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, the Pagan Celtic religion also continued in a form which had ceased elsewhere. In its forms and style, Irish religion was paralleled further east by the Pagan religions of the Germans, Scandinavians, Slavs and Baits, but in Britain and Gaul Romanization had significantly altered Paganism. In Ireland and Pictland, the Pagan Celtic religion continued in an older form which had ceased elsewhere, for druidry flourished in Ireland long after the Romans had extirpated it in Britain. The Celtic pantheon, too, was revered by the Picts and Irish in a wholly Celtic manner, while in Britain and Gaul it had been incorporated into Roman religion. By means of the interpretatio Romana, the Romans identified indigenous goddesses and gods with their nearest parallel in the Roman pantheon, thereby adding a Roman element to all of the indigenous religions within the Empire.

The Romanization of southern Britain also meant that elements of middle eastern religions were introduced there in the shape of the worship of Cybele, Attis, Isis, Sekhmet, Serapis, Mithras, Jupiter Dolichenus and Jesus Christ. Thus in Ireland, unlike in Britain, there was a direct transition from druidism to Christianity without the intermediate stage of Romanization. This is the reason why Ireland saw the creation of a specific type of religion, Celtic Christianity.

Towards the end of the western Roman empire, the Christian religion had entered Britain, but it was a minority interest, and society on the whole remained pluralistic, with Christianity remaining one cult among many. Even after the Emperor in Constantinople made Christianity the state religion, Paganism retained a significant role in Britain, far from the imperial centre. In the middle of the fourth century, for example, when the Empire was officially Christian, the Pagan temple at Verulamium (St Albans) was reconstructed, and the therapeutic shrine of Mars Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire was expanded greatly. Also at this time, at Cirencester, the Roman governor of South Britain restored the Jupiter Column, one of the forerunners of the Celtic Cross. Only after the withdrawal of the Roman military in the year 410 did Christian missionaries make inroads into much of Britain. The Lives of the British Saints (Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908) shows that most of them preached and converted in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries.

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