Written in Stone

Written in Stone

By Tim Leahy

The high cross is one of the greatest artistic achievements of the early Middle Ages in Ireland. Carved in stone, these spectacular monuments have long remained as iconic cultural landmarks on the Irish landscape. These symbols of Christianity first appeared from around the ninth century, and continued to be made until the twelfth century. They were created by Irish monastic communities – groups of Christian monks and nuns who lived in monasteries, and devoted their lives to their church. But why were the high crosses created?

What are High Crosses?

The Irish high cross is a stone-carved cross, standing vertically. Usually carved from sandstone, they are richly decorated, adorned mainly with intricately carved compositions of biblical scenes on all sides. Typically, the intersection of the horizontal and vertical members is supported by a ring or circle of stone. Often called a ringed cross or Celtic Cross, the ringed design is a distinctive feature of Irish high crosses, and has become a symbol of Ireland to this day.  

They can measure up to six metres in height and are usually situated outdoors. They were not used to mark graves, unlike the more modern versions to be seen in cemeteries throughout Ireland today. In the Middle Ages, high crosses were probably colourfully painted, though evidence of this is long gone, due to weathering over the centuries. It should be noted that Christian artwork of the time, such as the Book of Kells, exhibited glorious use of colour in its iconography. About 250 ancient high crosses survive in the Irish landscape to this day.

When were they made?

In antiquity, the Celtic Irish worshipped pagan gods. This changed when Christianity came to Ireland some time around the 4th or 5th century CE, probably from neighbouring Roman Britain. Some believe that Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Irish shores, after he had been taken from his home in modern day Wales and brought to Ireland as a slave. In the following centuries of the Early Middle Ages, Christianity spread throughout Ireland. Monastic settlements grew into great centres of learning, in places such as Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Kildare and Glendalough. 

Stone crosses probably evolved from earlier examples initially made of wood, and later made of metal. The Celtic Cross design is thought to originate on the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland. Around 563 CE, an Irish abbot named Saint Columba, or Columcille, and twelve followers crossed the Irish Sea to Iona. There they founded a successful monastery, which converted the local Pictish tribes to Christianity. Later, during the eight century, Celtic crosses started to be produced on Iona. Around the same time, the Book of Kells is thought to have been created there. In common with the Book of Kells, the Cross of Patrick and Columba in Kells, county Meath, depicts the symbols of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) – symbolised by the angel, the lion, the calf and the eagle. Due to the Viking raids starting in 794 CE, many Irish monks left Iona and returned to Kells in Ireland, bringing with them the Book of Kells, and perhaps, the design of the Celtic Cross. Some historians believe that the characteristic ringed design of the Celtic cross may have come originally from Jerusalem, via Egypt. 

Examples of high crosses exist in Britain also, particularly in Celtic areas, such as parts of Scotland, Wales, and Devon and Cornwall in England. However, most high crosses in Britain 

were damaged or destroyed during the iconoclasm that occurred after the Reformation. 


Where are the best examples?

  • Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, County Offaly. Dating from c. 900 CE, this cross is four metres in height, and is noted for the excellence of the relief sculpture, depicting scenes from the Crucifixion, the Last Judgement, and Christ in the Tomb. An inscription asks for a prayer for Flann Sinna, King of Ireland, and Abbot Colmán, the patrons who commissioned the cross.


  • Muiredach’s Cross, Monasterboice, County Louth. Built circa 9th or 10th century CE, this cross stands at 5.8 metres high. An inscription on the base of the cross in the Gaelic language translates as a prayer for Muiredach who had this cross made“. 


  • Cross of Patrick and Columba, Kells, County Meath. Erected in the 9th century, this cross is 3.3 metres in height. It is richly decorated with a mix of ornamental and figure carvings. 


How were they made?

Making a high cross was a major undertaking, requiring time and resources, such as skilled stonemasons.The high cross consisted of three separate stone pieces: the base, the cross itself, and a capstone on top. The stone blocks were erected at the chosen location before any sculpting was done. The blocks had carved joints so that they could be connected together securely. Once the cross was in-situ, stonemasons began the work of carving the iconography onto the stone. 

On earlier crosses, decoration was in the form of abstract, geometric patterns – celtic knots, interlace patterns and vine scrolls were popular. Later, biblical scenes began to be introduced, with increasing complexity. Sandstone was the stone of choice, because it was readily available in the Irish landscape, and relatively easy to sculpt, but other stones such as granite and limestone were also used. However, high crosses were almost always outdoors, and sandstone weathers over time when exposed to the elements of wind, frost and rain, and particularly to acid rain. As a result, the iconography on some high crosses has been significantly eroded, making the images difficult to discern. It is likely that, during the Middle Ages, crosses were painted to highlight the scenes depicted on their surfaces. 

Where were they sited?

Crosses were usually located on the grounds of monastic communities. They may have been used as points of assembly for religious ceremonies. Some crosses may have been positioned to mark the boundaries of territories belonging to monasteries. These are called termon crosses, termon being a Gaelic (Irish) word meaning sanctuary or boundary.

Crosses were positioned with the main faces in an east-west orientation, facing sunrise and sunset. 

Why were they created?

It is probable that high crosses were used for Christian teaching purposes, however, evidence of this is limited. At this time in the Middle Ages very few people were educated, so it’s possible that the high cross iconography was used to educate and preach about the bible to illiterate Christians. This is why the biblical iconography depicted on the crosses have been referred to as “sermons in stone”. Historians believe that it is more likely that high crosses were made for a learned audience, consisting of monks, patrons and other nobles. Therefore, Christian ideas were conveyed to an educated monastic community and possibly, but to a lesser extent, to the largely illiterate laity. They may also have been built to commemorate the opening of a new monastery, or the death of a king. It is thought that they may have represented a status symbol, for the monastery or wealthy patron who commissioned them. 

Symbolic Meaning

Long before the arrival of Christianity, the people of Celtic Ireland had a tradition of erecting standing stones, called pillar stones. These sacred stones are believed to represent the Axis Mundi, or World-Axis – the link between the above, or ‘heaven’, and the below – earth. Pillar stones were usually erected in their natural shape, and symbols were etched onto the surfaces. These symbols included knots, symbolically representing unity and strength, and spirals, representing life and eternity. The written language of the Irish Celts, known as Ogham, was sometimes used in engraved inscriptions on pillar stones. The iconography of the Irish Celtic cross may be seen symbolically as the synthesis of Christian and pre-Christian Celtic traditions.

The Roman emperor Constantine legalised Christianity in 313 CE which led to the adoption of the religion throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine introduced the chi-rho symbol, depicted as: ☧. Chi and rho are the letters X and P, the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, meaning Cristos or Christ. The symbol is made by superimposing the capital X and P. The chi-rho symbol appears on many high crosses in Ireland.

The characters and scenes depicted on high crosses suggest a strong influence from European Christian art on Ireland during that time. Monks and sculptors may have travelled between Ireland and Europe, and brought Christian art motifs from Roman Europe with them. A major theme of cross iconography is the “help of God in adversity”, for example Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The theme of biblical miracles is also common, such as the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Eschatological themes also feature. Muiredach’s Cross has iconography depicting scenes from The Day of Judgement, as well as the Blessed and the Damned on Judgement Day.

The Irish high crosses represent far more than just the crucifixion, more than Jesus’ death. 

In fact, many earlier crosses do not depict Jesus himself on the cross. Rather, the cross itself represents Jesus symbolically, in terms of the crucifixion and resurrection. From a Christian perspective, it represents the saviour’s passion and redemption.


The arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the late twelfth century heralded the beginning of the end of high cross production in Ireland. The 250 or so monuments that still survive on the Irish landscape today hold a special significance. They have become an emblem of Irish and Celtic identity, and are an important part of our heritage. They act as a constant reminder of our unique artistic past and of Ireland’s outstanding contribution to art, architecture and education.

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