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The Celtic High Cross

Irish High Crosses. Symbols of Ireland. Celtic trinity symbols.


Celtic high crosses

The Celtic High Cross of Monasterboice.
The Celtic High Cross at Monasterboice
is one of the oldest and finest examples
The Celtic High Cross is undoubtedly one of the best known symbols of Ireland.

What distinguishes the high crosses is that they are ornamental stones and at least 800 years old. Anything younger than that is not a Celtic High Cross but just a generic Irish/Celtic cross.

Cut from sandstone or granite, a typical high cross consists of three or four parts starting with the Base. The shaft, or panel, was slotted into the base. Then came the cross head – the arms and ring – and finally a capstone, few of which survive.

Sometimes the panel and cross head were cut from one single piece of stone. After erection, the task of carving would begin.

Early examples carried only geometric Irish Celtic symbols and patterns; in the 9th and 10th centuries scenes from the Bible began to be sculpted.

Unlike the ubiquitous Irish Celtic cross memorial of the modern age, the ancient High Crosses of Ireland were never intended to mark places of burial. They were constructed as boundary markers of territorially significant or sacred land.

As decorative points of interest on the site of monastries, their carvings were later also used for religious educational purposes. In addition to these lofty purposes, communities held celebrations around their local cross.

Below is my selection of the best Celtic High Crosses of Ireland.

Monasterboice

County Louth has two outstanding Celtic High Crosses within the ruins of this famous religious site. Muiredach's High Cross is considered by many to be the very finest of all high crosses in Ireland. Each of its sandstone faces is covered in biblical scenes, both Old and New Testament. The other cross at Monasterboice is the West or Tall Cross. Standing 6.5m high, it is believed to be the tallest surviving Celtic High Cross. Sadly, much of its carving detail has weathered poorly but it is still possible to make out some representations of the Crucifixion. There is a third high cross at Monasterboice but it is not as impressive as these two.

The Celtic High Cross at Clonmacnoise, Ireland.
The Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise

Ahenny

With their interlaced Celtic patterns and spirals, the sandstone crosses at Ahenny in co. Tipperary are typical of 8th-century ornamental crosses. Both feature many Celtic knot patterns. Only the bases have any biblical scenes and they are now difficult to read. The South Cross is 3.9m high. The North Cross is 3.13m high and sports a fetching mitre-shaped capstone.

Kilkieran

Also in co. Tipperary, and just a few miles from Ahenny, are three more Celtic high crosses. They date from the 9th century. One – the Plain Cross – has no carved ornament but retains its capstone. The Long Shaft Cross is what you might expect from its name: a long panel with short arms. The West Cross is a weathered example of a richly carved cross.

Clonmacnoise

The Cross of the Scriptures is arguably the most photographed of all the Irish high crosses, partly because it stands on Ireland's most important monastic site in co. Offaly where the Kings of Connaught and of Tara were buried. It is highly decorated with biblical scenes, including the Last Judgement and the Crucifixion, but the identity of many of the carved characters is difficult to establish due to the weathering of the stone.

There are two other high crosses on the site, but the originals of all three were moved into the museum section of the Visitors' Centre in the early 1990s. Very convincing replicas now stand on the original spots.

The Celtic festival of Samhain

The Celtic calendar was punctuated by four major festivals, each marking the end of one agricultural season and the beginning of another.

By far the most important of these was Samhain, meaning Summer's End. In this celebration is found the origin of Halloween, for it marked a time when ghosts and ghoolies roamed the countryside.

Find out more about Samhain and the origin of Halloween.

Ardboe

Located on the shore of Lough Neagh in co. Tyrone, this 5.6m-high cross is showing its age. Dating from the 10th century, it has lost part of its ring and its east face is badly weathered. On the west face, biblical scenes such as the Adoration of the Magi, the arrest of Christ, and the wedding of Canna are depicted and some of these carvings remain quite clear. This Celtic High Cross is the tallest in Northern Ireland and the third tallest on the island.

Graignamanagh

Two of Ireland's oldest granite high crosses are in the graveyard of Duiske Abbey in co. Kilkenny. Dating from the 8th century, they pre-date the Abbey and were brought here from sites nearby. The North Cross has arms that do not extend through the ring – an obvious sign of its antiquity. The South Cross is similar but a little dumpy in its proportions.

Drumcliffe

In Sligo, in the graveyard where the poet W B Yeats is buried, stands a superb example of a richly carved Celtic High Cross. Typical Celtic cross art adorns almost every inch of the stone: spirals, geometric patterns, animal figures (including a camel), as well as biblical scenes. It is thought to date from the 9th century.



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Celtic trinity symbol

The Celtic trinity symbol is known as a Triqueta, meaning 'three-cornered'. It was a naturally appropriate symbol for the Celts, as they believed in the power of three (you can find out about this on the Shamrock Plant page), but it was later adopted by Christians as a symbol for the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


It is a flawless sign that has no start or end points. As such, it also symbolises Eternity, the circle of life, and never-ending love, and is the base of many Celtic knot patterns.




The Moone Celtic High Cross

The Moone Cross, in co. Kildare, is thought to date from the 8th century and is one of the best preserved High Crosses in Ireland. Perhaps its preservation owes much to its not being discovered until 1835.

More recently a glass roof has been erected above the 5.4m-high cross to protect it from the worst of the weather.

It carries a lot of geometric decoration and other Celtic patterns but it is also rich in biblical carvings. It's possible to make out the 12 apostles standing together in rows on the west face of the base.

On the south face, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is represented by five stone-cut loaves and two fishes, while the other faces show the stories of the Flight into Eygpt, the Fall of Adam and Eve, and Daniel and the Lion.

Moone High Cross, co Kildare, Ireland



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