High crosses have become a symbol of Ireland’s ancient past. As the Roman Empire was crumbling in the 5th century, the Irish Celts were beginning to embrace Christianity. Putting their own stamp on the religion & in turn developing a distinctive artistic style. This style became known as insular art. A fusion of Celtic, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon & Christian art work. High cross developed as a prime example of this insular art work.
Some Interesting Facts about High Crosses
- They were used as teaching aids for the largely illiterate population. People would gather at the high cross and listen to a monk, who would interpret the various biblical scenes.
- They are read from the bottom to the top (kneeling pilgrims level). The east side depicts scenes from the Old Testament, while the west side depicts scenes from the New Testament.
- Originally high crosses were just stone pillars. A legacy from the pagan superstition, that interfering with the shape of the stone would upset the stones spirit. They evolved gradually into cross shapes that include cross, base, cap & wheel. The wheel gave the arms of the cross extra support, but is also thought to have its roots in pagan symbolism as well.
- They can be quite tall up to 6.5 metres in height. For the most part they are made from Sandstone. As sandstone weathers easily, some detail on the high crosses has been lost over the years.
A popular spot on our tours is the monastery of Monasterboice. Founded in 520AD by St Buithe, a follower of St Patrick, it has become a prime example of an early Christian settlement. Two of it’s most impressive monuments are undoubtedly the two high crosses: Muirdach’s Cross & the West Cross.
Artistically and technically it is considered the finest high cross in Ireland. An impressive achievement for its day. It was all carved from one stone, apart from the base and cap. The fine detail on the cross is most evident from the least weathered spots under the arms of the cross. Remarkably although the cross contains a high level of detail, there is no sense of overcrowding.
The Eastern face of the cross has scenes from the Old Testament including, the fall of Adam of Eve and the murder of Adel; David & Goliath; Moses bringing water from the rock to the Israelites; The tree Magi bearing gifts to Mary & Jesus & the Last Judgement. The centre panel depicts the Last Judgement, with Christ in the centre holding a staff. To his right are those who have been saved and David playing a harp. To Christ’s left is the Devil with a three pronged trident and the damned who’s faces are turned away from Christ.
The Western face depicts scenes from the New Testament. The bottom panel indicates the Abbot who the cross was built for: “A prayer for Muirdach for whom the cross was made”, with two cats curled up over the inscription. The shaft has scenes depicting the arrest of Christ; Doubting Thomas; and Christ giving the key to Peter and the book to Paul.
The theme of the cross appears to be redemption. A common enough theme across the Christian world at the time. Seeing as many believed the world was due to end in 1000AD with the second coming of Christ
The West Cross
At 6.5m in height it is Ireland’s highest tall cross. Although not as detailed as Muirdach’s Cross, it contains more scenes than any other high cross. Unfortunately due to weathering only a dozen of the original 50 panels are distinguishable.
Similar to the Murdoch’s Cross the Eastern face depicts scenes from the Old Testament, such as: David killing a lion; David with Goliath’s head; and David kneeling before Samuel.
Legible scenes on the Western side include: The Resurrection; the crowning with thorns; the Crucifixion; the baptism of Christ; Peter cutting off the guard’s ear at Gethhsemane; and the kiss of Judas.
If you are Interested in visiting Monasterboice to see the high crosses in person, check out our tour that visit there: 12 Day Vagabond Giant Irish Adventure, 7 Day Vagabond North by North West, 11 Day Driftwood Discover Ireland.