High crosses and higher art
In Early Christian times, of course, few could read. To spread the Word of God, therefore, monks had to be inventive, and go above and beyond creating beautiful books. Ireland’s high crosses, with carved panels illustrating Bible stories, show just how inventive they could be.
In the 6th century monastic site of Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, three high crosses are an enduring testament to the skill and artistry of Early Christian sculptors. The four-metre Cross of the Scriptures is a highlight, covered on all sides with fantastically intricate figures. Along with the others, it’s housed in an interpretive centre to protect it from the vagaries of Irish weather.
Clonmacnoise isn’t the only site with wow factor, though. There's the heritage town of Kells, famed for its high crosses richly carved with biblical scenes. In County Tyrone, the 10th-century Ardboe High Cross is the oldest in Northern Ireland. Standing at the site of a former monastery established by St Colman, “Ard Boe” literally means “hill of the cow” – a name evoking the legend of a magic cow that apparently helped build the monastery.
As the men built and crafted, the story goes, the cow provided endless lashings of cream, milk and butter.