The high crosses of Ireland are among the most interesting artifacts of the island and are intimately identified with the island itself.
They are to be found everywhere, especially within vicinity of the most important centers of worship and are very numerous near the monastic sites.
Maybe the crosses were erected to identify sacred lands or to protect adjacent buildings.
The production of these important signposts depended on the availability of large monoliths and the knowledge of how to work them, from the cutting of the stone to the carving of the details, and how to mount them on the great bases that were planted on the ground.
Cross of Moone
A high cross is composed of a base, a monolithic shaft that terminates with the horizontal arms of the cross, sometimes joined by a circle for practical motives,
and is often topped by an element like a reliquary.
Cross of Muiderach, Monasterboice
Another variety, the so-called ogham stones, are monolithic stone slabs with inscriptions. in most cases sandstone was used.
The decorative repertory includes both abstract designs and Christian subjects drawn from the Bible. The former derive from metal work; with regard to the latter, in a number of cases it has been possible to identify a single workshop source.
Daniel in the lions’ den, Cross of Moone
These are the crosses, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments, located in the central and eastern parts of the island at Durrow, Kells, Clonmacnoise and Monasterboice.
The first motive for erecting the great monoliths was undoubtedly the representation of the cross, but there are some examples with the abstract interlace designs that also appear in the illuminated manuscripts and enjoyed such a long period of diffusion.
The best known examples are the crosses of Clonmacnoise and Monasterboice, some of which present scenes of the Passion of Christ, and the Moone High Cross, with stories from the Old and New Testaments.
At Clonmacnoise, at the center of the island where an important monastic complex was founded in 545, the South Cross is decorated with panels of interlace motif, while the Cross of the Scriptures, probably from the early 10th century, shows scenes from the New Testament related to the Crucifixion.
The Cross of Muiderach at Monasterboice, one of the most important masterpieces of stone in medieval Europe, crafted in about 920, is decorated with scenes from the Bible and the Gospels. On the eastern side the scenes include Adam and Eve, Cain slayng Abel, David and Goliath, the Adoration of the Magi, and in the center of the cross the Final judgment and the Weighing of the souls. On the western side the scenes represent the Passion of Christ and at the center the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
North cross, Clonmacnoise
At Moone, one of the tallest crosses is decorated with biblical scenes, each surrounded by a smooth flat frame, put into relief by the deepened background plane, creating a tight orderly composition.
Sacrifice of Isaac, Cross of Moone
The high crosses, which a census numbered at over two hundred examples, date to the early middle Ages, between the 9th and 10th centuries. Some of their iconographic characteristics are comparable to those of Northumberland, while the presence of some subjects indicate contacts with Rome and Italy.
In some cases there are inscriptions with the names of abbots and kings who commissioned those works, confirming the prestigious origin of the high crosses.
H. Richardson, J. Scarry, An introduction to Irish High Crosses, Cork 1990.
N. Edwards, The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland, London 1996.
R. Belcari, Crosses of Ireland, in R. Belcari, G. Marrucchi, Art of Middle Ages, New York 2007, pp. 121-125.