High Crosses: Icons of Ireland

You see them all over Ireland, often in the most picturesque rural surroundings, standing alone like sentries, high Celtic crosses with faded stories carved into every inch of space. They are extraordinary -- mournful and unforgettable -- but when they were created, they served a useful purpose: They were books, of sorts, in the days when books were rare and precious. Think of the carvings, which inevitably explain the stories of the Bible, as illustrations acting sort of like cartoons explaining the Bible to the uneducated population. When they were created, the crosses were probably brightly painted as well, but the paint has long been lost to the wind and rain.

The Muiredach Cross at Monasterboice has carvings telling, from the bottom up, the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, and Moses, as well as the wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. At the center of the old cross, the carving is thought to be of Revelation, while, at the top, St. Paul stands alone in the desert. The western side of the cross tells the stories of the New Testament, with, from the top down, a figure praying, the Crucifixion, St. Peter, Doubting Thomas, and, below that, Jesus' arrest. On the base of the cross is an inscription of the sort found often carved on stones in ancient Irish monasteries. It reads in Gaelic, "A prayer for Muiredach for whom the cross was made." Muiredach was the abbot at Monasterboice until 922, so the cross was probably made as a memorial shortly after his death.

Another excellent example of a carved high cross is to be found at the monastery of Clonmacnoise near Shannonbridge.

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