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 potent 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” or cross shape scratched inside began to appear on cave drawings and burial sites.  The image persisted through the Bronze and Iron ages evolving into the Celtic Cross.  It’s likely that the “cross” symbolized North, South, East and West. 

Irish folklore tells the story of how Saint Patrick combined the Christian Cross with the “sun” to emphasize the importance of the cross to the Pagan followers, giving birth to the Celtic Cross.  Though there is likely little truth to the tale.  Around the 7th Century, Irish monks in the Celtic regions of Ireland and Great Britian began to erect upright or “high” crosses, many incorporating the Celtic Cross’ characteristic ringed structure.  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 imagery, carved in the stone due to the influence of the animal style common in the Iron age.  Not surprising given that warrior-herdsmen were so dependent on wildlife for food and clothing.  This influence died off after the Iron Age as art in Ireland and Britian 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” which means “island.”  This applied to the Isles of Britian and Ireland, and spoke to the shared nature of the artwork between the two regions that were vastly different than what was being produced throughout the rest of Europe. The Celtic crosses of this time were ornate and often bore spiraling geometric patterns that likely symbolized man’s “twisting” 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 Revivial began that resulted in increased display and use of Celtic crosses in Ireland.  The Celtic cross became fashionable as a cemetary marker in Victorian Dublin around the 1860s.  This revival continued to spread across the whole of Irland and beyond and the symbol began to take on importance as a symbol of Irish heritage in addition to its religious conotation. 

Today, the Celtic cross is commonly used as a gravemarker, though this is a departure from both medieval and Celtic revival periods when the symbol was used mainly as a monument and had little association with grave markings.  The imagery of the Celtic cross has expanded its influence even in modern times, often spotted in jewelry as an expression of Irish pride and Christianity.  The symbol is also seen in everything from T-shirts to tattoos.  The Northern Ireland national football team use the Celtic Cross imagery in their logo and branding.  The symbol has had some unfortunate attention as well and was recently banned from display in Germany when a prohibited neo-Nazi party co-opted the image as a symbol of their movement.

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