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Intimations of Trinity

No two Irish high crosses are alike.

Irish High Crosses (9)

A high cross may be described as a big, square pillar of stone terminating at the top in the shape of a cross. It is carved on four sides with carvings in low relief, often arranged in panels. It is set on a base of cubic or pyramid form, sometimes fashioned in a series of steps. The height varies from about three metres to four and a half metres or even six metres in a few cases. Normally a cross consists of three elements: a separate base, a shaft usually in one with the ring, and a cap-stone.

 - Hillary Richardson and John Scary, An Introduction to Irish High Crosses[1]

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

 - Genesis 1.26, 27

No two Irish high crosses are alike. They share familiar stories and draw on similar forms of Celtic ornamentation. But the location of the stories, the quality of the sculpture, the height of the cross, and the way Biblical and Celtic forms combine varies. All the most impressive of the Irish high crosses share the same structural elements, as Richardson and Scary explained: base, shaft, and cap-stone. The Moone Cross, illustrated here in outline only, provides an excellent example of the structure of these crosses.

The base is pyramidal and tiered. The shaft connects the base with the ring cross. I think an argument could be made that the ring cross is not part of the shaft but of the cap-stone, and that the cap-stone itself is merely part of the third structural element, the ring cross. The tallest of these crosses were not carved from a single stone; most consist of at least three separate carvings which are held together in various ways.

The question arises as to why this three-component structure was preferred. Why not just a shaft and ring cross (as, indeed, some of the carved crosses feature)? Or just a base and a ring cross? Or a base and shaft cross? Why three separate and readily discernible components to the structure of these high crosses?

While I have not come across any theological explanation for this practice, it’s not a stretch for me to imagine that Celtic Christian artists, under the supervision of priests, may have intended viewers of their crosses to be in a trinitarian mindset as they observed and meditated on these crosses. And that at possibly two levels.

The most obvious level is that of the divine Trinity. In the Trinity of God, each of the Persons is unique and yet each is fully God. Likewise with the Irish high crosses. Each segment is unique, but each is the cross—three structural elements in one overall structure. I do not know if this is what the artists and priests had in mind, but, knowing that Irish Christianity was orthodox at this period and fully immersed in early Christian theology, it would not surprise me to discover some priest or teacher who drilled his students on the nature of God as three Persons in one God using the three components in one cross.

Further, the structure of these crosses may also have spoken to the make-up of the human soul. For, like God, in Whose image people are made, the spiritual aspect of a human being—the soul—consists of three components: heart, mind, and conscience. Each of these is spiritual in nature and each performs a unique function so that all of them together can accomplish the purpose of the soul. The heart engages affections; the mind, thinking; and the conscience holds our default values and priorities.

Did Irish high crosses thus make a subliminal spiritual connection both with their creators and their students? Again, I find no evidence that the structure of crosses meant to appeal to the divine Trinity or the components of the soul. But I cannot help but feel that, if only at a subconscious level, some connection like this was frequently at work.

At any rate, the three-part structure of the best Irish high crosses can speak to viewers today of these foundational truths of the Christian faith: the Three-in-One nature of God and the three-in-one nature of the soul. As the crosses themselves assumed a function that standing stones had fulfilled—connecting earthly matters with heavenly—so even the structure of crosses may have served that purpose, if only at an unconscious level.

For Reflection
1. Do you see anything in your environment that speaks to you of the divine Trinity?

2. How do you experience the threefold nature of your soul?

Psalm 42.1-3 (Nettleton: Come Thou Fount)
As the deer pants for fresh water let my soul, LORD, pant for You!
Let my soul thirst as it ought to for the Savior, ever true!
Tears by day have been my portion, tears by night have been my food,
while my foes add to my sorrow, saying, “Where now is your God?”

Fill me with Your Spirit, Lord, and help me to live for you today as I...

To learn more about the Celtic Revival, download our free PDF, The Celtic Revival: A Brief Introduction, by clicking here.

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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

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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