High Crosses Sermons in Stone

  • Oct 21, 2021
  • - 4 Minutes Read
  • - 726 Words

County Louth is one of the dearest counties to my heart. It is also known as the Wee County, being actually the smallest in Ireland.

It is not a popular tourist destination, but some impressive medieval sites are there.

On the River Boyne, Drogheda boasts towers, gates and abbeys of medieval times and Carlingford itself, is a medieval town nestling on the shore of the homonymous lough.

Monasterboice is a small village north of Drogheda. Here, St Buite, an Irish monk and follower of St. Patrick, founded a monastery in the 5th century. The village takes its name from Mainistir Bhuithe, the Monastery of Buite in Irish, precisely.

Monasterboice is one of Ireland’s earliest Christian sites and consists of three magnificent High Crosses, a Round Tower, a sundial, and two churches' ruins. The gems of the site are the High Crosses, which date from the 10th century.

High Crosses were carved between the eighth and twelfth centuries. Over 300 crosses survive nowadays. They are fascinating features of the Irish historic landscape and a symbol of Irish cultural heritage. Their height is impressive, and the ringed crosshead is spellbinding both for its spiritual and technical purpose.

The finely carved ring supports the entire weight of the centre and arms of the cross. Its circular shape carries a vivid reminiscence of the Celtic spirituality to the Christian form: the cycles of seasons, the cycle of life, death and rebirth…unity and perfection.

The earliest crosses had only decorations such as simple geometrical reliefs, but scenes from the Old and New Testaments were introduced starting from the ninth and tenth centuries. High Crosses became a sort of “sermons in stone”; they were meant to be read in a particular order, usually from the ground up.

In Monasterboice, most notably, the best are the South Cross (or Cross of Muiredach) and the West Cross (or Tall Cross).

The Cross of Muiredach is 5.5 m high and, being one of the most perfect in Ireland, is a true national treasure.

It bears scenes from the Old Testament on the east side, starting from the Garden of Eden and moving up to Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Moses, and the Magi.

On the west side, the Life, Arrest, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ are carved, while on the north side, the Hand of God, Dextera Dei, with a nimbus of power behind it, is finely carved. Above an intertwining of human heads stand.

Looking at this High Cross, I remember being totally captured by the sculptor’s fresh style: the scenes were so naturalistic and full of attractive details: swords, drinking horns and ornate brooches beautifully sculpted, but what surprised me the most was his taste of humour.

In the Last Judgment, a demon throws the damned into hell, pricking them with a three-pronged fork while a second spindly-legged demon kicks them vigorously into hell.

At the foot of the cross, two bearded men can be spotted pulling each other’s beards.

These scenes made me laugh because of the humour they bring, but I had to bear in mind that crosses were certainly designed to impress as well as educate.

Also, the Cross of Muiredach provides an engaging depiction of two musicians playing both stringed and wind instruments, one to the right of Christ and the other to the left. It reminded me of the significance of music in medieval secular and religious life and the passion for music the Irish people still have nowadays rooted in their souls.

The West Cross is 7m high and is the tallest High Cross in Ireland or anywhere else.

Unfortunately, its carved biblical scenes are badly eroded, but David can be still seen killing a lion with a hurley stick and ball. It is considered the earliest depiction of the game in Ireland!

The missing pieces from its stem remain a mystery, but local lore tells that during the Great Famine, migrating people used to take a chip of stone off the cross and carry it with them as a reminder of their Irish roots.

So only people with County Louth roots can tell…

Monasterboice is a delightful rural setting, especially in late summer when the sun lights the Cross of Muiredach up.

A strong feeling of wonder overwhelmed me…so ancient and so beautiful… What did people in medieval times feel gathering around this impotent cross?

About Author

… and if you can’t go to heaven, may you at least die in Ireland.

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