Ancient art in high crosses


The high crosses of Ireland are the most enduring legacy of a Christian past and a major contribution to medieval European art, writes Eileen Battersby.

They stand in ancient church yards, in the grounds of ruined monasteries or in some cases, are found in solitary isolated spots, all traces of the places of worship they once adorned long gone. Many are marked by time, and the relentless rain, wind and frost; others appear almost impervious. They all tell stories, the hands of forgotten master craftsmen once carefully carved episodic sequences of narratives onto their stone faces, leaving the viewer to gaze and think; grasp their meaning and consider their message. The magnificent high crosses of Ireland are among the most beautiful and enduring legacies of our Christian past.

Hewn from various stone, including sandstone and granite, they also represent a major contribution to the sculptural art of medieval Europe. They are Ireland's first great public sculptures. The artist will examine as closely as will the art historian and the archaeologist.

About 200 of them survive, in varying condition, many of them decorated with scriptural scenes. This iconography, some of it simple, some of it ingeniously complex, has been meticulously explored by archaeologist/art historian Dr Peter Harbison in his definitive three volume study, The High Crosses of Ireland (Bonn, 1992). It is a major work which is yet to be published in Ireland. In it Harbison has identified ancient Christian Rome from AD 400 onwards as the most likely inspiration for the Irish crosses, "but the figure sculpture may have come to our shores largely through the filter of the empire of Charlemagne and his sons in central Europe". The compositions for the biblical panels on the Irish crosses are often similar to those found on frescoes in continental churches.

ACCORDING TO HARBISON, the Irish masons and/or their masters should be credited with "the genius of adapting these compositions (and the tradition of classical figure carving) to the stone crosses, which almost miraculously, survive on the sites of many of the old Irish monasteries today". In a bid to conserve the crosses, arguments were made as to removing them from their original sites and erecting them in museums. Local opposition to such radical solutions suggested merely moving them either indoors, or under shelter, preferably at the original site, and leaving a replica to battle the elements. It made sense.

During the past 20 years or so, several of the high crosses have been moved indoors in an attempt to prevent further erosion. One of the first to be relocated was the cross at the Rock of Cashel which was re-situated in the Hall of the Vicar's Choral, a 15th century building.

The 12th-century cross at Tuam was moved into the Church of Ireland cathedral, while man not the weather caused the Market Cross at Kells to be moved. Having been damaged by passing trucks, the cross was relocated to the town's heritage centre. The resin copy of the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise is impressively convincing, while the original is housed on site in the interpretative centre. The plight of the vulnerable sandstone high cross on the Columban monastic site at Durrow, Co Offaly, approached near crisis levels. The cross stood in a damp spot, under a tree. Persistent drips from the foliage increased the corrosive attack. About two years ago the cross was moved into the deconsecrated 18th-century church at the site.

Another cross which has been moved is one of the most unusual and certainly the most elegant, the distinctive St Colmcille's Cross at Moone, Co Kildare, which dominates what was once a monastic site, believed to have been founded in the early 6th century by the saint who has far stronger ties with Durrow. Tall and slender, the Moone high cross stands 7.04 metres high, and is carved in granite, as are all the crosses of the Barrow valley group, including that of Castledermot, also in Co Kildare. The Moone high cross is a study in serenity and one might easily think it has stood on this peaceful spot since the 9th century. But it has been moved several times. In 1995 the cross was relocated from a site in a small ruined churchyard to the south of the ruined 10th-century church and re-erected inside the building.

ALTHOUGH THE CHURCH has not been re-roofed, a glass roof now protects the cross. It is no longer graced by the play of the light which now bounces off the glass above it, but it will have a greater chance of survival. If its recent history appears eventful, its past was even more traumatic.

One day in 1835 pieces of it were found buried in the ground. The fragments consisted of the base and the head which were pieced together and re-erected in 1850. So the cross stood again, albeit in a far shorter form. Almost 50 years later, the missing shaft was unearthed by chance when a grave was being dug. In 1893, the cross, now complete, was re-erected, its original height restored. Only the West Cross at Monasterboice, Co Louth, is taller.

But Moone is special for a far more significant reason than mere height. Its striking geometrical decoration with its balance of naive simplicity and curious sophistication appears to have been influenced by metal work designs. The most famous of its panels depicts the Twelve Apostles as stylised squat, square figures, arranged in three rows of four on the west face of the base, and positioned below the Crucifixion.

On the south face are other superb panels; such as the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, featuring five round loaves and two fish facing nose to nose. The loaves are flanked by what appears to be two eel-like fish. Other narratives include the Flight into Egypt, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the Lion's Den and the Fall of Adam and Eve. At one level, the cross is a beautiful object, testifying to the skill and imagination of the ancient stone masons. At another, though, it has a far deeper relevance as a statement of faith.

One can imagine a committed 19th-century lady antiquarian such as Margaret Stokes (1832-1900), arranging her long skirts about her as she settled down on the grass for an afternoon's sketching of a high cross. About the time of her death in 1900, the National Museum had already begun making the plaster cast replicas of 10 high crosses commissioned in 1898 by Col GT Plunkett, the then director of the museum. Education rather than conservation had been his aim. Art students could study them.

On a wider level, an opportunity to view the crosses in a centralised museum display, he argued would "increase the number of persons who will wish to see ancient monuments themselves and induce more travellers and tourists, Irish, English and Foreigners to travel about Ireland". The first completed replica was of the majestic, physically imposing Muiredach's Cross from Monasterboice. The casting took five weeks and cost £59.11s.10d. Complaints were voiced about heavy-handed museum staff who descended on the selected crosses armed with "iron tools" to wrest the lichen from the stone. The allegations were investigated, and according to the museum's records, "found to be without foundation".

Margaret Stokes was the first of several remarkable women to take an interest in Ireland's high crosses. Archaeologists and art historians recalls with affection Helen Roe (1895-1988) who published many articles on the subject including studies on the High Crosses of Kells in 1959 and on the Crosses of Western Ossory. In 1928, a young French art historian arrived in Ireland. Françoise Henry (1902-1982), a pioneering force, brought the Irish high cross to an international audience with the publication in 1933 of La Sculpture Irlandaise. She saw the crosses as central to Irish art and as important as the illuminated manuscripts and metal work. Her book on the high crosses was published in 1964. Harbison and others have acknowledged their debt to the French woman who championed Ireland's heritage.

A NEW BOOK from the Liffey Press, The High Crosses of Ireland: Inspiration in Stone, makes no claims to scholarship but does offer an attractive volume of colour photographs, detailing the major crosses. In her introduction, Elinor Powell recalls first seeing the high crosses as a child with her parents. Having spent her working life as a doctor in Canada, she began, during visits home, to photograph the crosses.

The resulting images, taken for pleasure rather than serious research, are more relaxed than conventional academic photographs, and are taken at angles instead of head-on. Yet despite showing Ardboe High Cross in silhouette, they are not all overly mood-shot either. The pictures catch the eye, but it should be pointed out that the 6th-century monastic site of Durrow, with its beautiful high cross, is in Co Offaly, some four miles outside Tullamore, and is not in Co Laois, as she states. Another error, on page 39, concerns the photograph of the Moone High Cross dated 1989; however, it must have been taken later as the glass roof over the cross is visible in the photograph.

In 2005, six of the National Museum's replicas, including Muiredach's Cross and the West Cross at Monasterboice, as well as the Ahenny North and South Crosses, the High Cross from Drumcliff, Co Sligo, and that of Dysert O'Dea, were repaired and travelled to Expo in Japan. The same six are on display at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, until tomorrow - and the ghost of Col Plunkett may well be heard applauding another chance for people to discover the beauty of the crosses and be inspired to venture beyond Dublin to see the original sculptures.

The High Crosses of Ireland exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin, finishes tomorrow. For further definitive reference see The High Crosses of Ireland by Peter Harbison (Bonn, 1992). The High Crosses of Ireland: Inspiration in Stone by Elinor DU Powell is published by the Liffey Press (€24.95)