Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Celtic High Crosses

April 10th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our Lenten series on crosses, crucifixes, and crucifixion scenes


Click on pictures for sharper images.


The largest category of free-standing sculpture created in Western Europe between the end of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance period of the Italian city-states is the high crosses we think of as uniquely Irish –a tall Latin cross with a ring encircling the interestion. The specific form of the crosses may have originated in Ireland, but they also survive in Cornwall, Wales, Northern England and parts of Scotland, probably as a result of contact with Irish missionaries during the so-called “Dark Ages.” High crosses are more popularly identified as Celtic.


The stone crosses were erected by Irish monks from the 8th to the 12th century with the 9th and 10th centuries the most productive period. Metal covered wood crosses that served as precursors to the stone ones were probably created at least a century before the stone ones.

The crosses were used as boundary markers of monastic lands or as devotional monuments at important crossroads. They also were employed to commemorate a miraculous event, the dedication of a church, or a place associated with a local saint. Inscriptions on the crosses sometimes invite prayers for the patron, the person who sponsored construction of the cross. They were not used as grave stones.

It is the ring around the intersection of the arms of the cross that makes the cross unique among the various Christian designs for crosses. The design actually predates Christianity. Called sun crosses they have been found in Bronze Age Europe. The arms of the sun cross, however, do not extend beyond the circle as the Christian ones do, and they sometimes have more than four arms.


The Christian Celtic cross may not have been meant, primarily, as a representation of the crucifixion at all but rather as an image of the early chi rho monogram. Some point out that the circle, or wreath, in connection with a Greek or Latin cross, or with a chi rho, was a symbol of triumph used by Constantine following the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century [3].


A more remote possibly is that Celtic crosses may have had their origins in the early Coptic crosses of Christian Egypt. There is an interesting similarity between the ankh –the ancient Egyptian symbol of life- and variations of the cross or ankh with a circle on the Coptic stella and textiles from as early as the 5th century [4].


The earliest extant Celtic crosses are covered in geometric ornament including interlace [5] and round bosses [2] with the most important characteristic being the shape of the cross itself. In subsequent development the crosses became more pictorial and are known as transitionary crosses. They in turn led to scripture crosses, literally and liberally covered with biblical scenes carved in panels on the sides of the crosses [6]. These are generally considered to be High Crosses proper. Crosses made in the later 11th century and through the 12th century show a return to geometric patterns, or an image of the crucified Christ. Most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed or damaged by iconoclasm after the Reformation and typically only sections of the shafts remain.


With the Anglo-Norman invasion and influence of the more austere Cistercians no new High Crosses were constructed.


The crosses were constructed of sandstone or granite in sections topped off by a capstone which was often depicted as a small house with a sloping roof. The carvings were rendered once the plain cross was erected (carved in situ). It is now thought by some experts that the crosses were painted in bright colors like the insular illuminated manuscripts and metalwork of the time. This is highly conjectural, but the colors may have resembled those found in metalwork and the manuscripts: yellow, green, blue, and dark red.


There are crosses in France that look very similar but are not really considered as Celtic crosses, certainly not High Crosses. But all the French examples are analogous in shape to each other. They are found mostly in the Western part of France in Normand, Britanny and Limousin as far as Auvergne in the center. Those were constructed in the 15th century well after the period of the High Crosses.



Picture credits:

1.  By Johnbod

2. By Wayne Brown

4. By Su55

5.    By Johnbod




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