The High Crosses of Ireland

High Cross, Scripture Cross, Celtic Cross - Variations on a Theme

Ahenny High Crosses in County Tipperary
Ahenny High Crosses in County Tipperary. © Bernd Biege 2014

The High Crosses of Ireland - they are everywhere it seems. Yet they are also the source of much confusion. Or, as many a tourist and fan of all things Irish might tell you: "You should have seen all those crosses, you know, the Celtic ones ... the High Crosses ... in every cemetery!"

Ah, we already have spotted the usual confusion. Irish memorial crosses, Celtic crosses and High Crosses are seen as synonymous - which they are not.

The genuine High Cross, as "typically Irish" as the (often nearby) round tower in many eyes, can be quite clearly defined - which does not prevent hundreds of other crosses being labelled in this way.

The Celtic Cross - an Irish Original?

When one mentions a Celtic cross, this automatically summons up the image of a Latin (conventional) cross with the stem and arms linked by a circular addition. This specific form of the main Christian symbol may have had its origin in Ireland, though it is also known in Cornwall, Wales, Northern England and parts of Scotland - all areas being in contact with Ireland during the so-called "Dark Ages". So maybe this cross, now regarded as something of a Pan-Celtic symbol, came with Irish missionaries?

Whatever the historical background of its geographical origin - the historical development of the unusual style of this cross is even less clear. Unless you subscribe to the (frankly) outlandish idea that some Irish clerics deliberately chose a "trademark" and consciously designed the Celtic cross.

How the ring became part of the cross is actually totally unclear. And open to interpretation - some scholars went as far as to suggest that the ring represents a halo, and thus Christ himself, circumventing any scruples about picturing God's son on a crucifix. These theories are close cousins to those that suggest that the circle should really be interpreted as a disk, representing sol invictus, the sun-god.

And that it is closely related to the Egyptian ankh ...

Personally I would stick with Occam's razor and a very pedestrian theory, namely that the ring was introduced by the masons. Not the Freemasons, mind you, so you can put that "Da Vinci Code" back. Nope, the stonemasons, simply craftsmen wanting to add a bit of stability to the overall construction. The ring acting as an additional stabilizer for the crossbar. Which would mean that there is no symbolism hidden here at all.

But the Celtic cross has certainly acquired a new symbolism in recent years - white supremacists have appropriated the cross as an alternative to the swastika!

Why were High Crosses Erected?

For one reason only - to mark a sacred space and to declare adherence to the Christian beliefs. Basically a sign saying "Here be Christians!", but also "This is hallowed ground, keep its peace!"

Apart from this the crosses were also a focal point of celebrations - out of necessity one might say. The classic layout of the early monastic settlements included a church, a cross and (if funds permitted) a round tower - the latter's door oriented towards the first's entrance, with the cross in the middle. And the church was usually too small for even a modest congregation.

Which meant that the huddled masses had to attend mass al fresco. Gathered around the cross.

But not all High Crosses were of an ecclesiastical nature - some seem to have been connected to territorial rights, marking a market place for instance. Others were erected to commemorate an important event or person.

The only use High Crosses were apparently not put to seems to be ... as an actual grave marker. But that idea might come to be just because of lack of evidence.

The Early Evolution of High Crosses

No historian can tell us where, when or even why the first High Crosses were erected. Period. But it is assumed that the first stone crosses were "copies" of wooden crosses covered with metal. Several (necessary) features of these earlier crosses were actually incorporated into the stone design.

Some crosses of this type are from the 8th and 9th century, like the northern cross at Ahenny, covered in geometrical designs. The most important feature was the basic form of the cross itself. Not necessarily as the representation of an instrument of execution but as an image of the early chi rho monogram.

Later crosses became more pictorial - the southern cross at Clonmacnoise and the cross of Saints Patrick and Columba in Kells. These became known as "transitionary crosses".

The Scripture Crosses - Sermons in Stone

This transition led to the "scripture crosses", literally and liberally covered with pictorial representations of scenes from the bible. Less Celtic ornaments, more scenic details. These crosses should be regarded as High Crosses proper.

Today we can still see around thirty of these monuments, all manufactured in the 9th and early 10th century. The best-known maybe being the "Cross of the Scriptures" at Clonmacnoise. The selection of themes represented was fairly conventional - with the occasional flight of fancy mixed in. Life at a monastery was featured, but the scriptures were the "main event". The artists (or their paymasters) favoured scenes from the the Fall of Adam and Eve and Cain's fratricide, the Last Supper and the Resurrection. Some pictures are more generic, like hordes of warriors and even exotic animals (the camel in Drumcliff being a good example). And there are even small jokes on some crosses ...

Monks would have used these illustrations to make their teachings more imminent to the audience - a picture being worth more than a thousand words. "Sermons carved in stone" is one way these crosses have been described.

Crosses manufactured in the later 11th and then 12th century show a decline - ornaments take over again, this time with a distinctive Scandinavian influence, as this was the time of the Vikings in Ireland. The crucifixion in gory detail becomes the main pictorial content, the mood becomes darker. As if the end was nigh ...

Which it actually was - with the Anglo-Norman invasion and the growing influence of the European monastic orders like the Cistercians if Mellifont the High Crosses simply faded away, left standing but with no new ones being added.

How a High Cross was Manufactured

A typical High Cross was built in three, sometimes four parts - the bootom part being a massive, conical or pyramidal base. Into this the shaft of the cross proper was slotted. Crowned by the cross-head (the portion with the arms and ring) - with in most cases shaft and head being manufactured in one piece. The whole ensemble is then topped by a capstone, most of which are lost today.

The actual manufacturing process seems to have been undertaken in distinctive steps, the cross being raised in situ before the finer carvings were complete. An unfinished cross at Kells demonstrates this theory - the areas where fine detail would be added are still blanks. This also makes a lot of sense ... imagine raising a finished, finely carved cross being raised, then toppling over and breaking due to sloppy groundwork.

One curious and little-known aspect of the High Crosses deserves mention - the crosses were not only freshly carved during their heyday, they also were painted in quite gaudy colours. Hard to imagine today, but surely an attention-grabber in medieval times. The Irish National Heritage Park near Wexford has recreated this ... and the coloured cross is often greeted with scepticism by visitors.

Today's High Crosses

The worst enemy of Irish High Crosses were neither Vikings raiders nor Puritan zealots - but simply the Irish weather. Most crosses were made from sandstone. Easy to work with, and capable of achieving incredible detail. But not the stuff to survive centuries of rain and wind. And if a cross toppled due to boggy ground giving way ... the usual outcome was a richly carved jigsaw puzzle.

As these dangers are still ever-present (and pollution takes a further toll), some crosses have had to be removed and replicas erected. Acceptable for all but the purist - but even the tourist should make sure whether he actually photographed the original!

Worse are well-meant but often scurrilous "renovations". Slapping on the thickest cement somehow detracts from fine carvings. And the combination of parts from obviously different crosses also fails to satisfy. Other attempts to protect crosses are well-meant but somehow optimistic - a cross in Kells is protected from rain by a small roof, but a sheer endless stream of 18-wheelers rumbles by a few steps away.

Is it a High Cross or ...?

Even high-profile publications on Ireland manage to label normal, modern cemetery memorials, carved on an industrial scale all over Ireland, as "High Crosses". Every Irish churchyard or cemetery will have one of these. A cross of fair height and the Celtic pattern - a high cross, but no High Cross proper.

The illustrations are totally different and the modern crosses are markers for individuals, not for holy places ... or even educational tools.

Modern monuments to mark special places and/or events are also often based on High Crosses, both in size and the basic layout. Most have geometrical designs or knot-work, often reflecting a mixture of Celtic and Scandinavian influences plus a good helping of romantic "typical Irish" designs. Most of these monuments are easily recognizable though some creep up as original High Crosses in some publications - especially if they are placed in a solitary location for maximum effect.

In short - anything younger than 800 years should not be regarded as a genuine High Cross.