What Are They?


Dr. Peter Harbison, author of the three volume The High Crosses of Ireland:  An Iconographical and Photographic Survey, wrote that “the High Crosses are one of the most distinctive and individual creations the country [Ireland] has ever produced.”  (Harbison, 1992, p. 1)  The purpose of this paper is to define and describe what is meant by the term “Irish High Cross.”  Included in this assessment will be a description of the morphology, or physical characteristics of the crosses; the date range during which they were carved; the purpose and meaning of the crosses; their decoration, including both geometric design and figural art; and a special note regarding a sub-set of Irish High Crosses known as Scripture crosses.

All Irish High Crosses were carved in Ireland prior to the year 1200 CE.  There are, of course, crosses in other places around the world from this time period, but our subject is limited to those in Ireland.  In addition, Irish High Crosses are carved of stone.  A variety of types of stone were used, and of course crosses were constructed of other materials as well.  All of the crosses we are considering are carved of stone.  Finally, an Irish High Cross is free standing.  That is, the stone itself has been carved into the shape of a cross.  This is in contrast to a cross-inscribed stone slab.  The two photos below illustrate the difference.

Kilamery cross, Co. Kilkennycross inscribed stone, Reask, Co. Kerry

The cross to the left is the Kilamery Cross, Co. Kilkenny.  It may have been carved in the 9th century.  It is a free standing stone cross, an Irish High Cross.  The cross-inscribed slab to the right is located at the monastic site of Reask, Co. Kerry.  In this case, a cross has been inscribed on a stone that is not itself shaped like a cross.

Regarding the Term “High”

The term “high” in relation to the Irish High Crosses can be  confusing.  Its meaning is unclear.  Dorothy Kelly, author of “Irish High Crosses:  Some Evidence from the Plainer Examples,” informs us that the term “High Cross” is first found in the Annals of the Four Masters in the year 957.  The term was used in the 19th and early 20th centuries along with “sculptured crosses”, “ancient stone crosses”, “early Irish crosses” and “Celtic crosses”.  “High Cross” became the dominant term around the middle of the 20th century.  (Kelly, p. 55)

Why choose “High” as a descriptor.  An obvious suggestion is that “high” refers to the height of the crosses.  However, the crosses vary greatly in height with one of the shortest being only 3 feet 4 inches (1m) tall and the tallest being about 23 feet (7m) in height.  

Another possibility is that “high” refers to a practice of holding mass near a High Cross in an outdoor setting.  This very likely happened around at least some of the crosses, as most of the High Crosses are associated with monastic sites.  But some sites had numerous high crosses placed around the monastic enclosure, suggesting that the holding of mass was not the primary purpose of the crosses.  

A third explanation of the term “high” is that the High Crosses marked “high” or “holy” places or boundaries of a monastery.  Some scholars suggest that at least some of the High Crosses appear to mark the boundaries of the most sacred areas of the monastic enclosure.  In some cases these crosses may have marked the outer boundaries of the monastic site.  In other cases, as at Clonmacnois, Co. Offlay, there are three crosses in close proximity to the central cathedral but at some distance from the current outer boundaries of the monastic enclosure.  These crosses appear to mark the approach to the cathedral, the most holy place in the enclosure.  One is found near the northwest corner of the cathedral, a second near the southwest corner and the third, the Cross of the Scriptures, is found directly west of the main or west entry to the cathedral.  However, in using the name most scholars have chosen to describe the crosses under consideration we must recognize that, though most are, not all the crosses are located in connection with monasteries.  Some of the stone crosses may have marked pilgrim ways or places of accommodation for pilgrims as they traveled.

We will never know why the Annals referred to one of the High Crosses as “High.”  The conclusion seems to be that we use the term “high” because it has become the descriptor of choice for this set of free standing stone crosses.

Morphology or Physical Characteristics

Shape and Size:  Irish High Crosses vary in height, as suggested above, in shape and in decoration.  Dorothy Kelly identifies three categories of crosses based on shape.  She found 180 crosses complete enough to permit classification.  Of these 28 per cent are unringed, 34 per cent have solid rings and 38 per cent have open work or perforated rings.  (Kelly, pp. 54-55)    In the photos below, you can observe some of the variety in the Irish High Crosses.  The cross to the left is the Market cross at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.  It has no ring and stands a little 

Tall Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth

 Market Cross, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow  

          Eglish Cross, Co. Armagh

over 5 feet (1.5m) tall.  It has figural carvings.  The cross in the center is the Eglish Cross, Co. Armagh.  Only the head of the cross survives.  This cross is ringed and the head is solid.  It has modest decorative carvings. The cross pictured to the right is the Tall Cross at Monasterboice, Co. Louth.  It is also ringed and in this case the ring is perforated.  It stands 21feet (6.45m) tall.  It has figural carvings relating biblical scenes.  It is one of a group of crosses known collectively as  “scripture crosses."  More about these below. 

 General Characteristics:  While Irish High Crosses vary greatly in appearance, as illustrated above, there is a set of features that appear on the many of the crosses.  The photo to the right is the Scripture Cross at Clonmacnois, Co. Offlay in central Ireland.  It contains all the features described below.  

The primary parts of the most elaborate High Crosses include:

Scripture Cross, Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly
  • The Base, not actually part of the cross.
  • The Shaft, which is often divided on all four sides into one or more panels.  Designs or figural art are placed within the panels.
  • The Head, which can be subdivided into the center and the arms.  Many of the crosses also feature a ring around the center of the head.
  • The cap above the upper arm of the cross may have a variety of forms.

The physical description of these elements will begin at the base of the cross and move upward.

General Characteristics:  While Irish High Crosses vary greatly in appearance, as illustrated above, there are a set of typical features.  The photo to the right is the Scripture Cross at Clonmacnois (Co. Offlay) in central Ireland.  It contains all the standard features.  

The primary parts of a High Cross include:

  • The Base, not actually part of the cross and absent from some of the crosses.
  • The Shaft, which is often divided on all four sides into two or more panels.  Designs or figural art are placed within the panels.
  • The Head, which can be subdivided into the center and the arms.  Many of the crosses also feature a ring around the center of the head.
  • The cap above the upper arm of the cross is absent from some crosses.

Our physical description of typical High Cross features will begin at the base of the cross and move upward.

The Base:  Most, but not all, Irish High Crosses stand on a stepped base.  Symbolically, these bases are said to recall the Hill of Golgotha on which the cross of Jesus stood.  (Stalley 1996, 11)  This suggests the base, as well as the cross, had spiritual significance.  Where the base exists, it is typically tapered from the bottom to the top.  Functionally, the base provided support for the cross, to keep it stable.  The bases shown below are (left to right) the cross of Moone, Co. Kildare which has a very tall based composed of two truncated pyramids; the St. Patrick’s cross at Carndonagh, Co. Donegal which has no base and the Drumcliff cross, Co. Sligo that has a short base that tapers slightly from bottom to top.

Moone Cross, Co. Kildare

                   St. Patrick's cross, Carndonagh, Co. Donegal               Drumcliff cross, Co. Sligo

The Shaft:  The shafts of Irish High Crosses are rectangular in cross- section (as opposed to rounded or square) and typically taper slightly from bottom to top.  

Many, but by no means all shafts are divided into panels on each side.  The panels were used by sculptors for carving geometric designs or figural scenes.  To the left below we have the Visit of the Magi on the cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, Co. Louth.  The image is in a clearly defined panel.  To the right we have the west face of the South cross at Ahenny, Co. Tipperary.  It has only one defined panel.  This panel is filled with an intricate spiral and interlace design.  

Ahenny south cross, detail, Co. Tipperary

Visit of the Magi, Muiredach's cross, Co. Louth

 The Cross Head:  Put simply, where there is a ring, the head of the High Cross consists of the ring, the arms, the top of the shaft, the area within the ring and a cap (not always present).  

The Center:  The center of the cross is where the horizontal cross beam and the vertical shaft meet.  Many of the figural crosses have a crucifixion scene on the west face of the head of the cross.  In the tradition of the early church Christ was crucified looking west. But other scenes and designs appear on the west face and, of course, on the east face as well.  Below left is the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, Co. Meath.  It has a classical depiction of the crucifixion on the west face.  On the right is the Kilree Cross, Co. Kilkenny.  It has a central boss surrounded by interlace in the center of the west face.  In the second tier below is the North Cross at Castledermot, Co. Kildare.  It has a depiction of the fall of man with Adam and Eve under the forbidden tree on the west face.

Muiredach's cross, Co. Monasterboice, Co. Louth      Kilree High Cross, County Kilkenny, Ireland    


Castledermot, North Cross, Adam and Eve, County Kildare, Ireland


The Arms:  The arms of the crosses also vary in general shape and in how far they extend beyond the ring, if there is a ring.  In the photo below left we see that the arms of the Mona Incha cross do not seem to extend beyond the ring.  The arms of the Scripture Cross at Clonmacnois, below right angle upward just a bit and extend beyond the ring.  In most cases the arms are set at more or less right angles to the shaft as is the case in the crosses below, second tier, from Glendalough, and Tynan Village, second tier below left and right respectively.  In a few rare cases the arms were designed to accept extensions made either of wood or metal.    

Mona Incha cross, Co. TipperaryClonmacnoise, Cross of the Scriptures, Last Judgment, County Offaly, Ireland


Tynan High Cross, County Armagh, IrelandGranite Cross, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow

The top of the shaft and the cap:  The top of the shaft typically extends upward beyond the ring.  In some cases the carving here is an extension of that on the center of the head.  The photo below left, the “Plain Cross” at Kilkieran, Co. Kilkenny, illustrates this.  In other cases, there is a separate panel on the upper shaft.  The photo to the right below, the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, Co. Louth, illustrates this.  In other cases the shaft does not appear to extend much, if any, above the ring.  The Mona Incha cross above may illustrate this.  

Kilkieran, Plain Cross, Co. Kilkenny, Ireland               Muiredach's cross, Monasterboice, detail, Co. Louth     

There is often, but not always, a cap on the top of the cross and, where these occur, they take two primary shapes.  (Richardson and Scarry 25-26)  The first shape is domed.  This was the shape of the church Constantine had built over the "Holy Sepulcher" in Jerusalem. Thus it was a symbol of the resurrection of Christ.  (Richardson and Scarry p.   25)  It is worth noting that the dwellings many monks lived in, especially in western Ireland, were also beehive or domed in shape.  The symbolism may be the same.  

Ahenny, North Cross, County Tipperary, IrelandAhenny, South Cross, County Tipperary, Ireland

To the left and right are two examples of domed caps.  The one on the left is on the North Cross at Ahenny, Co. Tipperary.  It has a high dome.  The one on the right is on the South Cross, also at Ahenny.  It has a much lower dome.


Killamery High Cross, County Kilkenny, IrelandKillamery, High Cross, County Kilkenny, Ireland

The second style of cap is a gable roof.  The two photos left and right of the cross at Killamery, Co. Kilkenny show this second style of cap.  In some cases an outline of shingles is clearly visible.  This style resembles “the picture of Solomon’s temple in the illustration of the temptation of Christ in the Book of Kells (fol. 202v)” (Richardson and Scarry p. 25).  The image of folio 202v is below right.  The source is May 2021.

Clonca Cross, Co. Donegal


A third style of cross top does not have any cap at all.  The example to the left is the Clonca Cross, Co. Donegal

Regarding the Ring

There are a number of theories about the origin and meaning of the ring that appears on many of the Irish High Crosses. 

Theory One: There is a pre-Christian, Neolithic or Celtic explanation for the ring.  The sun was an important symbol for these early peoples.  As Christianity became the primary religion, the ring may have symbolically represented the convergence of the sun with Christ, the son and light of the world.  In this case, the ring would be related to wheel and disc and cup-in-circle images from pre-Christian times, which are typically interpreted as sun symbols. (Roe 1965, 213)  The illustration below right is of a carving found near Staigue Bridge in County Kerry.  (Graves, p. 284) 


Theory Two:  The origin of the ring dates to the fourth century.  The emperor Constantine made use of the Chrismon or Sacred Monogram of Christ (the Chi Rho) encircled by the victor’s wreath as a talisman to ensure military victory. (Roe 1995, 213)  It was this symbol rather than the cross that Constantine adopted in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.  For Constantine the meaning of this symbol was that Christ provided protection and ensured victory in battle.  On the Irish High Crosses this would carry a different but related meaning.  Christ is the victor over sin and death and through him Christians share in that victory.  To the left above is an example of the Chrismon or Labarum.(Source of image:  September 2010)

Theory Three suggests that the ring began as diagonal structural supports.  These supports would have been on wooden crosses, which almost certainly existed both before and concurrent with the stone crosses.  At the very least, an entirely functional explanation of the origin of the circle is unsatisfying.  More importantly, Helen Roe writes, “there seems no single instance in the immense corpus of surviving illustrations of the Cross and of the Crucifixion in which the addition of any brace or strut can be discerned.”  (Roe 1965, 214)                         

Regardless of the origin of the ring, not all rings are the same in appearance.  Some have been carved through and are referred to as perforate.  Others have a solid or imperforate head with the ring and cross in relief. 

Granite Cross, Glendalouch, Co. WicklowTynan Village Cross, Co. Armagh

The example to the left is the Granite cross in the Monastic City of Glendalough, Co. Wicklow.  It has a solid ring.  The cross is carved in relief.  The ring is inset with the spaces between the ring and angles of the cross head more deeply inset.

 The example to the right is from the Tynan Village Cross, Co. Armagh.  Like the Glendalough cross the cross here is in relief.  However, the spaces between the ring and the angles of the cross head have been carved through in this case.    

Scripture Cross, Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly

Mona Incha cross, Co. Tipperary

The example to the left is from the Mona Incha Cross, Co. Tipperary.  The cross arms do not seem to have extended beyond the ring in  this case.  We can also note that the head of the cross is relatively small compared to the shaft. 

     The example to the right is from the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly.  It shows an elaborately decorated ring with interlace and decorated roundels or volutes extending in from the ring at the center of each perforation.

 Barney McLaughlin 2012