Celtic Crosses Designs
Origins, History of Cross Motifs in Hallstatt, La Tene Culture.

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Muirdeach High Cross (c.900)
Ancient Celtic Cross Design

Celtic Crosses Designs

What is a Celtic Cross?

A Celtic cross design is commonly thought to combine the shape of a regular "Christian-style" cross (the equal-armed "Greek Cross" or crux quadrata) with a ring surrounding the intersection of arm with the shaft, forming what is often called a "sun-cross" or "solar-wheel". However, the ancient Celts used at least one other cross-like symbol: the diagonal St Andrew's Cross (decussata).

Both types of cross-motif are seen in Celtic designs of the Hallstatt, La Tene and early Christian styles of Celtic art.

For facts and information about the
evolution of painting & sculpture
in Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish art.

See: History of Art Timeline.
For details of the evolution of
artworks from the Stone Age see:
Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For an outline of later styles, see:
History of Art.

Origins and History of Celtic Crosses

The Celtic "sun cross" or "solar-wheel" symbol has ancient, pagan origins, possibly originating in the Bronze Age societies of the Beaker (2800–1900 BCE), Unetice (2300-1600 BCE), Tumulus (1600-1200 BCE) or Urnfield cultures (1200-750 BCE). It also resembles the "ankh" - the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol of life: a tau cross surmounted by a loop, and called the crux ansata - which was extensively used by Coptic Christians in Egypt. Either of these explanations are feasible, not least because the Celtic tribes who arrived in Austria from the Caucasus around 800 BCE were highly skilled traders, who rapidly settled along the main waterway trade routes of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone. Given their network of trading contacts, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and along the Mediterranean coast of Europe, the Celts could have absorbed their cross-designs from almost anywhere.

For the history & development
of the iconography, zoomorphic
patterns and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Spirals Designs
Celtic Interlace Designs
Celtic Knots Designs

For facts about the craftsmanship,
artistry and artisanship for which
the Celts were justly famous, see:
Celtic Weapons Art
Celtic Jewellery Art
Celtic Sculpture.

Hallstatt Celtic Crosses

Whatever its precise origin, the Celtic sun cross can be found on numerous sheet-bronze vessels of the Celtic Hallstatt culture (c.800-475 BCE), which were commonly decorated with repousse crosses and solar-wheels in association. Later, it was incorporated into the design of many High Cross Sculptures during the early era of Christian religious art.

La Tene Celtic Crosses

During the Celtic La Tene culture (c.450-50 BCE) and especially in later Romano-Celtic art, the St Andrew's cross was also adopted as a religious symbol, possibly as a celestial motif to represent the sun or the stars. Romano-Celtic swastika-brooches were decorated with diagonal crosses, as were bronze figurines of the Gaulish Hammer-god. An image of the Celtic sky god at Scarpone (Moselle, France) bears a St Andrew's cross on his chest. Also a number of bronze model axes, such as those from the Woodeaton temple, exhibit "X" symbols on their blades.



Hiberno-Saxon Insular Art and High Cross Sculpture

Following the conversion to Christianity of the Irish Celts during the 5th and 6th centuries, a new Celtic artistic idiom began to emerge which embraced both pre-Christian iconography - such as Celtic crosses, knotwork, interlace, spiral and zoomorphic designs - and Christian imagery. In the 7th century, this idiom burst forth in the form of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon Art, notably in the creation of illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Durrow (c.670), the Lindisfarne Gospels (690-720), and the Book of Kells (c.800), especially its Monogram Page (Chi/Rho). This golden age of Celtic-style Christian art also produced a series of monumental sculptures, known as the High Crosses of Ireland, many of which featured the "sun cross" rather than the Roman cross: famous examples include: The Ahenny High Crosses, County Tipperary (8th-9th century); The Muirdeach High Cross, Monasterboice Monastery, Co Louth (c.900); The High Cross of Kells, Co Meath (10th Century); and the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Co Offaly (10th Century). Outside Ireland, examples of this type of free-standing sculpture can be seen in Cornwall, Wales, Iona, Scotland, the Hebrides, Northumbria in England and elsewhere. Construction of these scripture crosses flourished between 900 and 1100, although it continued as late as the 15th century, as in the Cross of MacLean on Iona.

High Cross Art

Made from sandstone, greystone, granite, or limestone, many of these scripture crosses accomodate a number of panels which are filled with carvings, typically of two main types: figurative and abstract. Figurative carvings generally display scenes from the Old Testament, or the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Abstract carvings comprise varying types of Celtic spiral or interlace designs, incorporating zoomorphic (animal-shape) motifs, knotwork, mazes, labyrinths or key patterns.

Function of High Crosses

The precise function, if any, of these monumental religious symbols is unknown. So far as we can tell they were used as boundary markers, for instance where parishes joined, or as monuments close to monastaries, cathedrals, or churches.

Characteristics of the Celtic High Crosses

The basic elements of the Celtic cross are: (1) a cross base; (2) an intersection; (3) a ring; (4) a capstone; (5) sculpture panels.

Cross Base
Construction usually starts with the cross base, an extremely weighty stone. The high cross is positioned into a socket in the base by means of a tenon.

Around the intersection of the shaft and arms of the cross, the ring is added, giving the cross its characteristic "solar wheel" look.

The cross is typically topped with a decorative stone block (an architectural finial), known as the capstone. The capstone is sometimes carved to resemble a small house, complete with roof.

Sculpture Panels
As mentioned above, Celtic High Crosses are typically ornamented with a considerable amount of sculpture - either figurative or abstract - designed to illustrate noteworthy episodes from the Bible or to highlight various styles and motifs of Celtic culture and design.

• For more about the history of Irish culture, see: Ireland Visual Arts.
• For more about painters and sculptors, see: Famous Irish Artists.
• For information about the design history of Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history of Celtic crosses, see: Homepage.

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