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A simpler example (at Culdaff, Ireland)

A high cross is a free-standing Christian cross made of stone and often richly decorated. They were raised primarily in Ireland, and Britain during the Early Middle Ages and sometimes later. They often, though not always, feature a stone ring around the intersection, forming a Celtic Christian cross.


Ireland and Britain

High Crosses are the primary surviving monumental works of Insular art, and the largest number in Britain survive from areas that remained under Celtic Christianity until relatively late. High Crosses exist from the 7th century in Ireland, and were later seen in Scotland, Wales and the rest of Britain, especially Northumbria, and some examples are also found on Continental Europe where the style was taken by the Irish monks. Most Irish High Crosses have the distinctive shape of the ringed Celtic Cross, and they are generally larger and more massive, and feature more figural decoration, than those elsewhere. They have probably more often survived as well; most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed or damaged by iconoclasm after the Reformation.

The ring initially served to strengthen the head and the arms of the High Cross, but it soon became a decorative feature as well. The High Crosses were status symbols, either for a monastery or for a sponsor or patron, Preaching crosses, and may have had other functions. The early 8th century crosses had only geometric motifs, but from the 9th and 10th century, biblical scenes were carved on the crosses. There were no crosses made after the 12th century, until the Celtic Revival, when similar crosses began to be erected in various contexts.

Anglo-Saxon crosses were often much smaller, though when, as with the Ruthwell Cross and Bewcastle Cross, they were geographically close to areas of the Celtic Church, they seem to have been larger, perhaps to meet local expectations. Carved figures in these large examples are much larger than the Irish equivalents of the same period - only some very late Irish crosses show equally large figures. Decoration is usually of vine-leaf patterns, not interlace, although the placement and effect from a distance is similar to Celtic examples. Smaller examples may have only had such decoration, and inscriptions, which are much more common on Anglo-Saxon than Irish crosses.


The tradition of raising high crosses appeared at a time when Norse settlers appeared in the British Isles and met a Christian culture. A fragmentary cross has been discovered in Granhammar in Vintrosa parish in Närke, Sweden and testify to the English mission in the central Swedish provinces. In Norway the British tradition was more widely accepted and some 60 stone crosses are known from the country, but only four of them can be safely dated to the Viking Age thanks to runic inscriptions on the crosses. Many of the crosses have probably been raised on pagan grave fields when the family was baptized. Later, they were moved to cemeteries.[1] The high cross tradition also probably helped increase the popularity of raising runestones (often with engraved crosses) in Sweden.[2]

Notable crosses

Location of high crosses in Ireland.

Amongst the most famous are:

  • Muiredach's Cross and West Cross at Monasterboice, County Louth
  • The Clonmacnoise crosses: Cross of the Scriptures (the original 9th century cross is housed in a museum, but a copy stands on the original site), and the North and South Crosses.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Ruthwell Cross from Scotland, 8th century, with relatively large figures.
  • The Anglo-Saxon Bewcastle Cross Northumbrian
  • The Pictish Dupplin Cross
  • The 8th-century Pictish Aberlemno Cross Aberlemno Angus
  • The 8th century Kildalton Cross from the Hebrides
  • Iona Abbey has two crosses, with others on the island.
  • Saint Tola's High Cross. A 12th century cross at Dysert O'Dea near O'Dea Castle showing Christ and a bishop carved in high relief on the east side, with geometric motifs and animal ornament on the other sides. On the west side of the base are shown the Temptation, with Adam and Eve beneath the tree of knowledge, while on the north side is some ceremony with several figures holding croziers. This is a particularly finely preserved twelfth-century example, that does not use the circle of the Celtic cross.
  • The Ahenny High Crosses. The two sandstone Ahenny crosses date from the 8th to 9th centuries and are among the earliest of the ringed high crosses. Ahenny, County Tipperary, near the Kilkenny border, and the Monastic site of Kilclispeen, or the church of St. Crispen
  • Ardboe High Cross, a 10th century cross near Cookstown, eroded, showing 22 panels with scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
  • St. Kevin's Cross, Glendalough, a 12th century cross, well preserved, made of granite.
  • South Cross, Kells, County Meath, the best preserved of several 10th century crosses.
  • Doorty Cross, Kilfenora, County Clare; 12th century, has a bishop and two other clerics carved on it.
  • Kilree High Cross, 9th century high cross said to be the burial place of Niall Caille, located 4km southeast of Kells Priory, Co. Kilkenny.
  • Three crosses at Kilkieran, County Tipperary: Plain Cross (unadorned), West Cross (with much ornamentation), Long Shaft Cross (has a long shaft with decoration).
  • The two Moone High Crosses, in County Kildare near Moone. The large cross is believed to have been carved between 900 and 1000 AD. It is highly decorated and 5.33 m. high

Modern period

From the 19th century, many large modern versions have been erected for various functions, and smaller Celtic crosses have become popular for individual grave monuments, usually featuring only abstract ornament, usually interlace.

In the early 21st century, Irish sculptor Brendan McGloin was commissioned by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Portland to handcraft a full size replica of the Clonmacnoise Cross of the Scriptures. The 13 foot, 5 tonne sandstone cross was completed in 2007 and shipped from Donegal to Portland, Oregon, where it will stand as a Famine memorial.


See also


  1. ^ The entry Stenkors in Vikingatidens ABC by Göran Tegnér.
  2. ^ Harrison, D. & Svensson, K. (2007). Vikingaliv. Fälth & Hässler, Värnamo. ISBN 978-91-27-35725-9 p. 192

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