After a visit at the Trinity College with its glamorous Book of Kells, filled with the Gospel message written and illuminated on its folios in the Golden Age, we headed to County Kildare, in search of further lessons on Christian Irish lore carved at the time of Ceile-De, the monastic movement from before the beginning of the second millenium, which by means of its reforms wanted to come back to the Hiberno-Irish ideals of the ascetic life from the sixth century Ireland. No other day than the Good Saturday would not have been more perfect for such a journey than that transitional moment between the death and rebirth.
The Golden Age and its echos in the Tall Cross of Moone
The history of the monastery at Moone in County Kildare apparently dates back to the fifth century, when it was established by Saint Palladius (AD 408–431). The latter came from a noble Gaulish family and is known as the first bishop of Ireland who preceded Saint Patrick in his mission to Ireland. The Pope of Rome, Celestine I, sent him to the Island to the Scotti Christians as then Ireland was referred to as Scotland. In the sixth century, yet, the monastic site of Moone was dedicated to Saint Columba or Colmcille, who was one of the so-called Twelve Apostles of Ireland who took a leading part in the Hiberno-Scottish mission, known as peregrinatio pro-Christo amore – the pilgrimage for the love of Christ. Together with his disciples, he is credited with spreading Christianity in Caledonia, the land that is today known as Scotland. In the sixth century, the focus of Christianity in Ireland interestingly switched from the episcopal structure to the monastic one.
The Tall Cross of Moone and its restoration
The County Kildare, which is situated in the south of Dublin, is characterised by granite monumental crosses, whose stone type makes them stand out from other biblical high crosses on the Island. The old graveyard of Moone now features one reconstructed and so complete high cross and the remains of the two other incomplete crosses, with two cross bases present in the graveyard to the north and south of the church. The tall cross of a slender shaft, which is the second tallest high cross in Ireland, just after the West Cross of Monasterboice, has been re-erected and is now standing inside the ruins of the medieval church, surrounded by the remnants of the other two crosses, displayed in fragments. The boards with images on site show what part of the cross those fragments may have belonged to. The High Cross itself was cleaned and protective roofing panels were erected on the old church. It is the result of the restoration work, which was carried out at the site around 2010. It is also worth mentioning that high Irish crosses were originally covered in polychromy.
Unique among its counterparts
The shape and style of the so-called Tall Cross, reaching 7.04 metres in height, are quite unique of Irish high crosses. It consists of three parts, a base, a shaft and a head, which were re-assembled in 1893, when the remining missing part of the cross, namely the middle section of the shaft was re-discovered; the upper part and the base had been found in the graveyard of the abbey yet in 1835. It is possible that the cross is still missing its cap-stone as there is a tenon for it at the top of the cross’ head. The range of its dating spreads from the eighth to the tenth centuries; some scholars indicate that it must have been carved earlier due to its graphic which is rather primitive and naïve in its style, which is one of a few characteristics making the cross unique. This charming and flat style of carvings is typical of all representations except for the panel representing Adam and Eve’s scene, whose figures are represented in more modelled and rendered in more rounded relief. Apart from peculiar conventionalized sculpture, the cross is distinguished by its slender and tall shaft, squashing in section and the fact that most of the figural depictions are positioned on the four sides of its large base, carved in the shape of two truncated pyramids. All four sides of the shaft are decorated with more or less unidentified anthropomorphic characters, together with quadruped or bird carvings that continuously merge in interlace with multiple ornaments; either animal elements uncoil from the bosses, or they are contorting within the panels. At the centre of the head on the so-called west face of the cross is an ancient spiral symbol of the sun, looking like the eye of the cyclone or a swastika. Anther pre-Christian symbol of the sun is the lozenge positioned below the head on the same face. That symbol is also ubiquitous in the Book of Kells.
Which cross face should be to the West?
It is believed that the sides and faces of the cross should be read in a clockwise direction by means of its successive scenes, and they should be followed from the bottom up, in order to keep their chronological order. However, I have some doubts about the cross’ proper re-assemblage in the nineteenth century, as the east face shows now the Crucifixion on its head, though some scholars suggest it is the resurrected Christ depicted. Still, presuming it is the Crucifixion, this essential scene should be by tradition positioned on the west face of the cross. It is because while the East symbolises the rebirth, the West stands for the death and sacrifice. Moreover, on the base of the cross, also on the so called east face, there is a representation of the Fall of Man (Adam and Eve scene), which is placed back-to-back with the Crucifixion on the west face of the cross. That fact, in turn, disrupts the chronology of the events; assuming that the west face of the cross is to show events followed by those exposed on the east one, such a location of the scenes would be wrong. For it was the Crucifixion that was the consequence of the original sin, represented by the scene of Adam and Eve.
All is about the help coming from Heavens
The theme of the Tall Cross is undoubtedly the help of God, which speaks by means of Old and New Testament representations, alongside with hagiographic, legendary and apocryphal events, with some scent of paganism. It is also important to note that Old Testament scenes were to prefigure the Gospel message itself. Such scenes, as Daniel in the Lions’ Den, The Three Children in the Fiery Furnace or the Sacrifice of Isaac had already been used in the Paleo-Christian art of the catacombs and Christian necropolises to express the New Testament stories, when their pictorial expressions were not yet well established in a human imagination.
The theme of the Tall Cross is undoubtedly the help of God, which speaks by means of Old and New Testament representations, alongside with hagiographic, legendary and apocryphal events, with some scent of paganism. It is also important to note that Old Testament scenes were to prefigure the Gospel message itself. Such scenes, as Daniel in the Lion’s Den, The Three Children in the Fiery Furnace or the Sacrifice of Isaac had already been used in the Paleo-Christian art of the catacombs and Christian necropolises to express the New Testament stories, when their pictorial expressions were not yet well established in a human imagination. Such themes ceased in the Latin tradition around the fourth century, yet they unexpectedly reappeared in the Culdees Ireland, on the so-called Biblical Crosses, precisely between the eighth and tenth centuries. All of the panels of the cross show how Christ God came to assist Christians while they were in need or even suffering prosecutions. Also the New Testament scenes on the cross glorify God’s assistance by the scenes of the Flight into Egypt or the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes; while the former shows the Holy Family rescued from the hands of the king Herod, the latter tells a story of Christ’s miracle by means of which the multitude did not suffer from hunger.
Why did the Irish carve the saints from Egypt?
Thematically similar is a hagiographic scene on north side, showing two important Coptic saints, Saint Paul and Saint Anthony, who are fed in the Egyptian Desert by a raven bringing them the whole loaf of bread. This scene repeats on many high Irish crosses, not only in Ireland but also in Scotland, though it sometimes features various iconographic details. It supports the theory that Egyptian monasticism greatly influenced early-medieval Ireland, changing the stricture of the Celtic Church which had been strongly anchored in ascetic monasticism of the Oriental tradition. Except for depictions of the Egyptian Fathers of the monasticism, such Coptic-Irish relations are also visible in the scene of the Flight into Egypt – the essential event bringing Christianity to Egypt, and in the iconology hidden behind a few other Hiberno-Irish scenes, displayed both, in Insular illuminated manuscripts and in stone on high crosses. One of them is undoubtedly the scene of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, featuring its angelic protagonist in a peculiar attitude and meaning. All in all, God’s help is most often manifested by means of His Angel who is the messenger, helper and saviour on behalf of God.
Miracles happened by angels
The figure of an angel joins the panels of the cross on the east and south faces of the base, where it is first Isaac, usually understood as the prefiguration of Christ, and then Christ Child Himself, who are saved by the manifestation of the Lord’s Angel. A traditional figure of a winged angel can be seen on the cross only in two cases; in the scene of the mentioned scene of the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, and on the west face of the head, where two “unidentified” anthropomorphic figures are possibly flanking the symbol of the resurrected Christ in his solar power, and as such they are shown on the terminals of the cross’ horizontal arms. Yet, as early Irish legends teach, angels may assume different forms, including birds, and as such they may have been depicted in the scene of SS Anthony and Paul in the Desert, and in the scene of the Sacrifice of Isaac, where a small bird, usually taken for a merge decoration, is preaching at the high back chair, screaming to Abraham’s ears. Although some other scenes do not show angels explicitly, their narratives refer to their actions and successful results, such as in the Flight into Egypt or Daniel in the Lions’ Den.
Angels were in early-medieval Ireland very important and ubiquitous figures. They were invoked by name in the Hiberno-Scottish tradition, which traces lead to seven guardian archangels. They seemed to live close to people to help them in their everyday earthly existence, as much as it is still experienced by Christians following and celebrating the remote Oriental tradition.
Featured image: Behind the scenes of our documentary, in front of the Tall Cross of Moone, Co. Kildare. Photography: Jarosław Karon, Felipe Almeida. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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