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A simple Celtic knot with doubled threads. The design is taken from the Lindisfarne Gospels (St John ff. 210v-211). Image found in the Public Domain here and adapted for t-shirt design
It is widely accepted that the Celtic cross has ancient, pre-Christian origins It is similar to the so-called “sun cross”, which can be found in Bronze Age Europe (Nordic Bronze Age, Urnfield culture). The archaic English word for cross as an instrument of torture is rood (literally “pole”, cognate with rod). The word cross in English derives only indirectly from Latin crux via Old Irish and possibly Old Norse, introduced in the 10th century.
Celtic crosses may have had origins in the early Coptic church. The similarity between the ankh, symbol of “life” and variations of the cross or ankh with a circle on Coptic stella and textiles from as early as the 5th century clearly show that the combination of circle and cross were used in early Christian Egypt. Although some experts say that the crosses were originally carved horizontally on stone, their geometrical ring construction and the fact that the lights in east-facing high crosses can be seen to refract early morning sunlight is indicative of vertical construction.
In Ireland, it is a popular myth that the Celtic Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan during his time converting the pagan Irish. It is believed that Saint 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.
In Celtic regions of Ireland and later in Great Britain, many free-standing upright crosses (or high crosses) were erected by Irish monks, beginning at least as early as the 7th century. Some of these ‘Celtic’ crosses bear inscriptions in runes. There are surviving free-standing crosses in Cornwall (famously St Piran’s cross at Perranporth) and Wales, on the island of Iona and in the Hebrides, as well as the many in Ireland. 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.
The most famous standing crosses are the Cross of Kells, County Meath, Ireland; Ardboe Auld Cross, Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; the crosses at Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland; and the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Ireland. The Celtic cross is often made of stone. After the 15th century, ringed high crosses ceased to be created in the Celtic lands, other than a few obscure examples.
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 to interested crowds 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 Christian and non-Christian Celtic crosses as a symbol for a renewed sense of heritage within Ireland.
New versions of the high cross were designed as 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. Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie, working on the Isle of Iona in Scotland from 1899 to 1940, popularized use of the Celtic Cross in jewellery. During the 19th century, the local government of Guildford placed a Celtic cross on the top of Hindhead on the site of a gibbet on Gibbet Hill, to dispel the local fear of bad spirits. As this was the place of the relatively superstitious broomsquire, the local Surrey populace found solace in the symbol.
Image found witing the public domain of Wikimedia Commons here