Crosses, High Crosses and Calvaries

27/11/2012 17:18

In the mid of the fog peek, as in that famous Michael Jackson’s zombies choreography, slabs and tombstones stands up everywhere in the cemetery. Even crows caw on one of the gates that define the space while the last day’s light provide a glimpse of a great cross that emerges and stands out among others. Isn’t a common cross. Rather, it is a huge one. In the growing twilight still are appreciate the reliefs carved on the front surface. In the British Isles simply call them High Crosses.

The spread of Christianity in the Atlantic Celtic roots western coasts of Europe, fostered as part of the religious discourse and its territorial expansion, the construction of many religious buildings: churches, abbeys and also ... simple elements as simple crosses, most concise iconic expression of Christian beliefs. These were used to delimit parishes or signalling pathways. Along with monasteries and cathedrals, pointed, sometimes ostentatiously, the importance thereof.

From Galician shores to Scandinavian fjords, through both Britains, the coasts of Armorica and Normandy, Alba and Hibernia, multiplied in number. In Ireland, High Crosses adopted a ring superimposed on the cross intersection. Is believed to have been introduced by Saint Patrick in the times of evangelism incorporating the Christian sign on a pagan solar circle. Taking into account a more mundane consideration, it is also possible it was just a simple resource to ensure the stability of the stone. Its believed, as attested San Adomnán, Abbot of Iona in the eighth century, previously these monumental crosses were erected in wood. Over time the simplicity in the design was complicated interlocking geometric motifs, and evolved into elaborate and highly decorated with figurative representations episodes inspired in the gospels. Thus addressed for doctrine purposes and to audiences mainly illiterate.

The Scriptures Crosses are authentic sermons carved in stone, where Christ's life scenes and passages from the Testaments occur. The masterpiece of the genre is in Monasterboice, in Irish County Louth, north of Dublin. Near the ruins of the monastery founded by St. Bhuithe in the sixth century are two of the most spectacular crosses. The Tall Cross or West Cross, from the beginning of the tenth century, with almost twenty one feet is the tallest in all Ireland. However, the highest expression is its southern neighbour, the South Cross, the most lavishly decorated that has survived until today and contains the largest corpus of biblical sculptures throughout Europe. It's the Muiredach Cross, known by the base inscription where its readable ÓR DO MUIREDACH LAS NDERNAD IN CHROS, requesting a prayer for the maker. It is believed that it could have been Bishop Muiredach Mac Domhnall, died in Monasterboice in 923, or a king died a few decades earlier named Muiredach Mac Cathail. The large cross almost reaches eighteen feet high and is completely carved on all four sides divided into panels involving one hundred twenty-four characters. Interestingly, only four of them are bearded: Adam, Cain, Moses and Saul. And only one has his head covered: Goliath. The top has a double roof bent over looking like a small house. Possibly symbolizes a reliquary. The eastern side middle panel represents, through the participation of forty-five figures, the Last Judgment, with Christ at the centre with his right hand grasping a sceptre and the resurrection cross to the left. On his head a phoenix. Below, an unusual scene shows St. Michael weighing a soul in the balance while the devil tries to tilt in their favour. Almost at the base, Eve offering the apple to Adam while beside Cain kills Abel. One of the finest examples is preserved in the ancient monastery of Clonmacnoise in Offaly. The Cross of the Scriptures, or King Flann's Cross, carved from a single block of sandstone around the tenth century, reach just over twelve feet tall. The inscriptions, OR DO COLMAN DORRO...CROSSA AR RIG FL.AND, request a prayer for Flann Sinna, an ancient Irish king and for Colman, who commissioned the cross. Near this are the South Cross on which Christ is flanked by Longinus, the spear, and Stephaton, the sponge bearer. From the North Cross, just the shaft remains. Authentic crosses are preserved currently protected in the museum that has been enabled in the visitor centre. Outside there are installed perfect replicas in the original locations.

In Glendalough, the one is known as St. Kevin's Cross dates from the sixth or seventh centuries. Legend says whoever can embrace it will meet its expectations. Kells, famous for his illustrated book, on display at Dublin’s Trinity College, houses five large crucifixes. In the monastery vicinity the Southern Cross shows the inscription PATRICII ET COLUMBE CR(UX) on its base, Cross of St. Patrick and St. Columba. Displays a recurring theme in medieval Irish crosses: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Cain finalizing his brother Abel. The Market Cross, probably Kells most famous, was recently relocated under a cover in a municipal agency. Previously it was at a crossroads in the town centre and had starred unwittingly some traffic incidents. Near the town of Sligo, and close to the tomb of the poet William Butler Yeats stands the cross of Drumcliffe, from IX century. There’s Daniel figure with lions and Christ in glory. Further south, in County Clare, the Kilfenora had owned up to seven ornamental crosses. Three remain complete, covered by a structure inside monastery shred ruins. The largest of them, the Doorty Cross, depicts a bishop, probably the founder of the monastery.

In Great Britain there are still outstanding samples, although most of the crucifixes were destroyed by iconoclasts in Reformation times. Still stands the cross of St. Piran in Perranporth, Cornwall, or Lindisfarne in Northumbria. In Scotland those of Saint Martin in the abbey on the island of Iona and the Kildalton cross in Islay. The latter is one of the best preserved, perhaps for its proximity to three of the best Scottish distilleries. Kildalton comes from the Gaelic Cill Daltain, referring to Saint John the Evangelist. It was carved from a monolith in the second half of the eighth century. Even in Scotland have survived to this day those of Kilbride, Saint Terran's, Eileach an Naoimh, Bainahard and Clanamacrie, some exhibited at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. In Wales, the cross of Carew, near the castle of the same name shows an inscription revealing it origin: MARGIT EUT. RE X.ETG (UIN). FILIUS. Margitent King and his son Etguin. Both, Maredudd and Edwin, ruled the ancient Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth in early eleventh century. A few kilometres to the north, and in the county of Pembrokeshire, on the outside of the church of Saint Brynach, rises the cross of Nevern, often described as one of the most perfect of its kind, comparable only to the Carew and Maen Achwynfan crosses. In each of its four sides has carved countless interlaced lines symbolizing eternity. Inside the Penmon Church, in Anglesey, to preserve them from the elements, two more Celtic crosses samples are stored. One built in three blocks with Nordic influences in its design.

The tradition of erecting stone crucifixes came to Scandinavia through Norman raids on the British Isles. We know of the existence of some sixty in Norway, and there's one in Hiiumaa, Estonia, but only four can be dated precisely because it had Viking runes carved on them. Were also Normans who carved in the early Middle Ages, stones with runes in the Isle of Man hybridizing the styles of Celtic crosses during the times of the Lordship of the Isles, covering the Shetland, Orkney, and Hebrides until Man. In the latter's capital Museum, Douglas, is exhibited the finest specimen, even though there is only a fragment. In the Calf of Man crucifixion, of the eighth century, we see a Christ still alive, with open eyes and clothes. To his right, the Lancer, in a style similar to the Irish monastic illustrations. Other Isle of Man parishes host notable examples of Celtic crosses. Here, unlike Ireland, are not used as ornamental, educational or prestige items, but funeral. Outside the capital, as an enclave of the distant past that emerges beside the road, is the old church of St. Brendan, Old Kirk Braddan. Sheltered by dampness moss grows on the rocks of the neighbouring graveyard gathering inside the church the most valuable pieces. Simply qualified by a footnote as Celtic wheel headed cross slab, has on its top panel representation of two beasts jaws showing a human face. It is a pagan origin issue that relates to the mouths of hell. Other interpretations see Daniel in the den of lions. On the left the Thorleif Hnakki's Cross differs from the rest by its shape slightly pyramidal. This is a Norman cross from tenth or eleventh century with Scandinavian dragons entwined in his trunk. The funerary inscription reads: Thornleif Hnakki did lift this cross in memory of Fiac, his son and nephew of Hafr. The names of a generation, Thorleif and Hafr are Vikings names, the one of the son, Fiac, is Celtic, what suggests a rapid assimilation in the settlement. North of the Isle of Man, in Maughold, the Crux Guriat identifies an Irish king, the son of which, Myrfyn Frych, established a dynasty in Wales. Alongside this one, a headstone with a cross carved include Copts saints Pablo and Antonio in the Egyptian desert. Inside Kirk Michael there are several more samples and fragments, including some with Scandinavian traces and highlighted interlaced dragons.

Just as the British island crosses, in Spanish Galicia spread the use of erecting stone crosses. According to an inventory of the University of La Coruña there are at least twelve thousand. Late constructed concerning Celtic crosses, its peak is centred between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries and its function is the same, sanctifying hosted sites suspected of pagan cults. The existence of the Jacobean routes, besides built them up on the dubious crossways would link them to the Breton calvaries. The oldest stone cross is preserved in Melide, dates from XIV century. As times goes by the dramatic character of the compositions tends to add a marked baroque imagery in the increased number of figures represented. Sometimes they were paid by who needs to gain indulgences for themselves, relatives or others. Obviously most characteristic figure is Jesus Christ on the cross, although sometimes with the Virgin figure on the reverse, as in the Convento del Carmen in Padrón. Another version are Petos de Ánimas, small chapels, isolated or accompanying some cruceiros, were originally designed to collect donations to alleviate the souls in purgatory. Currently still keep candles in some of them. An example is in the concello of Montederramo, in the province of Orense. Next to the chapel of St. Anthony is the superb Marrubio cruceiro flanked by a pair of these elements, the entire ensemble was erected in 1778.

In French Normandy and Brittany there are also some Celtic crosses, in Veules-les-Roses, Saint Kadoù or Chambon-sur-Lac in Auvergne. But the most remarkable pieces that have been developed in Brittany are Calvaries, monumental crucifixes complex embedded in chapels. Paul Gruyer wrote in early last century in "Les Bretons Calvaires": sur les pierres levées les plus vénérés s'érigea la Croix, afin que la même vénération confondit le nouveau symbole et l'antique croyance () a la simple Croix, et afin de rendre plus sensible à la foule la religion nouvelle qu’on lui préche, s’ajoutent bientôt, par les soins des premiers apôtres bretons, (on most venerated stones erected the cross for veneration confusing the new symbol with the old belief () to simple Cross, to easy to the crowd who preached the new religion, were soon added the first Breton apostles).

Only in the Finistère department are counted more than three thousand one hundred assets. Complexes Calvaries began to be erected in the mid-fifteenth century and enjoyed its heyday between the XVI and XVII. Were constructed on the basis of generally rectangular work where the chapel was located. Most authors remained anonymous with some exceptions. Bastien and Henry Prigent, Roland Doré and Julien Ozanne are the names of some of the sculptors who are known, thanks to signatures left. The themes of the scenes are recurrent throughout. From the Annunciation to Judgment through the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Characters also: Herod, the two thieves, Dimas and Gestas respectively flanked by an angel and a demon, and Longinus and Stephaton, the spear bearer and the sponge carrier, Veronica with the Holy Shroud. Also are represented local characters. Breton saints Yves, Pol Aurelien, Edern or Armel. Katel Golet is a female figure tortured by demons at the gates of hell because they have been seduced by the devil, symbolizing the punishment of lust. To remain single, Katel only promised marry anyone willing to dance with her along twelve hours without stop.

In Saint-Jean-Trolimnon, Tronoën Chapel is one of the most spectacular and the Calvary one of the oldest. Built on a granite base from Kersanton and Scaër, in nearly twenty square meters has two friezes and three crucifixions. In friezes nineteen scenes from the life of Christ are developed, from the Annunciation to the Passion and Death. Dates from the mid-fifteenth century. Besides some of them displaced by subsequent restorations, the scenes unfold linearly, sacred history is told as a comic. It should be read in the opposite direction to clockwise along an upward spiral that leads to Piety and ultimately to the crucifix. The speech has a dual symbolic and educational value.

In the vicinity of Brest is the largest of all Britain: Plougastel Daoulas, extraordinary octagonal base Calvary flanked by arcades. One hundred eighty figures are distributed in twenty-eight scenes. It was built in 1604, in gratitude for the end of the plague that struck the country in 1598. There are curious scenes. The already mentioned of Katel Golet. Or the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem preceded by characters dressed in the manner of Breton peasants. At the feet of Christ at the crucifixion two angels collect their blood in a chalice, referring to the legend of the Holy Grail.

In Elorn valley, in the region of Léon, is the Thégonnec Calvary, where the saint is represented beside the tamed wolf. Also appears Pontius Pilate washing his hands. And Veronica with the Holy Shroud among dozen scenes mounted on a single frieze.

Celtic origin iconography experienced a remarkable boost in the late nineteenth century, coinciding with 1853 Dublin Industrial Exhibition where ancient crosses were showed. Four years later Henry O'Neill published Illustrations of the Most Interesting of the Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland, a booklet that epitomized engravings of ancient Irish heritage. New crosses were erected, but this time only inside graveyards.

© J.L.Nicolas


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