What does the Celtic Cross Mean to You?
Do you or your family have Celtic Crosses? What does the Celtic Cross mean to you? Is it a personal expression of your faith, or perhaps your Irish heritage? Is it a cherished memento of a trip to Ireland, a reminder of a wonderful holiday here? One thing is for sure, we can find Celtic Crosses wherever we find people of Irish descent.
The Celtic Cross is one of the most universally recognised symbols of Ireland. Even to this day, over 200 original historical examples of carved stone Celtic Crosses still exist in Ireland. You can find contemporary graveyard monuments in every county throughout the land.
But did you know that the origin and symbolic meaning of the Celtic Cross is shrouded in mystery? It is still a subject of great debate, even amongst scholars and researchers today.
No-one really knows the origins of the Celtic Crosses.
Christianity arrived in Ireland in the mid-5th century and rudimentary circular crosses appeared from the earliest times. The form and intricacy of design later evolved into the impressive High Crosses of the 8th-9th century onward. How did these designs come about? What did they mean?
In Irish tradition, St Patrick made the Celtic Cross during his mission to convert the “heathen Irish natives” to Christianity. He took their circular symbol for sun/ moon worship and overlaid it with a cross to signify Christ’s dominion. It was widely recognised as a Celtic Christian symbol thereafter. The circle represents God’s everlasting protection and love for his people, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
However, we know that a simple cross and circle glyph appears in many early civilisations and cultures. Consider “The Eightfold Wheel of the Year” depicting the Druidic Festivals. What about the wheel of the Celtic thunder god Taranis, or Odin’s Wheel in Norse mythology? Even the Medicine Wheel of the Native Americans? Each of these uses similar iconography, and there are many more examples worldwide.
Some researchers point out the similarities to the Chi-Rho symbol. This Christian symbol consists of the intersection of the capital Greek letters Chi (Χ) and Rho (Ρ), the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek. Certainly, there is a resemblance here on a panel from a Roman sarcophagus ca. 350 CE. (Vatican Museum)
Seanchaithe and Sailors
Here in Ireland, some storytellers say that the first Celtic Crosses are re-carvings of existing megalithic “chloch fada”. These standing-stones, or menhirs, were adapted by the native population when Christianity became widespread. In addition, many of these stones are located on energy lines. These magical places have deep spiritual meaning and measurable electro-magnetic properties!
In 1997, a Scotsman named Crichton Miller, a qualified yachtsman and navigator, concluded the Celtic Cross to be an early sextant, used to navigate the open seas. Remarkably, his ancient working cross model works perfectly as a sextant and holds two patent awards. The cross was demonstrated twice at Cambridge University in 2006 and 2007. Did St. Brendan the Navigator use this instrument, perhaps?
Despite the lack of definitive evidence, or even consensus as to the origin and meaning of the Celtic Cross, it remains one of Irelands most treasured icons and is a meaningful symbol to many.
Celtic Crosses and High Crosses you can still visit today!
Here on the Skellig Coast, home of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael, there are archaeological evidences of some of Ireland’s earliest Christian settlements. Monks inscribed different forms of circled crosses on upright stones, and some still exist from the 6th and 7th century on private property. In County Kerry, at the famous Gallarus Oratory site on the Dingle Peninsula, you can see an encircled cross inscribed into a 1.1m-high upright stone slab. You can arrange your visit here:
From the 8th century onward, Celtic Crosses began to appear as large free-standing structures – the High Cross. Heavily decorated in Celtic designs, often with biblical scenes, they mark out important locations and illustrate the gospels for evangelism. Building a huge cross in stone was also a crafty way to prevent Viking raiders from plundering all the treasures of the churches and abbeys. It seems that gold, silver and jewelled treasures can be easily looted, but massive stone crosses, 10-20ft high, are unlikely to be an attractive haul for raiders!
You can visit a stunning example in Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, from the 10th century. The East face of “The Cross of The Scripture” shown here depicts The Last Judgment, with angels and devils, Christ, Moses, Aaron, Hur and even Ciaran and Diarmuid who erected the foundation post at the site. An interpretative centre now preserves the original cross, and a faithful replica stands outdoors in its place. You can arrange your visit here:
The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of The High Crosses
In the 12th century, another series of High Crosses appeared in Ireland, sometimes attributed to the Normans arriving on Ireland’s shores. Sadly, by the 16th century, events of the Reformation had destroyed many of the original High Crosses, and their occurrence dwindled drastically. However, in the mid 1800’s, at the time of the Irish Famine and mass emigration, a literary and artistic movement known as ‘The Celtic Revival” occurred. This resurrected international interest in Irish Art and Culture, and the Celtic Cross became popular again.
From the 1860’s Celtic Crosses began appearing as grave monuments all over Ireland. Furthermore, they appeared in other countries such as the United States and Australia where the Irish had recently emigrated.
On any trip to Ireland, you will encounter cemeteries filled with Celtic Crosses. You can make beautiful photographs showing their dramatic outlines against the sky.
Celtic Crosses in Modern Times
- Celtic jewellery is always very popular with young and old alike. Traditional and contemporary versions are a beautiful way to represent one’s personal heritage and beliefs. You can browse Skellig Gift Store’s range here:
- Did you know that the Celtic Cross is one of the most popular tattoo designs? Over 1.6m internet search results can’t be wrong!
- In the era of 3d imaging and printing, you can find some very impressive projects based on the Celtic Cross. Here’s the Cross of The Scriptures!
- You can visit many sites that feature Celtic Crosses, High Crosses, Abbeys, Churches, and other Christian Heritage sites throughout Ireland. Check out the following official Irish Tourism sites for inspiration: http://www.discoverireland.ie/ http://www.wildatlanticway.com
- A heart-warming 2016 find is a giant 100m (328ft) long Celtic Cross of Japanese Larch trees within a Donegal forestry plantation. This noteworthy discovery thrills everyone who sees it. Sadly, it’s creator Liam Emery had passed away 6 years earlier. His legacy creation will be visible for the next 60-70 years, as the leaves turn yellow in The Fall. You can watch an Autumn fly-over of this breath-taking site in HD right here:
We hope you’ve enjoyed our introduction to the Celtic and High Crosses of Ireland.
It’s a fascinating subject to study, you can immerse yourself for hours in this Irish symbol alone! What are your thoughts on the Celtic Crosses of Ireland? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.
Are you planning a trip to Ireland? You can be sure of a Céad Míle Fáilte from the Skellig Gift Store here in Waterville, on the Skellig Coast in County Kerry.
Featured below are some of our favourite products depicting the Celtic Cross. They make thoughtful gifts, or you could just treat yourself 😉