A Survey of the Long Story of Irish Crosses

One of the books I have come across while studying early Christian sculpture of Ireland, is the work written by Hilary Richardson. With the prominent High Crosses in the title, and with a depiction of a naive outlines of carved panels of the Cross of Moone on the front cover, this physically thin book, but of substantial content, is another position on a long list of academic publications dedicated to one of the most distinctive landmarks of Ireland – the so-called High Crosses. As indicated by the title of the book, An Introduction to Irish Crosses, (1990) it is just the very beginning of a long story, as if a threshold to the mystery of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Beside High Crosses figuring in the title, the book also describes a considerable number of stone slabs predating the mature sculpture of Ireland and bearing the first signs of the coming Christianity.

Photo of the front cover from E-Bay: “An Introduction to Irish High Crosses” Paperback, 1990.

Just the Beginning of a Long Story

The work covers all the information in just a few pages of written text and gives basic information on the subject alongside with some interesting insights into assumed, yet controversial origins of High Crosses. Simultaneously, it can serve as a field guidebook to be with you while exploring High Crosses at first hand on various sites.

Also this is a highly illustrated book with a number of drawings and 199 black-and-white plates constituting the major part of its content, showing a variety and richness of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Interpreting a piece of art cannot be carried out without its proper image so it is essential that any description of art is accompanied by its complete illustration. Each picture from that section shows with details the same monument from various perspectives, which additionally allows a reader to see and examine particular features of sculpture on the crosses with a closer look. All photographs are also shown with a short caption. The major part of the pictures comes from the Photographic Collection of the Office of Public Works in Ireland.

Hillary Richardson, 1930-2015. Photo from “News and Events” at UCD. Available at <https://bit.ly/2vAPaKk>.

As far as the composition of the book is concerned, Hilary Richardson – the author of the text, was responsible for drawings and diagrams, whereas John Scarry compiled the section with photographs. As a photographer, Scarry had been already familiar with different types of Irish monuments with High Crosses in the lead. He believed that such important monuments, as they have always been, deserved much more public attention than they had received so far. Chiefly for this reason, he engaged himself in the project together with the main author of the book, Hilary Richardson. Mostly remembered as an author of An Introduction to Irish Crosses, Hilary Richardson studied at University College Dublin together with another great specialist in early Irish art, Françoise Henry (1902–1982), whose hypotheses on the origins of High Crosses possibly influenced Hilary’s research. Hilary Richardson graduated in archaeology, anthropology and history of art, and became an academic in the Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin. She gave lectures on Irish High crosses internationally and published numerous papers on her research. She was invited at conferences in Austria and Italy, but mainly carried out her research in Armenia and Georgia.

Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars

Tall High Cross at Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Alongside very richly illuminated manuscripts, carved in stone Irish High Crosses are one of the finest fruits of early medieval art of Ireland, and like round towers they are the most unique free-standing monastic monuments that are dated back to the legendary Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars. Apart from Ireland, they were also built on the British Islands, especially in the regions of Celtic Fringe, namely in Wales, Cornwall, Northumbria and Scotland. High Crosses largely contribute to early Christian art in Western Europe and are of international importance. They are distinguished by the diversity of sculpture and designed as paupers’ Bible by means of elaborate pictures coming from the Old and New Testament, apocryphal texts and hagiographic legends of saints, and hermits who lived in Egypt. There is also a significant number of crosses, either with just a few figurative scenes depicted in panels or with solely geometrical or floral decorations, or none of those. Christian symbols appeared first on slab stones around the early sixth century and since then they had been developed into High Crosses or the so-called Crosses of Scriptures in the tenth and eleven century, to finally give the place to the styles coming from the Continent in the twelfth century. The very shape of the ringed cross, widely known as the Celtic cross has been always strongly associated with Ireland.

Elaborated free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages

At the beginning of the book, a very basic map is provided with monument sites showing a general location of the crosses marked with numbers from 1 to 55 listed. In addition, there are County Boundaries marked with the first letter of a name for each county within the boundary, so it is easier to localise a given monument on the map. The map depiction is followed by “Preface” with a fragment taken from Pilgrimage Home by Padraic Colum (1985:78-80), giving a poetic description of an encounter with “a stone cross with a circle” and of emotions accompanying this meaningful and deep experience. In “Introduction”, the author describes the aim of this work as a comprehensive illustration given on individual features of the major Irish crosses and strongly highlights the artistic value of High Crosses in European history, as the only elaborate free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages. Hilary points to their uniqueness belonging to the Irish tradition but at the same time she reminds of their strong links with the monastery of Iona in Scotland and the Celtic monasticism in general.

Muiredach’s High Cross, Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is only a practical survey, a complete catalogue of sculpture is not intended here. Nevertheless, the material gathered by the authors is impressive and gives an idea about an abundance of stone sculpture in early medieval Ireland. By a thoughtful observation of a carving style of some sculpted panels, Hilary assumes the presence of individual schools and even the same hand of a master sculptor. As she correctly notices, in various studies on the crosses some of elements of the sculpture are outlined, whereas others rather neglected. Peter Harbison, a great scholar and specialist on Irish High Crosses is also an author of the guidebook known as Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, which is a sort of abbreviated version of the book entitled The High Crosses of Ireland published in three volumes. Likewise Richardson’s survey, a short guide by Harbison confines itself only to a group of crosses, namely those which bear figure sculpture. However, the sculpture excluded from his review has been listed by name in Appendix, at the end of the book. Richardson’s book lacks such appendix, which is a pity. On the other hand, the authors of An Introduction to Irish Crosses pay a greater attention to the detail of the panels appearing on the north side of the crosses or slab stones in the photographs, whereas in most works on High Crosses, including Harbison’s, that aspect of High Crosses seems to be neglected, apparently due to a poor lighting of that side of the monuments.

North Cross, Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the next part of the book, Hilary Richardson returns to the matter of an in-depth interpretation of the crosses and the symbolism expressed by their form and sculpture. The author focuses first on an appearance of a typical ringed Irish cross and gives a short graphical description of its general form, breaking it into several basic parts: a stepped base, shaft, ring, and a cap stone with its different types. More detailed characterization of the particular components of High Crosses and their supposed origins are given in the following parts of the written survey, entitled “Structure” and “Interpretation of the Cross”. Yet before that Hilary explains the general meaning of the Christian cross and Crucifixion and defines their iconographical representations in the Irish sculpture from the sixth to the twelfth century. She also underlines a particular role of the Emperor Constantine in shaping such an iconography, by changing the meaning of the cross from the symbol of execution and shame into the sign of triumph and symbol of Christian faith. Constantine was also the first who introduced the use of the Chi-Rho monogram, often enclosed in a circle of a laurel’s wreath, which may be the origins of the ring encircling the arms of High Crosses, as suggested by the author.

“Irish High Crosses: With the Figure Sculptures Explained” by Peter Harbison. Photo from Books.ie. Available at <https://bit.ly/37QifPa>.

Next part of the book is entirely dedicated to stone carving in Ireland, where the author suggests pagan origins of the free standing monuments dedicated to Christianity. The latter undeniably developed from stone pillars erected in prehistoric times. First Christian forms, like a Latin cross with wedge shaped terminals, or a Greek cross inscribed in a circle with floral characteristics predate more complex and three dimensional monuments, fully carved in the form of the cross with a free circle around its arms. The oldest examples of free-standing crosses were usually depicted among interlaced decorations in low relief and supposedly appeared first in the far-west of the country. Hilary emphasizes the fact that we are missing an absolute chronology in case of many of these stone carvings around Ireland. In her opinion, slab stones with various forms of crosses incised usually indicate the times of early monasteries, others bear engraved inscriptions in the form of short prayers, many a time including the names of deceased, which is very helpful in their dating. As far as the function of High Crosses in concerned, the author reminds that their role cannot be confined to funerary memorials only, even if some contain such indications. The question of various inscriptions and their function on different crosses are more discussed later, under the title “Inscriptions”.

Orientation and grouping

Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Quite significant part of the survey says on the general rule for the orientation of crosses within the plan of an early Christin monastery, as it is presented in the diagram of the eighth century Book of Mulling. That aspect is usually omitted or hardly mentioned in most studies on High Crosses. Like other scholars, Hilary Richardson also makes an attempt to categorize the crosses into several groups according to their location and style. Peter Harbison divides High Crosses into two major groups: the crosses with biblical themes, created in the midlands and in the north, from ninth to the eleventh century, and those with less emphasis on the scriptural content and with bigger figures in high relief, erected mainly in the twelfth century. Hilary Richardson’s division is more detailed. According to the author, the crosses fall into four successive groups: the Athenny and Osory Group; Transitional Crosses, Scripture Crosses, and finally Late Crosses. Her classification ranges chronologically, like in Harbison’s case, from the ninth century and the earliest ringed carvings with more abstract decorations, through the introduction of biblical scenes to the representation of large single figures, usually of Christ, a saint or a bishop, in the twelfth century.

Mysterious Eastern origins

In the section entitled “Interpretation of the Crosses”, a reader can find thought-provoking assumptions on the origins of the very distinctive characteristics of Irish High Crosses, namely the stepped base, capstone, but first of all, the ring. Hilary suggests that they all developed from artistic forms established already in the fourth century, that is to say in the times of the Emperor Constantine. The author also claims very strong links of early Irish art with Jerusalem, Georgia and Armenia, where very similar features and stone carvings appeared. Such a theory strongly distinguishes Hilary’s survey from other works. Richardson’s proposal that Celtic crosses have their close parallels in the East Christian world, especially in the Caucasus, may have been influenced by the hypothesis proposed by another specialist in the subject, Françoise Henry. The latter theorised on cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and Coptic Egypt. That controversial idea had already been argued by Arthur Kingsley Porter in the first part of the twentieth century.

Major studies in the field

In the last section of the written part of the book, Hilary Richardson gives a list of the major studies on the Irish Crosses up to the time of her own research underlying an invaluable role they played in the development of the studies. In her list of authorities, there appeared the names of such famous scholars as Henry O’Neill, Margaret Stokes, Henry S. Crawford, Arthur Kingsley Porter, Françoise Henry, and Helen M. Roe. Since An Introduction to Irish Crosses was published, however, many other scholars have become involved in the further studies on Irish High Crosses, without whom such a list will not be complete. Among them there are Peter Harbison, Elinor D.U. Powell, Ryszarda Bulas and Oliver Crilly.

From general information to the details

In the “Catalogue of Crosses and Illustrations” which follows the written part, the crosses are enumerated alphabetically, according to their location. After a short description of a monastic site containing certain High Crosses, each of them is described with the sequence : north side, south side, east face and finally west face. Successive panels are listed from the bottom upwards. Small diagrams of the crosses are also provided to assist in the identification and location of particular features or scenes. Each description of the sequential panels contains an abbreviation which stands for the initials of an author of a given interpretation. The height of the crosses is given including the base, shaft and the head. There is also a range of plates referring to every cross with their numbers given in the brackets. As the author remarks, new discoveries are constantly changing a direction of the studies. A short bibliography at the end of the book is proposed to encourage a deeper interest in the subject and its development in time.

To summarize

Photo from Amazon: “An Introduction to Irish High Crosses Paperback” – 1990.

An Introduction to Irish Crosses itself is a very important survey listing and illustrating significant stone carvings among those erected in Ireland. It is a very essential introduction, and simultaneously, a guide which should be taken for reference in studies of the monuments.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Richardson, H. and Scarry, S. (1990) Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Cork & Dublin: the Mercier Press.

Colum, P. (1985) “Pilgrimage Home”. In: Selected Short Stories of Padraic Colum, Sterlincht, S. ed. Syracuse: University Press.

Harbison, P. Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, The Boyne Valley Honey Company, Drogheda, 1994.

Henry, F. Irish Art. In the Early Christian Period, London, 1940-1965.

Henry, F., L’Art irlandais, v. 1, Yonne, 1963-1964.

Kingsley Porter, A., “An Egyptian Legend in Ireland”, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, v. 5, Marburg, 1929.

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