Classical or “Pagan" Images

Duleek High Cross County Meath Ireland

This page highlights several of the Irish High Crosses that have scenes that have Classical or “Pagan” content. 

Classical images appear rarely on the Irish High Crosses.  Here we take a look at two of these rare images, the centaur and the griffin.

The centaur is an ancient symbol that combines a man and a horse.  We will take a look at the use of centaurs on the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice and the Market Cross at Kells. 

The Griffin is a combination of an eagle (head) and a lion (body).  We’ll look at the use of griffins on the South Cross at Kells, the Scripture Cross at Clonmacnois and the North Cross at Duleek, pictured to the left.

Helen Roe informs us that classical creatures, like the centaur, made their way “into Christian illustration when various moralizing connotations were attached to them.”  (1988, p. 40)  So what are the moralizing meanings attached to the centaur?

George Ferguson, in Signs and Symbols in Christian Art describes the centaur as a symbol of savage passions, the human divided against itself and the heretic.   So, in general, the centaur has a negative connotation connected with sin or enmity toward the Christian faith.

Centaurs appear on the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, pictured above right.  The two center figures in the procession on the upper register of the base are centaurs.  The one on the left has a bow and arrow, the one on the right a branch or flaming torch.  They follow another creature identified variously as a bull or horse.  (Roe 2003 p 34)

Kells Market Cross County Meath Ireland

On the base of the Market Cross at Kells [left] we have two more centaurs.  The one to the right holds a bow and arrow.  The one in the center of the scene holds a trident.  This figure also seems to have more of a goats head than a human head to me.  Could it be intended to represent the devil?

Helen Roe describes the left part of the scene as follows:  “To the left are two large eagles; one grips a lamb in its claws, the other a fish.  Both representations are known amongst a number of symbolic figures, all relating to Christ.  The eagle with the lamb in its claws, soaring into the height of heaven, typifies the Exaltation of the Lamb.  A similar significance attaches to the eagle holding the fish.  The Fish as symbol of Christ can be referred almost to apostolic times.”  (Roe 1988 p 40)

If Roe’s interpretation is correct, it adds some credence to the identification of the centaurs as representing opposition to Christ and to the Christian faith.

The Griffin

As we saw with the centaur, the griffin is undoubtedly used on the Irish High Crosses with an eye to its moral meaning.  Interestingly, in Christian Art this creature has been used both to represent the devil and Jesus Christ.  As an eagle and a lion the griffin can represent strength and wisdom.

Clonmacnois:  Griffins appear on the base of the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois, pictured to the right [photo from Harbison 1992, vol. 2]. Peter Harbison describes the upper panel as follows:  “Three fabulous animals looking left.  Those at left and in the centre are clearly winged griffins, the central one trampling upon what may be a prostrate human body.  There is an unidentified object (a human head and neck?) between these two animals.  The right-hand animal has no wings and may be a lion, with its tail above its back and possibly holding a human leg in its mouth.  The significance of the animals on this panel . . . is no longer clear.”  (Harbison 1992, p 52)

Kells Cross of Patrick and Columba County Meath Ireland

 Kells:  A single griffin can be found on the Cross of Patrick and Columba at Kells, pictured to the left.  It seems to be completely without context.  The griffin is turned away from the image on the north arm to its right.  This image depicts Saint Paul the Hermit and Saint Anthony meeting in the desert.  In this famous story, a raven brings bread for the two of them to share.

However, there is an interesting story told of Paul the Hermit on his way to find Anthony of the Desert.  In this story a centaur meets Paul and directs him to Anthony.  (Ferguson p 14)  Is it possible that the griffin here is a reference to that same story and is moving away, having directed Paul to Anthony?

Duleek High Cross south side County Meath Ireland


The griffin that appears on the North Cross at Duleek, right,  is also out of context, being the only figure on the end of the south arm.  However, as with many of the images on High Crosses there is not general agreement about the identification of this image or the one above it on the top of the head.  While Harbison identifies the lower figure as a griffin, he notes that Françoise Henry identifies it as an ox and perhaps an evangelists symbol for Saint Luke.  The image above is identified as a winged lion by Harbison and as the eagle symbol of Saint John by Henry.  (Harbison 1992 p  77)

Duleek High Cross north side Count Meath Ireland

On the opposite side of the cross we have a similar difference of opinion.  Harbison identifies the figure on the north arm simply as a beast.  Henry Crawford identifies it as a lion and the symbol of Saint Mark..  Likewise the image at the top of the cross is identified by Harbison as an angel with a book and by Crawford as the eagle of Saint John.  (Harbison 1992 p 78)

This opens an interesting possibility.  We may have the symbols of all four of the evangelists.  The only thing needed is to transform the angel with a book to a man with a book and you have the symbol of Saint Matthew.  This is certainly possible since in the Book of Kells (folio 129v) the symbols for each of the evangelists have wings.  (Meehan p 41)  Then, on the south arm and top we would have the ox of Saint Luke and the eagle of Saint John.  On the North arm and top we would have the lion of Saint Mark and the human figure of Saint Matthew.

Another simpler solution would be to focus on just the ends of the two arms.  If we identify the image on the north arm as a griffin (and it certainly could be in my mind) we then have two griffins and no relationship between the images on the ends of the arms and the images on the top of the cross (north and south).

References cited

Ferguson, George, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art , Oxford University Press, 1961.

Harbison, Peter; The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, Dr. Rudolf Habelt GMBH, Bonn, 1992.  Volume 1:  Text, Volume 2:  Photographic Survey; Volume 3:  Illustrations of Comparative Iconography.

Meehan, Bernard, The Book of Kells, Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Roe, Helen M.,  Monasterboice and its Monuments, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2003

Roe, Helen M., The High Crosses of Kells, Meath Archaeological and Historical Society, 1988.

 Barney McLaughlin 2012