The Sign Of The 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

Chi Rho Cross

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 gesture: 'At every commencement of business, whenever we go in or come out of any place, when we dress for a journey, when we go into a bath, when we go to meat, when lights arc brought in, when we lie down or sit down, and whatever business we have, we make on our foreheads the sign of the cross.' When the Christians of that time wanted to signify Christ, however, they used symbols other than the cross. Most popular were the fish, the lamb, the good shepherd (taken from images of Apollo), the Greek letters alpha and omega, and the chi-rho monogram. This latter sign took a number of forms, the earliest of which was made with the Greek letters X (chi) and P (rho) as on the Coptic stela. Sometimes, the monogram was shown inside a circle or laurel wreath. In Britain, this earliest form of chi-rho exists in the floor mosaic from the Roman house at Hinton St Mary in Dorset, preserved in the British Museum.

By the late fourth century, there was the tendency to turn the X into an upright position, thereby converting the chi-rho into a loopcd-headed vertical cross. A good example of this type of chi-rho can be seen on a stone which is preserved inside the church at Penmachno in Gwynedd. Bearing a Latin inscription that reads (in translation) 'Carausius lies here in this cairn', the stone, which stood on a burial-cairn in continuation of Celtic Pagan tradition, has been dated to the late fifth or early sixth century. Above the inscription is a looped cross chi-rho without a surrounding circle. Around the late fifth century, Celtic carvers began to make sunwheel crosses with a right-facing hook in the upper arm. Finally, the hook or P was dropped, and a cross in a circle was the result. Sometimes it was accompanied by the Greek letters alpha and omega, symbolizing the beginning and the end. A pillar-stone preserved in the chapel at Kirkmadrine in Galloway is a good example of such a hooked-head cross within a circle. It was not until the year 680 that the cross and related crucifix was adopted officially by the church at a General Council held in Constantinople, when at last a standardized form was agreed for Christian use.

An early cross-stone in the Carmarthen Museum collection is a stone taken from Castelldwyran in Dyfed, called 'The Memorial of Voteporix Protector'. It is a pointed megalith with inscriptions in Latin and ogham. Prominent above the inscription is a ring-cross or sun-wheel without any hook or P on the top arm. It is a characteristic form, for similar inscribed stones were erected in other parts of the British Isles at this time. In Ireland, there are numerous extant slabs carved with wheel-crosses composed of geometrically drawn arcs.

Although most of the arc-crosses have four arms, this number is not fixed. Some have six or seven arms. Perhaps these are not Christian monuments at all, but memorials of Pagans or those of dual faith. However, multiple-armed wheels appear on stones that are certainly Christian. A notable cross-slab at Maughold on the Isle of Man, dating from the late seventh or early eighth century, has as its main carving not a cross but a six-fold consecration-wheel of the kind common on Roman Pagan altars and associated with the goddess Juno. However, its Christian intent is without question, for the six-fold wheel is surrounded by an inscription dedicated to the bishop Irneit, carved in a circle in the manner of seals. Beneath it are two Latin crosses accompanied by texts.

Although they are rare, certain Irish stones of this type survive because they are stopping-places on pilgrimage routes set up by early missionaries. In the valley of Glencolmkille in County Donegal is a series of cross-carved stones, set up on cairns at which present-day pilgrims pray like their forebears did. Other stones of this type mark the tracks to and on Mount Brandon, around Croagh Patrick, on Caher Island and at the pilgrimage centres of Ballyvourney, Clonmacnois and Glendalough. They can also be found outside Ireland, in Iona and the Shetland Isles.

Road Leading Cross

This labyrinth-inscribed boulder from Hollywood, Upper Lockstown, County Wicklow, now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, marked a sacred stopping-place on the pilgrims' road leading to the holy place of St Kevin at Glendalough. When it was discovered, the labyrinth pattern was not recognized, and it was kept as a cross.

This labyrinth-inscribed boulder from Hollywood, Upper Lockstown, County Wicklow, now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, marked a sacred stopping-place on the pilgrims' road leading to the holy place of St Kevin at Glendalough. When it was discovered, the labyrinth pattern was not recognized, and it was kept as a cross.

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