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Celtic High Crosses

The high crosses represent the largest body of freestanding sculpture between the Roman Empire and the Italian city-states of the Renaissance. Although the dates of the crosses are controversial and difficult to pinpoint, scholars generally agree that they date from the late 8th century to the 12th century, with the ninth and tenth centuries as the most productive period. Compounding this issue is that wooden crosses, though none survive, were probably the precursors of the stone crosses.

Early textual references to crosses do not always differentiate between wood and stone. Made from local stone, the surviving early medieval crosses are generally grouped into two categories: those with narrative scenes and those with abstract ornament. Some crosses, such as the cross at Castledermot, have both ornamental and narrative panels. [view details of the North Cross at Castledermot - view details of Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice]

Speculative colored crosses

The crosses today look very different from their original appearances. Weathering has taken a toll on the surfaces of the soft sandstone, from which many of the stones are carved. Also, recent scholarship suggests that the crosses would have been painted to highlight the figures and ornament.

Although highly conjectural, the colors would no doubt resemble those found in metalwork and manuscripts: yellow, green, blues, and dark reds. The narrative panels include Old and New Testament scenes as well as scenes from the lives of saints. The saints could be local, such as St. Ciarán, or pan-European, such as St. Anthony. Many of the scenes are difficult to decipher either due to the weathering of the stone, or to our lack of iconographical tools to identify the highly abbreviated narrative.


The high crosses served a variety of functions. The crosses are typically located within a monastery. The crosses often marked the boundaries of monastic lands, or important crossroads. Other crosses served devotional or penitential functions. Still others commemorated a miraculous event, the dedication of a church, or a sacred spot associated with a saint. Inscriptions, when discernible, ask that prayers be said for the patron. No doubt, a monastery could possess a number of crosses, both wooden and stone, that served a variety of purposes.
Location of Celtic High Crosses with links