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History and Origins of the Celtic Cross

The Celtic cross is a cross whose four “arms” are intersected by a central, circular ring – a function of both structural form and symbolism. While the roots of the Celtic Cross are likely in paganism with the ring symbolizing the sun and ‘renewal’, it has become a powerful symbol of Christianity and Irish heritage. The roots of the Celtic Cross can be traced back to Prehistoric Europe, where the “sun cross” – a circle with an “x” shape or cross scratched into it began to appear in cave drawings and burial sites. The image remained in the Bronze and Iron Ages and evolved into the Celtic Cross. It is possible that the “cross” symbolized North, South, East and West.

Irish folklore tells the story of how St. Patrick combined the Christian Cross with the “sun” to emphasize the cross’s importance to pagan followers, giving birth to the Celtic Cross. Although there is probably some truth to the story. Around the 7th century, Irish monks in the Celtic regions of Ireland and Great Britain began erecting upright or “tall” crosses, many incorporating the characteristic ring-shaped structure of the Celtic Cross. Many of these crosses survive today in Cornwall, Wales and on the island of Iona along with many others in Ireland.

Early Celtic crosses often bore zoomorphic or animal images, carved into the stone due to the influence of the animalistic style common in the Iron Age. Not surprising given that warrior-herders were so dependent on wildlife for food and clothing. This influence disappeared after the Iron Age as art in Ireland and Britain moved into the ‘Insular Period’. Artists during the Insular Art period produced many Celtic Crosses throughout Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the Hiberno-Saxon style. The ‘Insular Art’ movement takes its name from the Latin word ‘Insula’ meaning ‘island’. This was true of the Isles of Britain and Ireland and spoke to the shared nature of artwork between the two regions that was very different from that produced in the rest of Europe. Celtic crosses of that era were elaborate and often featured spiral geometric patterns that likely symbolized man’s “twisted” journey through life.

Around the 15th century, interest in the Celtic Cross and its influence as an art form waned. In the mid-19th century, a Celtic revival began which resulted in the increased appearance and use of Celtic crosses in Ireland. The Celtic cross became fashionable as a graveyard in Victorian Dublin around the 1860s. This revival continued to spread throughout Ireland and beyond and the symbol began to gain importance as a symbol of Irish heritage in addition to its religious significance. .

Today, the Celtic cross is commonly used as a grave marker, although this is a departure from both the medieval and Celtic renaissance periods, when the symbol was used primarily as a memorial and had little to do with grave markers. The image of the Celtic cross has extended its influence even into modern times, often found in jewelry as an expression of Irish pride and Christianity. The symbol is also seen on everything from t-shirts to tattoos. The Northern Ireland national football team uses Celtic Cross imagery in their logo and branding. The symbol also attracted some unfortunate attention and was recently banned from being displayed in Germany when a banned neo-Nazi party chose the image as a symbol of their movement.

Famous Celtic Crosses that can still be seen today are at 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.

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