The Celtic cross, or Irish cross, has taken many forms over the years and is believed to be an early symbol of Christianity in Ireland. The cross itself is based on a standard Christian cross, with intricate knotwork, known to the celts, as well as a nimbus ring supporting the bars and stem, how the ring became part of the cross is still a mystery. Some believe the cross came to be by mixing the traditional cross with a sun cross, a traditional pagan cross that symbolizes the sun and the concept of life. Others believe the cross came into being when the Christian cross met with the Egyptian ankh, said to be a mixture between a phallic, masculine, energy coupled with female energy.

The earliest known Celtic crosses have been dated to the early fifth and sixth centuries, with production continuing throughout Britain and Ireland into the 13th century, when they seem to have fallen out of favor. During the ninth century, the idea of High Crosses became popular. High Crosses towered above the traditional cemetery or church sites and many that are still extant today can be found near an ancient Irish monastery in Ahenny, County Tipperary, and Iona Abbey, a Gaelic monastery in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. One of the oldest stone crosses is located in Ireland at Carndonagh, County Donegal and is known as Saint Patrick’s Cross. Legend states a monastery was built here by Saint Patrick and Irish missionaries.

 

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF A CELTIC CROSS?

 

The Celtic cross is widely thought to be a Christian adaptation of the pagan sun cross.

The Celtic cross is widely thought to be a Christian adaptation of the pagan sun cross.

 

Though the precise symbolism and origin of Celtic crosses is still debated among historians and archeologists, one theory is Saint Patrick created the cross with the nimbus to connect the pagan gods to transition their faith to the Christian god. The nimbus, in this theory, is said to symbolize the sun cross and to persuade pagans to join the Christian movement.

The Sun cross is a circle separated into four equal parts by a vertical and horizontal line. Neither of these lines falls outside of the circle. This cross was used as worship by the early Europeans who worshiped the sun gods that blessed them with life. The four quadrants of the sun cross are believed to symbolize the spokes in a wheel, as the Sun God drives his chariot through the sky, turning the light in the sky throughout the different times of day, and all the seasons.

 

A wooden Egyptian ankh symbol from the Middle Kingdom, c. 1981 –1802 B.C. (Rogers Fund, 1912 / Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A wooden Egyptian ankh symbol from the Middle Kingdom, c. 1981 –1802 B.C. (Rogers Fund, 1912 / Metropolitan Museum of Art)

 

The Egyptian ankh could have some play in the creation of the Irish Cross as well. The ankh has long been known as a holy symbol to the Egyptians and Coptic Christians have adopted the symbol through the ages. The ankh is a powerful symbol of both earthly and divine spirituality. The ankh symbolizes both masculine and feminine energy, unlike the sun cross, a symbol of the wheel of the year and the radiance of the sun.

One thing can be said about these fine crosses, they have been a testament to the time and the Christian faith. Some dating back more than 800 years. If ever a chance arises, take the trip to see Irish architecture.

 

WHERE TO SEE CELTIC CROSSES TODAY

 

Some of the most remarkable examples of Celtic high crosses can be found at Monasterboice, County Louth.

Some of the most remarkable examples of Celtic high crosses can be found at Monasterboice, County Louth. (Shane Murphy / Wikimedia Commons)

 

Monasterboice, a ruined holy site in County Louth, has three large sized Celtic High Crosses. Muiredach’s High Cross is considered the most astounding High Cross, chiseled into the sandstone it shows depictions of biblical representation, old and new. The other is known as the West Cross and it stands at an enthralling 6.5m! The West Cross is believed to be one of the tallest remaining High Crosses in Ireland, not all is known about the original depiction on the cross a small amount of the Crucifixion remains. The third Cross, though mysterious, has lost much of its original art, and is disregarded as mundane.

Ahenny is considered another must-see landmark in County Tipperary. The two towers, called the North and South Crosses remain standing at 3.13m and 3.9m tall. With intricate knotwork and everlasting spirals, these sandstone crosses are typical for the 8th-century style of carvings, resemble much of the old wooden crosses placed in steel cages. The South Cross being the smaller of the two, faces east with its back to the west. The North cross also faces east, and is like the South Cross, aside from the mitered cap on top of the stone. This mitered cap is common in this style of representation and in this area.

Built in the 9th century in the county of Kilkenny you will find the Kilkieran High Crosses. Formerly knowns as Ciaran of Saighir, this monastery was made in honor of Saint Kieran, who is believed to be the first of the Irish Saints to actually be born in Ireland. There are three sandstone High Crosses, and there is a remnant of a fourth. The West Cross depicts images of chrysanthemums and eight horsemen, along with the beautiful geometrics of Celtic knot workings. The North Cross is unlike the others, as it does not have the nimbus, and the cross has a circular bottom. The cross is tall and slender and this artist decided to do hatch molding on the west facing surface. The last intact cross is plain but stands at 2.8m or 9.2 feet.

In County Offaly stands the Cross of the Scriptures. Probably the most well known High Cross in all of Ireland. The cross stands at the burial of Kings of Connaught and Tara. Though these Crosses are very popular and photographed often, the original crosses were moved to the Visitors Center in 1991. In their places stand credible replicas.

 

CELTIC CROSSES FOR YOU

 

Even if you can’t travel to Ireland to see original Celtic crosses in person, there’s another way to keep its symbolism alive in your daily life. The Celtic cross, as a symbol of Christianity and Ireland is a popular charm or pendant choice for many Irish jewelers like ShanOre and Solvar. ShamrockGift.com offers a wide range of Celtic cross jewelry like earrings, necklaces, bangle bracelets and more, as well as a great selection of Celtic Cross ornaments from brands like Belleek, Mullingar Pewter, and Royal Tara. So whether you’re looking for something for every day wear or something to accent your home, you can always keep a bit of ancient Irish devotion alive. Here are some of our favorites.

 

Emerald Celtic Cross Pendant Necklace from ShanOre

 

 

The ring on the cross is a Celtic symbolization of eternity, since it has no beginning or end. Celtic Knots are eye-catching intricate patterns of intertwining ropes that do not begin or end, symbolizing eternal love. This stately Celtic cross features rectangular-shaped arms and stems of sterling silver that display ornate Celtic Knot patterns. At the center of the cross and on the halo are rich, Kelly green stones in gold-plated rings that lend the cross a refined flair. Gift this ornate necklace to a woman who loves her Celtic heritage and impressive design.

 

10 Karat Gold and Emerald Celtic Cross Pendant Necklace from Solvar

 

 

Made in Ireland, this beautifully crafted 10 karat gold Celtic cross pendant from Solvar Jewelry features emerald jewels and CZ stones. Hung from a sturdy chain, this necklace would make the perfect gift for those of Irish heritage or devout faith. Solvar Ltd is a family-owned Irish company who has been crafting beautiful artisanal Irish jewelry in the heart of Dublin since 1941.

 

Pewter Celtic Cross Wall Ornament from Mullingar Pewter

 

 

This beautiful, handmade Celtic Cross by Mullingar Pewter is truly a one-of-a-kind. Nearly 8 inches high, the cross is hand-crafted in Ireland from pure, lustrous pewter. Whether mounted on a wall or placed freestanding, this tarnish-resistant pewter cross can adorn any room in your home with long-lasting elegance, which also makes it a wonderful gift for any occasion.

 

St. Kieran’s Celtic Cross Ornament from Belleek

 

 

Named after the first saint thought to have been born in Ireland (around the 5th century), Belleek’s St. Kieran’s Celtic Cross Ornament combines pre-Christian design elements with the religious iconography of the Celtic cross, a uniquely Irish contribution to Catholic art. At five inches tall, this is an ideal gift for any occasion, the cross comes with a green cord attached for ease of hanging and can be displayed proudly anywhere in the home.

 

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Shop ShamrockGift.com for more Celtic Cross ideas.

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