While I was studying in Ireland last summer at the University of Maynooth, one of the main topics of the course I was taking (Death, Memory and Monuments in Irish History and Culture), was the Celtic High Cross. Actually, just for reference, here is a brief description of the course, pulled from the website:
“This study abroad class in Maynooth, Ireland provides an opportunity for students to examine the concept of history as the creation of a “reusable past” remnants of which surround us today, many of them serving as “sites of memory” relating to key figures and events in Ireland’s political and cultural past. Students attend a limited number of on-campus lectures and numerous field-trips: through both, they explore a range of Ireland’s most celebrated historic sites and iconic monuments, dating from the Celtic through to the modern era. Particular focus is on introducing students to features of the monuments, art and symbolism on display at various sites in the greater Leinster region (including Glendalough, Clonmacnoise, Glasnevin Cemetery, Carton House), and fostering an appreciation for how, in the modern era, these represent enduring and essential expressions of Irish political and cultural identity. For students who do not undertake independent travel on their free weekends, there are optional excursions for those interested in participating.”
In any case, we spent a lot of time looking at examples of Celtic High Crosses all over Ireland – some at Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Maynooth, Glasnevin Cemetery, and more. I found these monuments to be fascinating (both in terms of their historical significance, and artistic content). The recent discovery of a cross in England has prompted me to look into this new archaeological discovery, as well as take a look back at my experiences with this artistic phenomena.
Below is an excerpt from the press release regarding this newly discovered cross:
“Archaeologists excavating a medieval church in a dales village have found further evidence that the site was an Anglo Saxon settlement. A carved section from an eighth century stone cross was unearthed during a dig at St Botolph’s field in Frosterley in Weardale this week.
The discovery was met with great excitement from the archaeologists and volunteers who were digging on the site as part of the Altogether Archaeology project. Paul Frodsham, historic environment officer at the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership, which is leading the project, said: “This is not the kind of thing that happens every day
“What we have is the left point arm of the cross and by comparison to other crosses elsewhere we know it is Anglo Saxon. The experts who have seen it have all drawn the same conclusion. “It is made of limestone, which is not a local stone. We don’t know for sure where it came from but it is possible it came from Whitby where there is a big Anglo Saxon monastery.”
Mr Frodsham said Frosterley was largely a post-medieval village but recent finds have suggested people lived in the area much earlier. “The chapel dates back to the 13th century but we suspect it may have earlier origins,” he said. “We know Frosterley used to be called Bottlingham, which is an Anglo Saxon name. What we have found during our dig is further proof.”
You can read the rest of the article here.
Just for the sake of reexamining old research, (hey, it’s at least on topic!) I thought I would share some older posts regarding high crosses in Ireland, as compared to this newly discovered Anglo Saxon piece. Below is an excerpt from an article I wrote about the Cross of the Scriptures, located in Clonmacnoise, Ireland.
“Referred to as the Cross of the Scriptures, this incredible piece of masonry is roughly dated to the 11th Century, during which time the small population of the monastic site at Clonmacnoise experienced considerable growth and development of specified artisinal trades. Originally located outdoors at Clonmacnoise, this cross was moved into the museum in 1991 to preserve it from any further environmental damage.
As with any piece of art, there are several interpretations as to what the meaning of the inscriptions may be. It is commonly assumed that the story is in reference to Christ due to several recognizable cannonic elements.
“Shown from the bottom panel up: Soldiers guarding the tomb of Christ, the arrest of Christ, Flagellation and in the centre of the ring the Crucifixion. This cross is decorated with figure sculpture on all four sides. The Cross of the Scriptures was mentioned twice in the annals of the Four Masters, first in 957 and later in 1060. At the centre of the head on East face is the Last Judgement, and at the top of the East shaft is a panel showing Christ with Peter and Paul. Below this panel are two more panels bearing iconography that are still open to interpretation. On the base are three riders facing left and two chariots facing right. At the bottom of the shaft is an inscription that has now become almost impossible to see: OR DO COLMAN DORRO …..CROSSA AR RIG FL.ND, A prayer for Colman who had the cross erected on King Flann.” (source)
There are also aspects of the blending of Roman and Celtic culture represented in the crosses, notably:
“The Chi-Rho symbol, the monogram of Christ was a commonly used symbol of Christianity in the 4th century Roman Empire. The Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire used as his emblem the Chi-Rho in a laurel wreath. Thus combined were a pagan Imperial symbol of Rome with a symbol of the new faith. The diagonal cross members of the Chi were eventually conventionalized to a single horizontal cross member that made its cross with the vertical stem of the Rho and the wreath was conventionalized into a simple circle.” (source)
In art historical terms, the Cross of the Scriptures is considered to be carved in high relief, although centuries of weathering have reduced it to relatively low relief in some parts (particularly at the edges). The decorative interlace patterning that can be seen on the sides of the cross is of the La Tene cultural tradition in Europe, and often features zoomorphic figures accompanied with intricate Celtic knot work.
– Brockport Study Abroad – Ireland
– Celtic High Cross, Clonmacnoise (Co. Offaly) blog post
– Discovery of Cross in Weardale
– High Crosses in Maynooth Cemetery
– Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, Ireland
– Crosses at Glendalough (Reefert Church)