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The Origins of the Celtic Cross


Irish Celtic CrossAlong with the Claddagh and Harp, the Celtic cross is one of the best known Irish (or Celtic) symbols. Steeped in history, they are important reminders of our heritage. Their origin, meaning, and symbolism may surprise you!

There are at least 60 Celtic crosses in Ireland, as well as a numbers of ruins.  The Celtic crosses that are seen today were primarily commissioned and constructed up until the mid 12th century.  After the end of the 12th century, construction of these crosses all but disappeared. 

These wonderful crosses were normally used as boundary markes, for example where parishes intersected, or as monuments surrounding monastaries, cathedrals, or churches.  Contrary to some beliefs, they were not used as gravestones, but newer crosses have enjoyed increased popularity as gravestones since the 1850's.

The beauty of these crosses is not just in their basic shape, but also in the intricate carvings found on many of them.  The level of detail, and the quality of the artwork is something that is normally associated with treasured manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells.

Since we offer a variety of Celtic Crosses in the form of jewelry and other Irish gifts, we are often asked about element of the Celtic cross. We hope that you’ll find this article interesting, and that you’ll learn something new.

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Structure of the Celtic Cross

Also known as a High cross, or an Irish cross, Celtic crosses are found throughout Ireland. They are compromised of a normal cross, with a ring that travels completely around the cross intersection.
Celtic Cross Structure

The major components of the Celtic cross are:

- Cross base
- Intersection
- Ring
- Capstone (including the finial)

Construction of the Celtic cross normally starts with the cross base, which is an extremely heavy stone. Often times, the base had another life before being carved for the cross, such as being used as a millstone. The high cross is seated into a carved socket in the stone base by means of a tenon , forming a very secure and strong joint.

Crosses are decorated with a series of panels, which usually cover the majority of the cross.  Traditionally, these panels are used to show important biblical scenes, or to highlight elements of Celtic design and art.

At the intersection of the cross, the ring is added, giving the Celtic cross its classic and world-renowned look.  Most corsses feature a pierced ring, but the are variants that do not have any open space between the inner circumference of the ring, and the cross intersection.

An additional tenon joint is commonly found above the ring, seating the capstone. The capstone is often portrayed as a small house, complete with roof. This forms the architectural finial [link to wiki here] of the cross.

Sandstone and granite are the two most common stone used to construct these ancient crosses.  Unfortunately, both are susceptible to weather and the elements.  This has left some crosses in varying stages of wear - ranging from the borderline pristine, to crosses where determining the characters in the images is extremely difficult. 

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Origins of the Celtic Cross

Although the Celtic cross is tightly associated with Christianity today, this was not always the case. In fact, the Celtic cross pre-dates Christianity, and has its origins in an older religion. As Ireland converted to Christianity, the cross remained an integral symbol, and as such, it took on new meaning. It is generally thought that St. Patrick and others responsible for Ireland’s conversion to Christianity sought to use symbols that the Irish were already familiar with, thus making the transition easier and more accepted.

In Ireland (as well as in Great Britain), Celtic Crosses began appearing as early as the 7th century. Often, these large stone crosses were erected by Irish monks.

 

Meaning of the Celtic Cross

In Irish legend, a popular tale credits Saint Patrick with the design of the Celtic cross. The tale goes that St. Patrick combined the Christian cross with the sun (or possibly the moon). This was an attempt to highlight the importance of the cross by combining it with a known Celtic symbol of life.

However, we now know that this style of Cross predates St. Patrick, and that Celtic cross designs were in existence prior to the 5th century (though perhaps not as widespread due to the fact that Irish monks had yet to raise many of the better known examples).

The massive crosses found across Ireland today were generally constructed in the name of Christianity. Other than the obvious Christian reference of the cross, various crosses contain panels with either biblical scenes, or decorative Celtic art. Traditional Irish symbols were often used for the panels, as were significant scenes from the Bible, such as the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, Adam and Eve, and so forth.

 

Celtic Cross Designs

It is the panels on the Celtic cross that often attract the most attention. Use of Celtic symbols and biblical scenes, combined with great stone-carving skill, add beautiful design elements to many of these crosses. Some panels feature Celtic knot designs, while others attempt to tell a simple story, or give tribute to a great event. Interpreting the meaning of what the artist was trying to convey can be a challenge sometimes. Weathering and other environmental damage can also contribute to difficulty in understanding images. Fortunately, we can still decipher a great number of the image meanings.

It is interesting to note, however, that there is a fundamental difference between earlier Celtic crosses, and the later Christian-based designs. The image of the Celtic cross that we think of today has arms that extend outside of the circle, while earlier examples of the cross have the cross arms completely inside the circle.

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Important Celtic Crosses in Ireland

Below are some of the more important Celtic crosses found in Ireland. This short list is not intended to be all-inclusive, but is just to give short description of some of the more significant crosses. Certainly, if you can think of a significant Celtic cross that we have overlooked, please use the comment feature at the bottom of this article, and we’ll do our best to add information on the cross.

 

The Ardboe Celtic Cross, County Tyrone

Also though of as one of the finest Celtic crosses in Ireland is the high cross at Ardboe. The cross is located beside the shores of Lough Neagh, atop a small hill. It is made entirely of sandstone and stands over 18 feet tall.

The sandstone has been badly weathered over time, and some emigrants from the area took a small chip of the stone with them on their travels. Even still the examples on the cross of carved figure remain one of the best. The scenes featured on its panels are of biblical in nature.

The cross was commissioned in the 9th or 10th century, and is now all that remains of a thriving monastery that used to occupy the nearby land.

 

The Muiredach Celtic Cross, County Louth

This beautiful Celtic cross is generally regarded as one of Ireland’s finest. The massive cross stands at just over 18 feet tall. It is generally thought that the cross gets its name from Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who was responsible for its construction. He died in 923.

The design of the cross is heavily influenced by biblical scenes in the cross panels. In general terms, the east face features Old Testament scenes, while the west side is more influenced by the New Testament. There are also a few panels whose meaning is not clear.

 

The Kells Celtic Cross, County Meath

The Kells Cross was moved in recent times as being located in the middle of the town proved a safety hazard for those visiting the cross, as well as safety for the cross itself (it was hit by a car). It now resides outside the Kells visitor center, under a free-standing roof.

Kells is also home to Saint Columba’s monastery, and features a variety of Celtic crosses, as well as the ruins of a tower.

 

Celtic Cross of the Scriptures, County Offaly

Located at the monastery in Clonmacnoise, this stunning cross was carved from a single piece of sandstone, sometime around the turn of the 10th century. It stands at just over 13 feet tall, and has been moved inside the visitor’s center during recent years in an effort to preserve it. A replica now occupies the spot that it originally stood in, but both the original and replica are accessible.

The inscription on the cross requests that a prayer be said for both Flann (an Irish king) and Colman (who commissioned the cross). Like many Celtic crosses, the body of the cross is divided into panels that feature a variety of scenes from the Bible.

 

The Ahenny High Crosses, County Tipperary

The two sandstone Ahenny crosses date from the 8th to 9th centuries and are among the earliest of the ringed high crosses. The South cross appears in better condition than the North cross. Part of the ring from the North cross is no longer part of the monument. Both crosses feature wonderful carved Celtic art in their panels, as well as biblical scenes (primarily on the base).

 

St. Kevin’s Cross, County Wicklow

St. Kevin dies in or around 618, but this beautiful Celtic cross in the glacial valley of Glendalough still bears his name. This particular cross features a ring that is unpierced, and the cross is designed as a plain cross, without the intricate panels seen on many others. Made from local granite, it remains relatively well-preserved.

The cross dates to the late 6th or 7th century. Folklore has it that anyone who can wrap their arms fully around the cross and makes a wish will have that wish granted. However, the circumference of the cross is over 1 meter!

 

Doorty Celtic Cross, County Clare

Located in Kilfenora, and featuring a Bishop and two other clerics amongst it carvings, the cross also features a crucifixion scene. In addition, a two-headed bird is carved on the cross. It features an unpierced ring, and cross arms that are rather small compared to the overall size of the cross.

Also in Kilfenora is the well-known West cross, that stands over 15 feet high. This cross stands on its own in stone-walled fields, and is carved with a crucifixion scene, as well as Celtic knotwork.

 

Kilkieran Celtic Crosses, County Tipperary

The three Celtic crosses located at Kilkieran represent some of the earliest examples of this cross style. Thought to have been erected in the 9th century, they are built from sandstone. Primarily focused on intricate Celtic designs and symbols, these crosses do feature some animals, and in particular, horses.

 

Moone High Cross, County Kildare

The High Cross at Moone stand over 17 feet tall, but was not re-discovered until 1835. During some work in the graveyard, workers uncovered portions of the cross, but it would take another 60 years for all sections to be found. The cross is extremely well preserved. In addition to Celtic designs on the cross, there are also biblical references.

 

Kilree High Cross, County Kilkenny

This Kilree Celtic Cross appears to be missing its capstone (a tenon joint at the top is visible, indicating that another piece used to be mounted). It has suffered the effects of weathering, making some of the details of the cross difficult to make out.

Believed to be from the 9th century, the cross stands at 9 feet tall.

 

Other styles of Irish Crosses

St. Bridget's CrossThe other distinctly Irish cross of significance is St. Brigid’s cross. Though nowhere near as intricate or grand as the stone Celtic crosses, the beauty of St. Brigid's cross lies in its sheer simplicity. 

According to legend, St. Brigid made this cross while either her father, or a pagan chief was dying.  St. Brigid picked some reeds off the floor and began to fashion a cross, while explaining Christianity.  The dying began asking questions about this faith, and was converted to Christianity before his death.  Similar to the Celtic crosses, there were eventually reports of crosses being fashioned from reeds that pre-dated Christianity.

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Celtic Crosses in contemporary use

Jewelry featuring the Celtic CrossToday, the most common use of the Celtic cross is as Irish jewelry or home décor. Both are important reminders of our heritage. The Celtic cross is visually pleasing, and unlike the traditional Christian crosses, does not focus as heavily on the image of pain and suffering that the traditional cross is designed to invoke.  Also, the Celtic cross is not limited to use by Catholics, or even Christians.  Many other religions consider it as "their" symbol too.

For those searching to add a Celtic cross to their personal world, a pendant that features the cross is the most popular option.  These are available in a variety of styles and metals, with personal choice and budget being the only real limitations in the search. 

Pendants usually have enough "real estate" to allow for some of the traditional Celtic symbols to be added inside their boundaries.  This is not always true when the cross is featured on a ring.  Pendants set with stones also add another level of beauty and uniqueness to the pendant.

Some of the more popular Celtic symbols to appear on Celtic cross jewelry includes intricate Celtic knotwork, the triscele (or triple spiral), and Trinity knots to name but a few. Pendants are also available in either single-sided, or double-sided designs. Naturally, there are metal choices ranging from sterling silver to 18K gold.

Another popuar choice is a Celtic cross ring.  The cross is often part of wedding band sets that feature tradition Irish and Celtic symbols around the outside of the bands.  Celtic cross earrings are also very popular, with a large variety of styles and metals available.





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