Irish High Crosses
A high cross is a freestanding Christian cross made of stone or wood. This unique Irish form of art was born and grew sometime between the ninth and the twelfth centuries A.D. The artists worked with wood, velum, and metal in addition to stone. During this time, Ireland experienced its greatest moments in art, known as The Golden Age of Ireland.
Many high crosses, at different stages of development were created throughout these centuries. At Monasterboice, County Louth there is Muiredach’s Cross which is recognised as the best example of a High Cross in Ireland. It is covered in carvings of scenes from the bible. The first image to be illuminated by sunrise is Eve giving Adam the apple and the last scene illuminated during sunset is Jesus being crucified. There are also two other crosses at Monasterboice, The North and West Crosses as well as a round tower. Single high crosses still stand in many locations such as Drumcliff, County Sligo, Dysart O’Dea, County Clare.
It is not certain whether the earliest high crosses were created by the Irish or the British. Those early surviving crosses seem to have come from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The native dwellers of this territory were converted to Christianity and influenced by Irish missionaries. These high crosses offer some of the strongest arguments and evidences of how powerful religious communities influenced, supported, and encouraged art in early Christian Ireland.
Early crosses were usually only about eight feet high. As time passed, the crosses of Ireland were created to be three times that height, and much bulkier in depth and width, to offer larger surface areas for decorative carving.
Many early crosses included a stone ring were the cross sections came together, forming Celtic crosses. Many crosses are beautifully ornate, with celtic designs. This is most likely an influence of Celtic Christianity. The title “High Cross”, is given to the crosses in Ireland and Scotland and across the British Isles.
At Clonmacnoise near Athlone you can view a number of High crosses. The North Cross is the oldest of the four crosses, it was built c. 800. Only the sandstone shaft and base survive. The base is a former millstone. Cross of the Scriptures: This 4-metre high sandstone cross is one of the most skillfully executed of the surviving high crosses in Ireland, and of particular interest for its surviving inscription, which asks a prayer for Flann, King of Ireland, and Colmn who made the cross, both individuals who were also responsible for the building of the Cathedral.
The cross was carved from a single piece of sandstone c.900. The surface of the cross has been divided into panels, showing scenes including the Crucifixion, the Last Judgement, and Christ in the Tomb.
At Carndonagh in County Donegal there is a high cross which is also known as the Donagh or St. Patrick’s Cross. It is located in the town of Carndonagh on the Inishowen Peninsula.
Durrow Abbey and High Cross is a historic site located off the some 8 kilometres from the town of Tullamore in County Offaly. It is one of the most important monastic sites in all of Ireland.
To this day, the site remains a largely undisturbed early historic and medieval monastic site containing a complex of archaeological monuments, ecclesiastical and secular, visible and sub-surface.
Market Cross, Kells County Meath dating from the ninth century, is a one of the four surviving High Crosses of Kells. It was originally located at Cross Street but now is protected at the visitor centre nearby. Known as the “Cross of the Gate” of the monastery it is a Termon Cross, meaning that once inside the boundary of the monastic area, a fugitive could claim Sanctuary. The crosses were used primarily for religious instruction. Carved on the faces of the crosses are scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
In Kilcullen there are two distinct Irish High Crosses, and what may be the base of a third, at different locations within the churchyard. The “decorated high cross” has four illustrated faces, with a range of panels. It did not survive intact – it is known that it was leaning by 1862, and later lay on the ground for some years, and when it was remounted in the late 19th century, parts of at least one panel were lost, and parts of the panel which had been facing upwards had been badly eroded. The “plain high cross” may have had the beginnings of decoration, but has no finished ornamentation.
In Clones County Monaghan you will find the remains of a tenth century sandstone cross standing in the centre of the town called the Diamond.
Castledermot in County Kildare also has a tall high cross called the North Cross and is over 3m high. There is also the remains of another cross.
As you can see when you travel the roads across Ireland’s countryside, make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to experience the beauty and history of Ireland’s High Crosses. More info