Celtic cross monuments are a common sight across Great Britain and Ireland. The rugged landscape is dotted with hundreds of these ancient sculptures. They are usually made of stone and are easily recognised by the distinctive circle around the intersection of the arms of the cross. There are a number of sites in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland where these ancient monuments can be seen. Large crosses are found at monasteries, abbeys, churchyards and often at the intersections of major roads. Smaller monuments are found marking personal graves in cemeteries all across Britain.
Origins of the Celtic Cross
There are a number of theories about the origins of the Celtic cross. One is that Saint Patrick, the famous missionary to the Irish people, inscribed a traditional Latin cross over the top of a drawing of the Celtic moon goddess (represented by a circle) to symbolise the supremacy of Christ over the pagan deities. Another theory is that the cross is a Celtic version of the "chi rho," the early Christian symbol comprised of the first two letters of the Greek name of Christ. In this theory, the circle replaces the rho and the cross replaces the chi. A third variation of the origin is based on early Scottish crosses that were adorned with a round millstone such as was used to grind grain. This is seen as a reference to the Eucharist. Other suggestions for the meaning of the circle include the world, resurrection, eternity, the love of God, Christ's crown of thorns, or a halo.
The Cornish coast of England is especially rich in Celtic cross monuments. Two notable locations in Cornwall are the cemetery at Zennor Hill and St. Michael's Mount in West Penwith.
Other English crosses worth seeing are the Aspatria Cross at St. Kentigern's Church, Aspatria (Cumbria), the Bakewell Cross in Bakewell, Derbyshire, and the Viking Cross of Gosforth (also in Cumbria). This cross is especially noteworthy, as it was originally built in 940 A.D., and stood at a height of 4.5 meters. It was cut down in the late 18th century, but has been restored.
The Scottish isle of Iona is famous for its ancient abbey. This abbey is home to several Celtic cross monuments, including St. Martin's Cross, St. John's Cross, and St. Oran's Cross
Whithorn is considered the location of the oldest Christian church in Scotland, dating to the 4th century. One of the oldest-known Celtic cross monuments, the Monreith Cross is located here.
Elsewhere in Scotland, Kidalton Cross, located at the Old Parish Church of Kildalton, is considered to be an excellent example of a Celtic cross monument. It was raised during the last half of the 8th century. It depicts scenes from the Old and New Testaments, lions, and bunches of grapes.
There are around 450 Celtic cross monuments in Wales. The standing crosses such as those in Ireland were not used in Wales until the 9th century, so the Welsh crosses appear more as panels or slabs. Rarely, a Welsh cross had a round pillar-like shaft instead of the more common square-shaped shaft. Some locations in Wales where Celtic cross monuments are to be found are Glamorgan (there are three there), Llantwit Major, Margam and Merthyr Mawr. About half of the Celtic crosses in Wales are in three locations. Other crosses can be found in St. David's in Dyfed and at Penmon Priory on Anglesey in Gwynedd. A notable example is the Conbelin Cross from Margam Abbey, South Wales.
One spot in Ireland where Celtic crosses are found is Clonmacnoise in County Offaly. Clonmacnoise was a 6th century monastery founded by St. Ciaran.
Monasterboice, in County Louth, is another spot in Ireland to see Celtic cross monuments. Two of the three "high crosses," as they are also called are considered by many to be the finest in Ireland. One of these crosses is over 7 meter tall. These crosses are sculpted with both traditional Celtic designs as well as scenes depicting events from both the Old and New Testaments.
The monastery at Kells is most famous as the birthplace of the 9th-century Book of Kells, but is also home to several Celtic cross monuments. One of the most famous of these is known as the Market Cross. The Market Cross depicts scenes from the Bible, contemporary scenes of animal husbandry, and scenes of mythical animals and battles.
Celtic Crosses in Popular Culture
There are a number of organisations who have adopted a form of the Celtic cross as part of their logo. These include the Church in Wales, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Church of Ireland. The Celtic cross has become a popular symbol and ornament throughout the world. It appears often on items such as ecclesiastical vestments, wedding rings and other jewellery, church signs and architecture, books, and gravestones or memorial markers. Many people like the Celtic cross because it combines their Celtic heritage with their Christian faith.