The Celtic High Cross with its distinctive addition of a circular section linking the arms and stem of a traditional Christian cross is a well-known symbol. It may have its origins in Ireland, although it is “also known in Cornwall, Wales, Northern England and parts of Scotland—all areas being in contact with Ireland during the so-called ‘Dark Ages.'” Go Ireland
Modern-day Celtic memorial crosses, sometimes confused with Celtic High Crosses, are abundant in cemeteries throughout Ireland, but “the ancient High Crosses of Ireland were never intended to mark places of burial.” Irish Genealogy
In 2003 my husband and I took our four children to Ireland. We piled into a small version of a mini-van and traveled around southern Ireland for two weeks. We had great fun driving between the ditches on Ireland’s winding and narrow roads and visiting castles, monasteries and ruins. We were as prepared as you can be, I suppose, for traveling with four children whose ages ranged from 21 to 12. But most of the crosses we saw and photographed were not technically considered the Celtic High Crosses of Ireland. In fact, I hadn’t done the research necessary to even understand the distinction at the time. If I go again, I will likely be in a much smaller traveling party of two, and will be fully armed with information—you can be sure of that.
The High Crosses are found throughout Ireland on old monastic sites and are one of Ireland’s biggest contributions to Western European Art of the Middle Ages. The High Crosses were likely used as meeting places for religious ceremonies or to mark boundaries. Monastic settlements typically included a church, a cross and a round tower if funds permitted. The churches were quite small, so for larger religious celebrations the people gathered around the cross. “Not all High Crosses were of an ecclesiastical nature—some were erected to commemorate an important event or person.” Go Ireland
The Celtic High Crosses are sculpted from sandstone or granite and typically consist of three or four parts which are slotted to fit into each other—the base, shaft or panel, arms and ring called the crosshead, and a capstone. Few capstones have survived. Sometimes the panel and crosshead were cut from a single piece of stone. The decorative carvings of geometric Irish Celtic symbols or later, scenes form the Bible, were added once the cross was erected.
The High Crosses are thought to be copies of earlier and smaller wooden crosses covered with metal.
No one knows for certain why the circle or ring was added to the Christian cross. Theories range from the “outlandish idea that some Irish clerics deliberately chose a ‘trademark’ and consciously designed the Celtic cross,” to suggestions that the circle represents a halo symbolizing Christ, or a disk, representing the sun-god. Perhaps it was simply a ring added by the stone masons to stabilize the construction. Go Ireland
Resources and where you can see more photos and read more about the Celtic High Crosses:
Photos by Christine M. Grote
Copyright © 2011 by Christine M. Grote