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Crosfigell

Unity and Continuity

The Celtic art forms on the high crosses.

Irish High Crosses (10)

It could be said that until the fifth and sixth centuries there was a period of gradual consolidation and inner growth which culminated in the flourishing monastic culture of Columcille’s time (sixth century). From now on Ireland was thought of on the Continent as “the Island of the Saints.” The wealth of Christian culture in the seventh and eighth centuries created that spiritual inclination towards the norther part of the Continent which inspired Ireland to Christianize it. There was no rigidly defined doctrine or any desire to organize in any ecclesiastical sense, but a movement borne along by enthusiasm and religious zeal which boldly spread the news of the advent of the incarnate Logos as the “new testament” and taught the forms of human relationship that accorded with that.

 - Jakob Streit, Sun and Cross[1]

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…”

 - Acts 17.26, 27

Speaking before an audience of philosophers and religious zealots, Paul sought to bring their disparate views together in one stunning proclamation of God and Jesus Christ. He acknowledged their religious zeal (v. 22), the objects of their worship, and even their “unknown god”. He quoted two of their respected thinkers and then drew all that was familiar to them together in declaring God as Creator and Sovereign Lord and Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of the world.

Something like this happens as well on the high crosses of Ireland.

As we have seen, Christians during the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD) took a similar approach to the pagan religions of Ireland, and to their art. Early Christian evangelists and thinkers acknowledged the inherent beauty and deep meanings embodied in Celtic art, even as they showed Jesus to be the fulfillment of all their hopes.

When Irish Christians began creating a distinctly Celtic art of their own, they easily incorporated symbols from native art which could fit the Christian worldview. Lacework and keywork told of the order and unity of the cosmos. Spirals spoke of time and eternity. Depictions of flora and fauna, often in exaggerated forms, acknowledged the teaching both of Celtic religion and Christian Scripture that God reveals Himself in creation. Triskeles and balls bore witness to the triune God, the cosmos, and Christ as the Sun of righteousness, risen with healing in His wings.

We can see this incorporation of images from Celtic art in the high crosses of Ireland. For example, one side of the Monasterboice high cross is almost entirely covered with lacework. On another cross lacework, spirals, and ropework adorn, surround, and seem to flow from the central figure of the sun. Four other crosses feature lacework, spirals, floral decoration, and triskeles.

The use of these pre-Christian Celtic art forms appears on nearly every high cross to some extent. Typically, these forms are not confined to one panel or section of the cross but appear throughout the sculpture, often framing the entire cross or providing thematic glimpses spread here and there throughout the sculpture. The use of these Celtic forms has the effect of bringing unity to the entire cross, both in overall design but, I believe, in other ways as well.

The artists who created the high crosses of Ireland discerned the grace of God in the art of their forebears. Not in all their art, but in enough that they were persuaded they could use those forms to support the narration of the Gospel. Thus these artists helped the people they served retain a certain continuity with their forebears and their culture while, at the same time, ushering them into an entirely new worldview.

Use of these pagan art forms on Christian high crosses especially helped to unite the new Christian worldview with whatever was true in the pagan religions of Ireland, just as Paul had done in Athens. Yes, there is a transcendent realm. Yes, all the cosmos is orderly and bound together as creation. Yes, beauty can be discovered all around us. Yes, God speaks through the things of this world. God is always revealing Himself through the things He has made. Irish Christian artists brought their ancient faith to true form and expression by integrating pre-Christian forms on these crosses.

Finally, the Celtic forms used on Irish high crosses help communicate a single, overarching idea: the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Not only those who believe but all of creation are united in the saving and renewing work of Jesus Christ. For God so loved the world that He gave Jesus to reconcile and restore it. The high crosses of Ireland declare that conviction loud and clear. May we do so as well.

For Reflection
1. What do you understand by the phrase “common grace”? How do you see God’s common grace at work in the world?

2. Celtic Christian artists can teach us about seeing God in unlikely places. Explain.

Psalm 19.1-3 (St. Christopher: Beneath the Cross of Jesus)
The heav’ns declare God’s glory, the skies His work proclaim!

From day to day and night by night they shout His glorious Name!

No speech, no words, no voice is heard, yet all across the earth

the lines of His all-present Word make known His holy worth.

Thank You, Lord, for the grace You show to all people. Help me daily to…

T. M. Moore

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

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. 70

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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