Planning Your Visit to Ireland? The Iconic Irish High Cross
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
They are instantly recognisable, and have spawned a whole genre of tourist souvenirs. They are worth seeing, though, and can be found at many early Irish monastic sites. I saw these recently at Clonmacnoise.
The Cross of the Scriptures
Also known as the West Cross, the Cross of the Scriptures (Cros na Screaptra in Irish) is located directly before the main entrance to the cathedral, or Daimliag. It was erected in 909AD by St Colmán and the King of Tara, Flann Sinna, to commemorate their alliance, and to inaugurate the founding of the Daimliag. On the east face of the cross, there is a panel depicting the two men planting the first post for the church. The detail is fantastic… look at Flann’s long hair and even longer moustache, and Colmán’s finely embroidered robes and tonsured head!
This carving is also intended to represent the founding of the monastary c.550AD by St Ciarán and the then King of Tara, Diarmait mac Cerbaill. The cross is lavishly decorated with other religious scenes, and features carvings of mounted warriors and horse-drawn war chariots in a scene carved on the base. It is carved from sandstone and stands four metres high.
The West Cross is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters in AD957 (click here and scroll down to M957.10):
‘The Termon [santuary/ monastary] of Ciarain was burned this year, from the High Cross to the Sinainn [River Shannon], both corn and mills.’
And also in AD1060 (click here and scroll down to M1060.5:)
‘The Eli and Ui-Forgga came upon a predatory excursion to Cluain-mic-Nois; and they took prisoners from Cros-na-screaptra, and killed two persons, i.e. a student and a layman. God and Ciaran incited the Dealbhna, with their lord, i.e. Aedh Ua Ruairc, to go in pursuit of them; and they defeated and slaughtered them, killing, among others, the Tanist of Ui-Forgga, who had slain the student. The Dealbhna arrived at rising-time on the following morning, bringing the prisoners to the place whence they had been taken.’
The South Cross
The South Cross is earlier, dating to the 800s. The west face shows a crucifixion scene, but the rest of the carving is abstract in design. Post holes found beneath the cross, and also beneath the Cross of the Scriptures, indicate evidence of earlier wooden crosses, and indeed the prominent bosses are thought to be imitations of studs which held decorative metal panels onto the original wooden crosses. The South Cross has an inscription commemorating Máel Sechnaill mac Máele Ruanaid, who was Flann Sinna’s father, and which dates to his reign, 846-862AD.
Both of the crosses depicted here are faithful replicas. The originals were moved indoors to the visitor centre where they are now safe from further weather erosion.
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