19 What Basic Functions Must Animals Do To Stay Alive History and Origins of the Celtic Cross

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History and Origins of the Celtic Cross

The Celtic cross is a cross whose four “arms” are intersected by a central circular ring – a function of structural form and symbolism. While the roots of the Celtic Cross are likely in paganism with the ring symbolizing the sun and “renewal”, it has become a powerful symbol of Christianity and Irish heritage. The roots of the Celtic Cross can be traced back to Prehistoric Europe, where the “sun cross” – a circle with an “x” or cross shape scratched inside began to appear in cave drawings and burial sites. The image continued through the Bronze and Iron Ages evolving into the Celtic Cross. It is likely that the “cross” symbolized North, South, East and West.

Irish folklore tells the story of how St. Patrick combined the Christian Cross with the “sun” to emphasize the cross’s importance to pagan followers, giving birth to the Celtic Cross. Although there is very little truth in the tale. Around the 7th century, Irish monks in the Celtic regions of Ireland and Great Britain began erecting upright or “high” crosses, many of which incorporated the characteristic ring structure of the Celtic Cross. Many of these crosses survive today in Cornwall, Wales and the Isle of Iona along with many others in Ireland.

Early Celtic crosses often bore zoomorphic or animal images carved into the stone due to the influence of the style of animals common in the Iron Age. This is not surprising given that the herdsmen-warriors were so dependent on wild animals for food and clothing. This influence faded after the Iron Age, as art in Ireland and Britain passed into the “Insular Period”. Artists during the Insular Art period produced many Celtic crosses throughout Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the Hiberno-Saxon style. The “Insular Art” movement takes its name from the Latin word “Insula” which means “island”. This applied to the Isles of Britain and Ireland and spoke to the shared nature of artwork between the two regions that was very different from what was being produced in the rest of Europe. Celtic crosses of this time were ornate and often bore spiral geometric patterns that likely symbolized man’s “twisted” journey through life.

Around the 15th century, interest in the Celtic Cross and its influence as an art form waned. In the mid-19th century, a Celtic revival began which resulted in the appearance and greater use of Celtic crosses in Ireland. The Celtic cross became fashionable as a cemetery marker in Victorian Dublin around the 1860s. This revival continued to spread throughout Ireland and beyond and the symbol began to gain importance as a symbol of Irish heritage in addition to its religious connotation.

Today, the Celtic cross is commonly used as a grave marker, although this is a departure from the medieval and Celtic revival periods when the symbol was used primarily as a monument and had little to do with grave markers. The image of the Celtic cross has extended its influence into modern times, often featured in jewelry as an expression of Irish pride and Christianity. The symbol is also seen on everything from t-shirts to tattoos. The Northern Ireland national football team uses Celtic Cross imagery in their logo and branding. The symbol has also had some unfortunate attention and was recently banned from being displayed in Germany when a banned neo-Nazi party co-opted the image as a symbol of their movement.

Famous Celtic crosses that can still be seen today are at Cross of Kells, County Meath, Ireland; Ardboe Auld Cross, Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; crosses at Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland; and Cross of the Holy Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Ireland.

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