apostles that were a popular theme for French Christians to carve on megaliths. Elsewhere on the basal stone arc representations of those themes of the Perennial Philosophy that can be interpreted differently according to the beliefs of the beholder. Thus, the representation of the man amid the beasts, well known from Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek Paganism, becomes the Judaeo-Christian motif of Daniel in the Lions' Den. Just below the cross top on the eastern side, a panel in the shape of an Egyptian Diamond contains a figure that may be interpreted as the risen Christ. The centre of the cross does not have a crucifixion scene, but spirals. On the opposite, western side, there is a crucifixion scene, but again this is placed beneath the cross and not at its centre.

Made of granite quarried at Castledermot, the cross at Moone was lost for centuries, having been broken and the fragments buried. It was rediscovered shortly after the Potato Famine, when the local stonemason, Michael O'Shaughnessy, unearthed its base and head while collecting pieces of stone from the ruined abbey for new buildings. The cross-fragments were recovered, and the head was set up on the base. Later, during grave-digging, a part of the shaft was excavated. In 1893, three of O'Shaughnessy's sons reassembled the three parts, but with some of the shaft still missing. So it stands today.

At Kells in the county of Meath are four crosses that remain in various stages of integrity. They form the fourth group of Irish Celtic Crosses. Three stand within the church prccincts, and the fourth stands in the middle of the road at the centre of the town as a market cross. One of the churchyard crosses is broken and incomplete, while another, perhaps the most interesting of the four crosses, is unfinished. This 'Unfinished Cross' was assembled in the nineteenth century from some cross-components that had for some reason been abandoned before finishing. Because of this fortunate accident of fate, we can see the way that the stonemason carved the basic form to allow the laying-out of interlace and figure patterns. The other three crosses were finished, and contain a wealth of figure sculpture of Biblical and other scenes that include some remarkable symbolism. The Broken Cross has a scene of the Baptism of Christ, in which the River Jordan is shown as a confluence of streams coming from two circular wells, reflecting the Celtic veneration of sources of rivers such as the Seine, Shannon and Severn. The South Cross at Kells also contains an image that is a clear continuation of Pagan tradition. At the centre of the wheel-head is an image of Christ in the posture of the Egyptian god Osiris, who was slain and resurrected like Jesus. The Osiris-Christ holds a cross and a blooming bough that alludes to the legendary golden bough and silver branch of Druidism. The market cross is notable

The Broken Cross has a scene of the Baptism of Christ, in which the River Jordan is shown as a confluence of streams coming from two circular wells, reflecting the Celtic veneration of sources of rivers.

for its scencs of the Celtic martial arts, including wrestling and quarter-staff fighting.

The fifth class of Irish high crosses is characterized by the now-destroyed Cross of Armagh, formerly at the headquarters of the archbishops of Ireland. Now only a few pieces remain, but its former glory is recorded in old engravings which show that the cross was covered with Biblical episodes arranged in a strictly logical order. The cross at Arboe in County Tyrone is the best surviving example of this rigorous arrangement.

The sixth group includes crosses at Clonmacnois, Monasterboice and Durrow. Clonmacnois in County Offaly preserves a fine collection of Celtic carvings. It is renowned for its grave-slabs, carved with Celtic crosses, names and invocations in ancient script. There arc also a number of ancient crosses at Clonmacnois. A fragment of headless cross-shaft that exists to the north of the old church bears a carving of the horned god of the forest, Ccrnunnos, who in Brittany was worshipped as St Hoeirnin. Often, far from being destroyed by Christian priests, images of the old gods were maintained at the shrines where once they were the chief deities. St Fergus's cemetery on the island of Innishkeen in Upper Loch Erne still preserves the antlered stone head of a Celtic divinity. This Clonmacnois cross dates from around the year 800. The South Cross at Clonmacnois is a little more recent, dating from around 825. It is mostly carved with interlace and bosses, with a crucifixion on the westward side.

Considered to be one of the finest Celtic Crosses in Ireland is Flann's Cross. Named after King Flann, it is also called The Cross of the Scriptures. It stands to the west of the enclosure at Clonmacnois. A mutilated inscription at the bottom of the cross-shaft commemorates Flann, who died in the year 916, and Abbot Colman, who died in 921. Above the inscription is a carving of the king and abbot setting up a post, which may represent a cross. The centre of the wheel-cross has an image of Christ enthroned in the Osirian position. The ring of this cross is emphasized. Instead of the usual method of construction, in which the stonemasons made a cross and attached four arcs of stone to make the wheel, the designer of this cross emphasized the wheel in the form of a continuous stone ring linking four roundels. Thus, the centre cross with Christ in majesty is separated from the arms of the cross outside the ring. On top of the cross is a carving of a house-shrine.

At Monasterboice in County Louth are two more fine Celtic Crosses, both of which are intact and on their original sites. The West

Opposite: Tomb-slabs with Celtic Crosses from Ireland. Clockwise from top left: tombstone of the smith Tuathal Saer, Clonmacnois, County OfFaly; stone of Algidu, Durrow, OfFaly; uninscribed cross-slab, Clonmacnois; slab of Mael Finnia, Clonmacnois.

Cross, which measures 6.7 m (22 ft) is the highest ancient cross remaining in Ireland. The cross-shaft is carved with panels that represent scenes from Biblical mythology. The wheel-head of the West Cross, which contains a number of bosses, is in a better state of preservation than the shaft or the house-shrine cap. It is likely that the cross was repaired in antiquity with new stone that replaced the original, for the depiction of the crucificd Christ, whose head lolls to one side, is in the manner of later styles.

The other, more famous, cross at Monasterboice (illustrated on page 84) , is that of Muiredach, named after the Abbot who died in the year 922. He is commemorated by an inscription at the base of the shaft on the west side. The cross measures 5.5 m (18 ft), though some of the lower part of the shaft is missing now, the cross having been re-erected on its original pyramidal base. This cross is a remarkable synopsis of syncretic religion. Its east and west faces are sculpted with Biblical scenes, while the sides have spirals, bosses with interlace, and intertwining beasts. The outer part of the wheel-head is carved with bands of interlace between which are intertwining serpents. At the centre of the cast face is an image of Christ, based on the iconography of the resurrected Egyptian god, Osiris. Christ is holding a cross and Irminsul-staff in the Osirian position, and on his head is an eagle that resembles the crown of Egyptian gods and pharaohs. On the left of Christ is the Great God Pan with his pipes, while on the right is a harp-playing figure, who is King David or Apollo. The tension between the emotional left side, and the rational right side is resolved in the figure of Christ, the perfect man.

The seventh and final grouping of high crosses arose in Ireland during the eleventh century, perhaps in County Clare, where a school of crossmakers operated from the late eleventh to the mid-twelfth centuries. There are six known crosses in this style at Kilfenora, three of which have sculptcd figures. The Doorty Cross here has complex animal interlace. In comparison with the 'scriptural' high crosses, the figure sculpture of this school has been increased in size, the crucifixion is more prominent, interlace is reduced or absent and ring-heads, where present, are no longer pierced or drilled through. There are cross-fragments in this style in the churchyard at Killeany in the Aran Islands, but the most famous example stands at Dysert O'Dea. Although the pyramidal base of earlier crosses is retained, along with a pyramidal capstone, the mason created a cross-head without a ring, but with knobs in place of the customary holes. With a relatively large

Christ figure, the cross effectively became a crucifix. Beneath Christ, the customary scenes from Biblical episodes are no longer present; instead, a medieval bishop, complete with mitre and spiral-headed crozicr, stands guard. Crosses of this period are relatively localized to the west and south midlands of Ireland. They are known from Cashel, Drumcliff, Inishcaltra, Mona Incha, Roscrea, Sligo and Tuam. There is only one exception, at Glcndalough, in the east of Ireland.

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Responses

  • tranquillo
    What is the difference between celtic crosses and scriptural celtic crosses?
    8 years ago
  • Michael
    Which is the highest celtic cross in ireland?
    7 years ago

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