The crudely functional plank onto which Jesus and countless others were nailed in final and agonising humiliation has been transformed through the activities of artists into a rich variety of symbolic forms. There is one, quite unique form which is part of the history of the British Isles, the Celtic Cross. It is found across Ireland and North West Britain, really any place where Irish missionaries brought Celtic Christianity. I used to pass one more than forty years ago when I was a lad on country bicycle rides in Cheshire, in the North West UK, but sadly the weak sandstone structure lost a collision with a badly driven lorry. I still feel the loss when I pass the site.
The Uniqueness of Ireland
Ireland has a special place in history. It was part of “Celtic” North West Europe, but never part of the Roman Empire. Thus it preserved its high druidical culture after the bulk of British and Gallic druidry were destroyed by Roman imperial might. North Britain, i.e. the area north of Hadrian’s wall, shared this cultural preservation, but Ireland was the cultural heart of a rich artistic tradition that drew on ancient motifs. The druids were also scholars in their own right, and were probably familiar with the works of Greek philosophers. Thus when Christianity reached Ireland it encountered and interacted with a high tradition, whose thoughts contributed to the aesthetics of the Celtic cross.
The Basic Symbolism
The cross is a long stemmed Christian cross whose arms and head are surrounded by a ring, as you can see from the image. The cross stands for God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. The ring, though, is an inheritance from earlier religious traditions. The druids believed that the divine presence was revealed in the light of the sun, so the ring stands for God’s revelation in nature. While this is clearly a druidical concept, it is also a concept well in keeping with Catholic thought, which believed in general and special revelations. The special revelation is through prophets and ultimately Christ. The general revelation is what can be known of God through and in nature.
God in Nature
Celtic Christianity was very sensitive to nature, its beauties and the presence of the divine therein. This was not just a rational calculation that God must be behind the order of things, but a strong sensitivity to presence in the light of the sun and the movement of waves and winds etc. Natural light was to them not just an electromagnetic phenomenon, but a powerful spiritual force of goodness pervading all things. The ring around the cross directs you skywards to the divine presence that surrounded Christ’s cross and gave it ultimate meaning. The cross is given a halo to denote its holiness.
The crosses were carved with rich decorations. Some contain images of Bible stories, reflecting God’s self-disclosure in the history of the Jewish people. Itinerant monk preachers would sometimes congregate worshippers at these crosses. Knowing that their congregations were illiterate, the monks used the pictures to illustrate their sermons and provide a focus for the people. Other crosses are rich in Celtic knot work designs, carved intricately by devotees who were prepeared to commit their lives to making perfect works. The intricacy of the design reflects the mysterious pattern of God’s action in the world, that transcends all human understanding.
Many of us do not truly see Celtic crosses. We just look in semi-comprehension at their beauty. Too often we only see them in a shallow way. We should look at them as works of art representative of a great cultural tradition and produced by spiritual heroes. Perhaps one of the problems of our fast moving world is that its speed makes for shallow looking. Celtic crosses make great foci for careful looking and meditative thinking. Through them we look at great spiritual ideas and at a wonderful spiritual tradition.