The difficulties of dating

In Ireland, cross slabs are difficult to date unless they carry inscriptions as well as incised decoration. Although some extant examples may date from the seventh century AD, most were produced at least a century later. The slabs at Kalian Mura and Carndonagh were decorated with a bas-relief interlaced pattern forming a Christian cross, and may correspond to a later phase, while inscribed examples predate them. The first dateable Irish sculpture is found in Kilnasaggart, County Armagh, as it combines an inscription with an incised cross decoration. As the inscription names a historical local ruler called Ternoc whose death is recorded in the "Irish Annals," it seems likely the cross was produced before his demise in about AD 716. Incised crosses were therefore still being produced at the start of the eighth century AD. During that century, incised crosses were replaced by bas-relief ones, then by freestanding shaped stone crosses. It has been argued that these shaped stone crosses were introduced around the start of the century, as examples indicate links to Northumbrian Saxon crosses produced during the same period (c.AD 700). Their decoration is also similar to

Left: Muiredach's Cross in the enclosure of Monasterboice— founded in the 5th century by St. Buithe, one of St. Patrick's disciples—is one of the finest of Irish high crosses dating from the 10th century. The west face of the cross, shown here, depicts the life of Christ, with the Crucifixion on the hub of the wheel. In the background can be seen a well preserved round tower.

décoration found in the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels of the same period.

The earliest fully free-standing stone high crosses come from the monastery at Iona, established by St. Columba in the center of the Irish (Scots) colony at Dal Riada. For the first time the traditions of metalwork decoration and stone carvings were combined into three-dimensional stone objects of striking beauty. One particular feature taken from contemporary jewelry production was the introduction of a central boss, resembling the setting for a semiprecious stone or piece of enamel decoration in Celtic metalwork. Other metalwork features include the use of cable beading around the edges of these stones, and the replication of filigree interlace.

The Iona crosses appear to have served as inspiration for a range of similar high crosses, although these appear to have combined this replication of metalwork with stone-carved depictions of contemporary people or events. The cross at Moone in County Kildare draws on biblical subjects for inspiration, while the North Cross at Ahenny in County Tipperary depicts a hunting scene around its base. Outside Ireland and Iona, the only Scottish cross of this type was erected at Dupplin in Tayside after the amalgamation of the PictS and the Scots into a unified Scottish people, although bas-relief and incised crosses in the region date from the llctish period. The striking free-standing Celtic high crosses are therefore an Irish or Scots phenomenon, and represent some of the most beautiful examples of early medieval sculpture in Europe.

Facing:

A Celtic cross of the late Pictish period in the churchyard at Aberlemno in Scotland, the stone incorporates Celtic scrollwork and mythical animals with Christian symbolism.

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