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Realizing the presence, promise, and power of the Kingdom of God.

To Receive New Signs

The art of the ancient Irish Christians.

Irish High Crosses (1)

The transition from pre-Christian mythic feeling to Christianity took place in Ireland…in an unbroken, harmonious fashion. Old mythology was complemented and enriched around the Christian mystery. Accordingly Irish Christian symbolism in its early stages displays parallels with the pre-Christian symbolism and the development from it which is quite unique. Creativity flows into the traditional material and the old spirituality unites with the new. Witnesses to this transition are old ritual stones (menhirs and pillars) on to which Christian symbols had been carved. It is as though they were “baptized” and made fit to receive the new signs.

 - Jakob Streit, Sun and Cross[1]

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them… Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.

 - Genesis 1.27, 31

Art is not a subject that occupies the time or attention of many of us, at least, not for very long. Most of us are not habitués of the local art museum; we probably don’t own a subscription to the symphony; we haven’t studied a painting or sculpture recently, and we’d be hard pressed to name a favorite poet. Art’s OK for those who are into that kind of thing. But most of us are not.

Yet art has played a powerful role in the Christian movement from the earliest days of the Church. Christians in every generation have understood that, as the image-bearers of God, we are made for creativity, and the arts are a varied and potent outlet for such work.

Every human being possesses an aesthetic sense and a creative bent; we like pretty things, and we like to express ourselves in pleasing ways, even if they’re only pleasing to us. We can’t get away from the artistic aspect of human nature.

Celtic Christians ultimately created a vast and flowering contribution to the arts. Not at first, as Jakob Streit points out, but as the faith spread and matured throughout Ireland the various Christian communities began to awaken to the power of art to express their deepest convictions. Then a movement of the arts began which borrowed on native styles and traditions to develop an entirely new expression of the arts which proclaimed the Christian story.

And among these, the high crosses of Ireland are the consummate achievement.

God is the Supreme Creator, the Great Artist, Who brought into being out of nothing a creation of such vastness, wonder, beauty, diversity, order, color, sound, dimension, scope, and harmony that He could confidently pronounce Himself pleased with what He had made. The creation of God was good in His eyes; it pleased God, reflected His own character, refracted His being, and served the purposes for which He created it.

Then God made human beings in His own image and after His own likeness. That being so, we must be in some sense creators as well, as Paul Johnson argued in his book, Creators. Further, and unlike animals, humans can appreciate and celebrate the goodness of creation, and of the creative work of others.

God has endowed us with a spark of divinity. And the potential of that divine spark to ignite in us the warmth of rapture, vision, and mind-boggling delight is tapped, in part, through the experience of beauty. Irish Christians seemed to understand this quite well.

In the Scriptures, as soon as human beings began to fill the earth and spread out over its surface, they engaged in artistic expression of various kinds. They created musical instruments, wrote poems and songs, drew and painted, and began making everyday items adorned with lines and patterns and colors, which have no useful purpose except to satisfy man’s artistic urge. Made in God’s image, even those who reject Him and His Law cannot help expressing their likeness to Him—and their need of Him—through art.

God made human beings to be creators, as He is our great Creator; we are inescapably artists all. Thus the arts in all their forms are an integral aspect of our humanity. To ignore or to deny them is to frustrate our development as people made to reflect the very essence, purpose, and character of God in the world. We gasp and weep with joy to observe a magnificent landscape or the brilliant colors of fall, and this is but a reminder that something in our being hungers for the nourishment only art can provide.

In this study we’re going to look at some of the high crosses which began to appear in the afterglow of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD). We will consider the provenance and style of these crosses, examine the distinctive features, and take a closer look at their composition and purpose. Our hope is that this brief tour of one aspect of Christianity’s vast trove of artistic treasures will connect with the artist in each one of us, enabling us to receive the old, old story of Jesus in some new signs, so that it awakens in us an appreciation of the power of art to renew, reinforce, and refresh our knowledge of and love for our Creator God.

For Reflection
1. How would you describe your use and appreciation of the arts at this time?

2. Have any arts—painting, poetry, hymnody, etc.—been helpful to you in your walk with and work for the Lord? Explain.

Psalm 96.1-4 (Mit Freuden Zart: All Praise to God Who Reigns Above)
Sing to the LORD! O, bless His Name! All nations tell His glory!
Salvation’s tidings loud proclaim; let earth rehearse His story!
For God is greatly to be praised; His throne above all gods is raised!
Fear Him and sing His glory!

Thank You, Lord, for art and its power to delight and to teach. Help me to…

T. M. Moore

Support for Crosfigell comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Streit, p. 111.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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