High Crosses are the most iconic and artistically significant stone monuments of medieval Ireland surviving in clusters in many ecclesiastical settlements of the period such as at Clonmacnoise, Durrow or Ahenny and singly at other sites throughout the country. Their normal configuration consists of four elements: the base, the shaft, the head and the capstone. The base is often stepped and is often of considerable size. Shafts range from rather squat monuments to very tall, slim ones that sit precariously on their bases. The distinctive cross-head with a hollowed ring was normally carved from the same stone block as the shaft. The capstones placed on the top of the crosses take the form of a small church, a tomb or in the case of the Ossory Crosses, a bee-hive. The crosses are divided in panels with either figurative or abstract decorative carvings. The decorative carvings, consisting of interlace, fretwork and spirals, echo many motifs that are also evident on early medieval metalwork and in insular manuscripts.The figurative panels usually depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, saints’ lives and other diverse images. The principal New Testament scenes, usually carved in the centre of the ringed cross are the Crucifixion and Christ in Judgement or in Majesty. The positioning of these scenes so centrally clarifies the core message of these monuments: the crosses are symbolic of the redemption of humanity through Christ’s sacrifice. Other panels that occur frequently include Adam and Eve with the Tree of Life, King David playing the harp, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and the Desert Fathers, Paul and Anthony. Each cross was organized to narrate the bible visually to their audience. Many crosses include processions and hunting scenes, some of which probably tell of local episodes in the lives of saints and kings.
The date of most crosses is difficult to establish: some, including the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise incorporate foundational inscriptions that mention individual patrons. In that particular instance Flann Sinna, king of Tara (d. 916) and Colmán, abbot of Clonmacnoise (d. 926) are commemorated as being the patrons. The latest high crosses to be erected seem to date to the mid-twelfth century and were built for patrons such as the O’Conor kings, Toirdelbach and Ruaidrí, in their capital at Tuam. The origin of this unique cross form is yet undetermined. The original concept may have emanated from the jewelled cross that stood on Mount Golgotha, the place of Christ’s Crucifixion and the ring may symbolize a classical wreath of victory. St John’s Cross on Iona has been viewed as almost experimental in reflecting a transition of carving crosses in wood to working in stone. It is possible that the Iona crosses were the earliest carved crosses and they possibly date to the eighth century AD. In Ireland, regional groups exist based on their shape, their iconography and their decoration: among these regional clusters are the highly decorative Ossory Crosses (e.g. the Ahenny Crosses, Co. Kilkenny), the Midland-Leinster Crosses (e.g. Clonmacnoise, Durrow, Monasterboice), Northern Crosses (e.g. Arboe, Clones) and later crosses (e.g.Cashel, Glendalough, Tuam). High crosses had a range of different functions: they marked sanctuary boundaries in major ecclesiastical settlements, they offered visual images – probably painted – of biblical scenes and were used a focal points of devotion, prayer and preaching for the wider laity. For a detailed overview of high crosses see R. Moss, Art and Architecture of Ireland Volume 1: Medieval c. 400-c.1600. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2015 pp. 121-223.