Celtic cross

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A Celtic cross symbol CelticCross.svg
A Celtic cross symbol

The Celtic cross is a form of Christian cross featuring a nimbus or ring that emerged in Ireland, France and Great Britain in the Early Middle Ages. A type of ringed cross, it became widespread through its use in the stone high crosses erected across the islands, especially in regions evangelised by Irish missionaries, from the ninth through the 12th centuries.


A staple of Insular art, the Celtic cross is essentially a Latin cross with a nimbus surrounding the intersection of the arms and stem. Scholars have debated its exact origins, but it is related to earlier crosses featuring rings. The form gained new popularity during the Celtic Revival of the 19th century; the name "Celtic cross" is a convention dating from that time. The shape, usually decorated with interlace and other motifs from Insular art, became popular for funerary monuments and other uses, and has remained so, spreading well beyond Ireland.

Early history

Early forms: cross slab, St. Madoes, Perthshire, Scotland Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times, p185.png
Early forms: cross slab, St. Madoes, Perthshire, Scotland
Early forms: pillar stone, Gallarus Oratory, County Kerry, Ireland 032Galarus Oratory.JPG
Early forms: pillar stone, Gallarus Oratory, County Kerry, Ireland

Ringed crosses similar to older Continental forms appeared in Ireland and Scotland in incised stone slab artwork and artifacts like the Ardagh chalice. However, the shape achieved its greatest popularity by its use in the monumental stone high crosses, a distinctive and widespread form of Insular art. [1] These monuments, which first appeared in the ninth century, usually (though not always) take the form of a ringed cross on a stepped or pyramidal base. [2] The form has obvious structural advantages, reducing the length of unsupported side arms. [3] There are a number of theories as to its origin in Ireland and Britain. Some scholars consider the ring a holdover from earlier wooden crosses, which may have required struts to support the crossarm. Others have seen it as deriving from indigenous Bronze Age art featuring a wheel or disc around a head, or from early Coptic crosses based on the ankh. However, Michael W. Herren, Shirley Ann Brown, and others believe it originates in earlier ringed crosses in Christian art. Crosses with a ring representing the celestial sphere developed from the writings of the Church Fathers. The "cosmological cross" is an important motif in Coelius Sedulius's poem Carmen Paschale , known in Ireland by the seventh century. [4]

It is not clear where the first high crosses originated. The first examples date to about the ninth century and occur in two groups: at Ahenny in Ireland, and at Iona, an Irish monastery off the Scottish coast. The Ahenny group is generally earlier. However, it is possible that St. Johns Cross at Iona was the first high cross; Iona's influence as a center of pilgrimage may have led this cross to inspire the Ahenny group as well as other ringed crosses in Pictish stones. [3]

A variety of crosses bear inscriptions in ogham, an early medieval Irish alphabet. Standing crosses in Ireland and areas under Irish influence tend to be shorter and more massive than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, which have mostly lost their headpieces. Irish examples with a head in cross form include the Cross of Kells, Ardboe High Cross, the crosses at Monasterboice, the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise and those in Scotland at Iona and the Kildalton Cross, which may be the earliest to survive in good condition. Surviving, free-standing crosses are in Cornwall, including St Piran's cross at Perranporth, and Wales. [5] [ page needed ] Other stone crosses are found in the former Northumbria and Scotland, and further south in England, where they merge with the similar Anglo-Saxon cross making tradition, in the Ruthwell Cross for example. Most examples in Britain were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. By about A.D. 1200 the initial wave of cross building came to an end in Ireland.

Popular legend in Ireland says that the Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan, though there are no examples from this early period. It has often been claimed that Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the cross. By linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun, these two ideas were linked to appeal to pagans. Other interpretations claim that placing the cross on top of the circle represents Christ's supremacy over the pagan sun.

Notable high crosses with the Celtic shape in Ireland:

Notable high crosses with the Celtic shape in Scotland
Notable Celtic crosses in India

Modern times

Celtic Revival

The Celtic Revival of the mid-19th century led to an increased use and creation of Celtic crosses in Ireland. In 1853, casts of several historical high crosses were exhibited at the Dublin Industrial Exhibition. In 1857, Henry O'Neill published Illustrations of the Most Interesting of the Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland. These two events stimulated interest in the Celtic cross as a symbol for a renewed sense of heritage within Ireland.

New versions of the high cross were designed for fashionable cemetery monuments in Victorian Dublin in the 1860s. From Dublin, the revival spread to the rest of the country and beyond. Since the Celtic Revival, the ringed cross became an emblem of Celtic identity, in addition to its more traditional religious symbolism. [6]

Modern interest in the symbol increased because of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie. The two worked on the island of Iona in Scotland from 1899 to 1940 and popularised use of the Celtic cross in jewelry. [7] Using the Celtic cross in fashion is still popular today.

Since its revival in the 1850s, the Celtic cross has been used extensively as grave markers, straying from medieval usage, when the symbol was typically used for a public monument. The Celtic cross now appears in various retail items. Both the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Northern Ireland national football team have used versions of the Celtic cross in their logos and advertising. The Church in Wales since 1954 have used a flag with a Celtic cross in the centre.

Snow-covered Celtic cross in a Presbyterian memorial garden Snow covered Celtic cross in memorial garden.jpg
Snow-covered Celtic cross in a Presbyterian memorial garden

A Celtic cross is often used to represent Presbyterianism, including by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

White supremacist symbolism

White nationalist Celtic cross Celtic Crosses.svg
White nationalist Celtic cross

A version of the Celtic cross is used as a symbol by white supremacists. [8] It was used by Nazis in Norway in the 1930s and 1940s, and more recently it has been used by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacist groups. In general, white supremacists use a version of the symbol with a square cross as opposed to the traditional elongated cross. This symbol forms part of the logo of Stormfront. [9]

It is suggested that adoption of the symbol in the context of right-wing politics is linked with the activity of Jesuit priest Paul Doncœur  [ fr ], a prominent figure of the interwar scout movement in France. [10] [11] In 1924, the victory of anti-clerical Cartel des Gauches in general elections caused the mobilisation of right-wing forces, with Doncœur playing a major role in formation of Fédération Nationale Catholique [12] and Ligue DRAC  [ fr ]. [13] The same year, impressed by Quickborn  [ de ], a Catholic organisation within the German Youth Movement, he founded its local equivalent, Cadets. [14] [15] Doncœur, inspired by the G. K. Chesterton's novel The Ball and the Cross , decided that the symbol of the movement, croix cadet, should consist of a circle, representing the material world, supported by a square Christian cross intersecting it. [16] [17] [18]

After the Fall of France, Vichy government relied on pre-existing organisations to implement its youth policy according to the principles of the National Revolution. The field was dominated by Catholic scout movements, the leaders of which were put in charge of Secretariat-General of Youth. [10] [19] [20] [21] [22] In 1941, the symbol of Doncœur, now named croix celtique, was adopted as an emblem for Cadets of the Légion in Algeria, a youth movement within Légion Française des Combattants, [11] [23] a veteran organisation which the government hoped could be transformed to function as the single party of the state. [20] [24] Then it was used as insignia of Equipes nationales, a youth civilian service institution founded in 1942. [11] [14] [19] After the war, Pierre Sidos appropriated the symbol as an emblem of the far-right movement Jeune Nation, founded by him in 1949. [25]

White supremacist use of the long and short Celtic cross represents only a small minority of the symbol's use. [9] The symbol in both forms is used by non-extremists in contexts such as Christianity, neo-Paganism, [8] and Irish patriotism. The vast majority of uses of the Celtic cross are not associated with white supremacists. [9]


In Unicode, the Celtic cross is represented by the code point U+1F548🕈CELTIC CROSS.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">High cross</span> Free-standing Christian cross made of stone and often richly decorated

A high cross or standing cross is a free-standing Christian cross made of stone and often richly decorated. There was a unique Early Medieval tradition in Ireland and Britain of raising large sculpted stone crosses, usually outdoors. These probably developed from earlier traditions using wood, perhaps with metalwork attachments, and earlier pagan Celtic memorial stones; the Pictish stones of Scotland may also have influenced the form. The earliest surviving examples seem to come from the territory of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which had been converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries; it remains unclear whether the form first developed in Ireland or Britain.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Monasterboice</span> 6th century monastery in County Louth, Ireland

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shamrock</span> Sprig of young clover, used as a symbol of Ireland

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The Culdees were members of ascetic Christian monastic and eremitical communities of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England in the Middle Ages. Appearing first in Ireland and then in Scotland, subsequently attached to cathedral or collegiate churches; they lived in monastic fashion though not taking monastic vows.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Charles Péguy</span> French poet, essayist, and editor (1873–1914)

Charles Pierre Péguy was a French poet, essayist, and editor. His two main philosophies were socialism and nationalism; by 1908 at the latest, after years of uneasy agnosticism, he had become a believing Roman Catholic. From that time, Catholicism strongly influenced his works.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sun cross</span> Circle containing four or more spokes

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Clonmacnoise</span> Ruined monastery in County Offaly, Ireland

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Triquetra</span> Triangular motif formed of three interlaced arcs or loops

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ciarán of Clonmacnoise</span> Irish bishop and monastic saint

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Celtic art</span> Art associated with Celtic peoples

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Muiredach's High Cross</span> High cross from the 10th century

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Insular art</span> Post-Roman British and Irish style of art

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kildalton Cross</span>

The Kildalton Cross is a monolithic high cross in Celtic cross form in the churchyard of the former parish church of Kildalton (from Scottish Gaelic Cill Daltain, "Church of the Foster Son" on the island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. It was carved probably in the second half of the 8th century AD, and is closely related to crosses of similar date on Iona. It is often considered the finest surviving Celtic cross in Scotland, and is certainly one of the most perfect monuments of its date to survive in western Europe. The cross and the adjacent roofless medieval parish church are in the care of Historic Environment Scotland and are jointly a scheduled ancient monument. A simpler cross of late medieval date stands nearby.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Woodwrae Stone</span>

The Woodwrae Stone is a Class II Pictish Stone that was found in 1819 when the foundations of the old castle at Woodwrae, Angus, Scotland were cleared. It had been reused as a floor slab in the kitchen of the castle. Following its removal from the castle, it was donated to the collection of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford House. It is now on display at the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Art in Medieval Scotland</span>

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Ahenny is a small village and townland in County Tipperary, Ireland. It is notable for its ancient Irish high crosses. Close to the village is the early Christian foundation of Kilclispeen monastery and in the adjoining graveyard stand two celebrated Irish High Crosses: the Ahenny High Crosses.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kilkieran High Crosses</span> High crosses in County Kilkenny, Ireland

Kilkieran High Crosses are a group of high crosses which form a National Monument in County Kilkenny, Ireland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ódhrán ua hEolais</span> Mediaeval scribe in Ireland

Odhran Ua hEolais was a medieval scribe and scholar at the abbey of Clonmacnoise. He must have been born, and lived his childhood, in the kingdom of Conmaicne Magh Réin, which corresponds to present day south county Leitrim. We do not know any significant details of his personal life, but Odhran moved to county Offaly in adult life, to become Lector and a famous scriba of Clonmacnoise. His death is recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters. A cross-stone of Odhran, with his name inscription legible in middle Irish, is preserved to this day.

The ringed cross is a class of Christian cross symbols featuring a ring or nimbus. The concept exists in many variants and dates to early in the history of Christianity. One variant, the cruciform halo, is a special type of halo placed behind the head of Jesus in Christian art. Other common variants include the Celtic cross, used in the stone high crosses of France, Ireland and Britain; some forms of the Coptic cross; and ringed crosses from Galicia.


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