Descriptions and Symbolism of Specific Historic Crosses
from Ireland and Scotland

St. Patrick's Cross, Muiredach's Cross, FARR STONE, Cross of Moone, Cross of the Scriptures, Duleek Cross


History and Symbolism
of Celtic Knotwork

Colum Cille Cross

Cross Pendants
By Walker Metalsmiths

Ordering information

Celtic Revival Crosses Article

catalog request


St. Patrick’s Cross

Carndonagh, County Donegal. Carved of red sandstone and accompanied by two short pillars. This primitive sculpture probably dates to the 7th century. It stands about 8 feet tall by the roadside at the church graveyard.

The art historian Francoise Henry wrote that this cross represents a transition in design in that it is one of the earliest stone cross sculptures to break free from the slab. Earlier cross monuments were carved on slabs but the Carndonagh pillar is cut out in the shape of a cross.

The central figure on the east face of the cross may represent Christ crucified, but on many early crosses "Christ in Glory" is depicted. We cannot be sure which of these scenes the artist was depicting. The two figures on either side of Christ’s head are angels. The two flanking his body, if it is intended o represent crucifixion would either be Mary and John, the two thieves or possibly the soldiers. Detail has certainly been lost that would make the meaning of the images more certain. It is believed that many of these monuments may have been painted originally and the fact that the carving on this monument is very shallow bolsters the argument that color may have been an important part of the original decoration.

The three figures below probably represent apostles. In the triangular areas under the arms of the cross are three birds on each side arranged in what Henry calls "trikitras". In the corresponding corners above the arms are knots that are frequently referred to as "triquetras" although she refers to them as "trifold knots". Triquetra was the common term for this symbol in the late 19th century but seems to have fallen out of use in the mid 20th century. Since this is the only Celtic knot that has a traditional name it is fortunate that in the past decade writers and artists have revived the use of the word triquetra.

The broad interlace of four double stranded triquetras that occupy the center of the cross are noteworthy as it may be among the oldest interlace in Irish art. The west side of the slab is totally covered with an all over broad weaving as well. Once the Celtic artist learned to devise interlaced ornament it was a very short time before the complexity and refinement far exceeded the eastern prototypes that introduced the style. The Carndonagh cross may survive from the time of the Irish artists’ very beginning to use interlace, a brief period when the style was bold and simple.


East side Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth

19th century Lithograph by Henry O'Neill

Muiredach's Cross dates from the early 10th century. It is one of the finest and best preserved of the Irish High Crosses. It is a "scripture cross" illustrating the crucifixion on the east side and the last judgment on the west side, with other Biblical stories and histories of saints illustrated in the many panels of relief sculpture. The total height is 18 feet, 5.5 meters.

Silver Muiredach's Cross pendant

The name "Muiredach" is inscribed at the base, where the inscription is intertwined around two cats. This asks for a prayer for Muiredach, for whom the cross was made. He was probably the patron who commissioned the work. Very likely abbot Muiredach mac Domhnaill who died in 923.

West side Muiredach's Cross as it appears today surrounded by modern Celtic Revival crosses

Drawing by J. Romilly Allen


A Class III Pictish cross slab 7 1/2 feet high and slightly over 2 feet wide located on the north coast of Scotland at Farr Church in Sutherlandshire. Dates probably from the 8th or 9th century, which makes it late as a Pictish monument. The four main elements of Celtic ornament, knotwork, spirals, key patterns and zoomorphic interlace, make up the whole of the design. None of the mysterious Pictish symbols nor iconographic story figures such as those seen on many Irish crosses are present.

From the central triple spiral the ornament spreads out into swastika like key patterns on the arms and top of the cross while endless knotwork fills the arcs of the circle and the shaft . The arch at the base of the cross is influenced by the Irish tradition of putting the cross on a massive base, which stylistically is a convention for the hill of Calgary.

Alexander Ritchie made a Farr Cross pendant in silver that is reproduced by Walker Metalsmiths.

The figures of two swans linked together at the necks introduce zoomorphic interlace into the scheme but in a very minimal way. Swans, because they mate for life are symbols of faithfulness. These figures lack the complexity of the fantastic bird and animal interlace of the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels which would be more or less contemporary with this monument. The intricate knotwork and fully developed key patterns that make up the balance of the designs show us that the artist is clearly not shy of intricacy. The simple elegance of the swans shows a sensitivity for shape in detail as strong as that of the overall composition.

The remote location of this stone and the combination of Scotic (Irish) influence on a predominantly Pictish monument makes one wonder about the community that produced it. What we now refer to as Celtic art was being established as an international style in those days. Yet the Picts, Irish, Dalriad Scots, Northumbrians and Welsh each practiced the style in their own way. Even though the Celtic Church thrived on the very edge of the world, Farr is on a coast that was remote even to them. The concentration of Pictish monuments are found around the Moray Firth and further south and east. The Iona group of crosses are more Irish in nature and in the west and southern Hebrides. The Farr stone is an unusual but sophisticated effort that is a successful synthesis of both worlds. One can only wonder what currents and eddies of ideas and influences washed up on that remote shore at the very top of Scotland.


Cross of the Scriptures  
or King Flann’s Cross

Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, 12 foot tall, buff millstone grit. Dated circa. 900 naming Flann Sinna, King of Ireland 879 - 916.

Overall the monument can be described as a ringed cross with a house reliquary capstone and a massive stepped base. The very large and ornate stone crosses of this period illustrate a trend in Celtic art away from the portable precious objects such as books and jewelry that had been such triumphs of imagination and skill in the early Christian period. It must have been devastating for artists and their patrons when the treasures they produced attracted the unwelcome attention of Viking raiders. Metalwork only baited the monasteries and churches for the invaders’ plundering adventures and so the creative emphasis shifted towards the large stone crosses. These monuments posed no great temptation to the raiders and their massive size has helped them survive time and weather, most in their original locations.

Like the other large "Scripture Crosses" at Monasterboise and Durrow many of the scenes are difficult to interpret but the main scenes follow a conventional program. On the west side in the center is illustrated the crucifixion, on the east side in the same location is the Last Judgment with the devil and the damned on one side and an angel with a trumpet and the blessed on the other. On the shaft below the crucifixion leading upwards are soldiers guarding the tomb of Christ, the flagellation and the arrest of Christ. A dove is on the boss where the ring intersects the lower shaft.

The Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise has been cleaned and moved inside for protection against the weather. A replica now stands on the original spot.

The east side from bottom to top include scenes of the founders of Clonmacnoise, St. Cairan and Dermot, The Mission of the Apostles and the three figures at the top panel may be Moses, Aaron and Hur or possibly Colmcille between two angels. The narrower North and South sides are also carved with scenes that are interpreted as St. Michael fighting with the devil, St. Matthew, a hunting scene, Jacob and the angel, St. John and a harpist with a lion that is probably David.

Biblical scenes of miraculous salvation of God’s chosen are popular themes on other scripture crosses. The three children in the fiery furnace, the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale are found on various crosses in Scotland and Ireland from the 9th and 10th centuries. The cross itself is a symbol of triumph. Earlier crosses rarely depicted the crucifixion and the empty cross was symbolic of Christ’s victory over death.

While very ornate, the Scripture Crosses have much less in the way of ornamental geometric designs and the fantastic animal and human interlace that is so typical of Celtic art. Not only was this a period of a crisis of security due to the Viking threat, it was also a period of religious reform. A stricter orthodoxy emerged, perhaps as a reaction to the cosmopolitan comfort of the monastic cities that had developed after several centuries of Christianity and also in reaction to the pagan rampage of the Vikings. The "Culdees" (i.e. céili Dé, vassals of God) were a strict, scholarly movement that dominated the Celtic Church in this period. There was thus a greater emphasis on scriptural content and away from ornament for its own sake.


Cross of Moone

Moen Cholum Cille, County Kildare. Site of an early Columban monastery. Granite about 16 feet tall. 8th or 9th century.

This cross of the "scripture" type is unusually slender on a very tall base with the original capstone missing. It was re-erected in the 19th century. This monument in its overall form is very elegant with sophisticated lay-out geometry. The figures on the other hand are primitive in the extreme.

The east face has Christ crucified in the center with a dolphin above. The east shaft is decorated with intertwined beasts. The base has three panels depicting Adam and Eve, the sacrifice of Isaac and Daniel in the lion’s den.

The west face has spirals in the center and top with angels on the arms. The shaft has four panels with animal symbols. The west base has another crucifixion with the spear bearing and sponge bearing soldiers above twelve figures representing the Apostles.

The north and south sides have panels depicting the temptation of St. Anthony, Ravens bringing bread for St. Anthony and St. Paul, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, flight into Egypt and the three children in the fiery furnace.

The Duleek Cross is known as the smallest "High Cross" in all Ireland.

Duleek, County Meath

A small sandstone cross at the site of an early foundation of St. Patrick. It stands about five feet above the ground, the base is buried and the cap stone is missing. The tenon that held it remains. The stone dates from the 9th century. It is one of the smallest of the so called "High Crosses" or Crosses of the Scriptures.

The east face is carved with classic Celtic ornament of knotwork, spirals and key patterns. The west face depicts the crucifixion with the spear bearing and sponge bearing soldiers. Panels on the shaft illustrate the nativity, the visitation and annunciation. The north and south sides are carved with panels of Celtic ornament and griffins on the ends of the arms.


Hillary Richardson & John Scarry AN INTRODUCTION TO IRISH HIGH CROSSES Mercier Press, Dublin 1990,  ISBN 0853429545

Francoise Henry IRISH ART IN THE EARLY CHRISTIAN PERIOD, Methuen , London 1940

J. Romilly Allen & Joseph Anderson THE EARLY CHRISTIAN MONUMENTS OF SCOTLAND 1903 Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Reprint Pinkfoot Press, Forfar, Angus 1993

J. Romilly Allen THE HIGH CROSSES OF IRELAND, Whiting & Co., London 1887 Llanerch facsimile reprint 1992

Marianna Lines SACRED STONES SACRED PLACES Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh 1992


History and Symbolism
of Celtic Knotwork

Colum Cille Cross

Cross Pendants
by Walker Metalsmiths

Celtic Revival Crosses Article

Visit our new website

catalog request


12 May 01