LivingTravelThe High Crosses of Ireland

The High Crosses of Ireland

At first glance, it might seem that the High Crosses of Ireland appear absolutely everywhere. There are carved Irish or Celtic crosses in every cemetery on the Emerald Isle, but what makes one of these symbols a true High Cross of Ireland?

For starters, Irish memorial crosses, Celtic crosses, and tall crosses are considered to represent the same thing, but they are actually quite different. The genuine high cross, as “typically Irish” as the round tower (often close) in many eyes, belongs in a category of its own, but is generally grouped with other similar symbols.

The Celtic Cross: An Irish Original?

A Celtic cross is most commonly represented as a conventional cross with the stem and arms joined by a circle that is often decorated with scrolls or creepers. This specific form of the main Christian symbol was popular in early medieval times and may have originated in Ireland, although it also appeared in Cornwall, Wales, northern England, and parts of Scotland, all areas were in contact with Ireland during the called “Dark Ages.” So maybe this cross, now regarded as a pan-Celtic symbol, came with Irish missionaries?

While it is not entirely clear whether the cross came from Ireland or Great Britain, the historical development of the unusual style of this cross is even less clear.

There is very little evidence to explain why the ring became part of the cross. Because it is somewhat open to interpretation, some scholars even suggested that the ring represents a halo, and therefore Christ himself. Another competitive theory suggests that the circle really should be interpreted as a disk, representing sol invictus , the sun god. Under this line of thinking, Irish crosses are considered closely related to the Egyptian ankh .

However, it is the simplest and most practical theory that presents the most likely scenario: namely, that the ring was introduced by the masons. Not the Freemasons, so forget about conspiracy theories. Rather, it was the stonemasons who added the ring because, as craftsmen who carved the crosses, they probably tried to add more stability to the overall construction. The ring acts to support and disperse the weight of the crossbar. This theory means that there is no hidden symbolism here at all, but simply a practical solution to making a more solid cross.

Why were the tall crosses erected?

The High Crosses in Ireland were built to let someone know that they were approaching a sacred space where the inhabitants followed Christian beliefs. Basically the crosses acted as signs saying “Here are the Christians!” As well as “This is holy ground, please respect that and keep the peace!”

Apart from this, the crosses were also gathering points for church events and celebrations. The classical design of the first monastic settlements included a church, a cross and (if funds allowed) a round tower. The doors of the church and the tower would face each other, with the cross placed between them in the middle. The early Irish churches were generally too small for even a modest congregation, which meant that the huddled masses had to attend mass outside, all gathered around the cross.

But not all the High Crosses were built in front of the churches and some seem to have been related to land rights, marking a market, for example. Others were erected to commemorate an important event or person.

In reality, there is no evidence that High Crosses were used in the early medieval centuries as tomb markers (but perhaps the former has simply not yet been discovered).

The early evolution of tall crosses

No historian can tell us where, when, or even why the first High Crosses were erected. However, the most common theory assumes that the earliest stone crosses were “copies” of wooden crosses covered in metal. Several necessary features of these earlier crosses were incorporated into the stone design.

Some crosses of this type are from the 8th and 9th centuries, like the northern cross at Ahenny, they are covered in geometric designs. The most important feature was the basic shape of the cross itself, which probably developed from the chi rho monogram, an even earlier Christian symbol.

Later crosses became more pictorial, including the southern cross at Clonmacnoise and the cross of Saints Patrick and Columba at Kells. These became known as “transition crossings.”

The Crosses of the Scriptures – Sermons in Stone

This transition from simple markers to engraved crosses later led to “crosses of the Scriptures,” literally and liberally covered with images depicting scenes from the Bible. These crosses had fewer Celtic decorations but included more scenic details in the carvings. These crosses must be regarded as the true tall crosses of Ireland.

Today we can still see around thirty of these monuments across the Emerald Isle. All of Ireland’s tall crosses were made in the 9th and early 10th centuries. The best known is probably the ‘Cross of the Scriptures’ at Clonmacnoise. The selection of the themes depicted was quite conventional and biblical, with some more fantastic details mixed in. Mainly, the crosses represented life in a monastery but were really focused on illustrating the Scriptures. The artists who created the High Crosses (or perhaps the people who paid for them) preferred to show scenes of the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain killing his brother Abel, the Last Supper, and the Resurrection.

Some images are more generic, such as hordes of warriors and even exotic animals (the camel in Drumcliff is a good example). Some of the tall crosses even include some jokes etched into the stone.

The monks would have used these illustrations to make their teachings easier for their audiences to understand because a picture really is worth a thousand words. “Sermons carved in stone” is one way these crosses have been described.

Crosses made in the late 11th century and after the 12th century show a decline – ornaments take over again, this time with a distinctive Scandinavian influence, which makes sense as it was Viking times in Ireland. The crucifixion in gory details becomes the main image covering most of the crosses and the mood becomes darker. It was almost as if the craftsmen declared that the end close.

What it really was: With the Anglo-Norman invasion and the growing influence of European monastic orders like the Cistercians if Mellifont, the High Crosses simply faded away. Those that were already created were left standing, but no new ones were added after this time.

How a tall cross was made

A typical High Cross was built in three, sometimes four parts, the bottom part being a very large, conical or pyramidal base. In this, the axis of the main part of the cross was slotted. This was topped off by the crosshead (the portion with the arms and the ring), and in most cases the shaft and head were manufactured in one piece. The entire High Cross was topped by a cornerstone, most of which are lost today.

The actual manufacturing process appears to have been carried out in distinctive steps, the cross being raised in the place where it would finally be placed before the finer carvings were completed in the open air. An unfinished cross at Kells proves this theory: the areas where fine detail would be added are still blank. This also makes perfect sense because you imagine raising a finished, finely carved cross, only to have it topple over and break due to overgrown terrain.

A curious and little-known aspect of the High Crosses deserves mention: the crosses were not only recently carved during their heyday, but they were also painted in very bright and eye-catching colors. Because they are now simple gray stones, it’s hard to imagine this today, but they would have been really eye-catching in medieval times. The Irish National Heritage Park near Wexford has recreated this, only for the colored cross to be greeted with skepticism by visitors.

The tall crosses of today

The Irish High Crosses’ worst enemy was not Viking invaders or Puritan fanatics, but simply the Irish weather. Most of the crosses were made of sandstone. Easy to work with and capable of incredible detail, but not the material to survive centuries of rain and wind. And if a cross collapsed due to the swampy ground giving way, the usual result was that it would break into several pieces, leaving nothing but a richly carved puzzle.

As these dangers are still ever present (and contamination comes at an additional cost), some crosses have had to be removed and replicas erected. This is a good solution for the sake of preservation, but visitors may want to check if they actually photographed the original!

Worse are well-intentioned but often terrible “renovations.” Striking the thicker cement may ‘protect’ the structure, but it somewhat detracts from the fine carvings. And the combination of obviously different crossover parts also fails to satisfy. Other attempts to protect the crosses are well-intentioned but somewhat optimistic: A cross in Kells is protected from the rain by a small roof, but an endless stream of 18-wheelers rumbles a few steps away.

Is it a tall cross or …?

Even high-profile publications in Ireland manage to label ordinary and modern cemetery memorials, carved on an industrial scale throughout Ireland, as ‘High Crosses’. Every Irish graveyard or graveyard will have one of these. A cross of fair height and the Celtic pattern: a tall cross, but not a true tall cross.

The illustrations are totally different and the modern crosses are individual grave markers, not holy places or sermons.

Modern landmarks for marking places and / or special events are also often based on High Crosses, both in size and basic design. Most have geometric or knotty designs, often reflecting a mix of Celtic and Scandinavian influences, as well as a welcome help from the romantic ‘typical Irish’ designs. Most of these monuments are easily recognizable, although some appear as original High Crosses in some publications.

In short, anything less than 800 years old should not be considered a genuine High Cross.

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