Irish Genius
Some Spared Stones of Ireland


Ahenny, North Cross, detail of shaft.
map of crosses


field guide

irish prehistoric tombs:





stone circles

(rock art)


stone forts, crannógs & souterrains

ogam-stones &

& cross-slabs

enigmas of the irish crosses
part two


& the phallic continuum

satan in the groin


the earth-mother's

east of brittany:
megaliths of western and southern france







from Drakestown, county Meath




This fabulous beast is a Manticore.


Rough sgraffitoed slabs evolved in Ireland to high-relief slabs and elegant cross-shaped pillars. Then in a remarkable evolution the cross-shaped pillars acquired their typical rings, and became large complex sculptures with ornamentation, figures and scenes all over their surfaces: the so-called High Crosses. These forehadowed a far greater evolution which occurred in Central, Western and Southern France in the eleventh century - the Romanesque, the greatest art movement the world has ever known.

Ireland, a country on the fringe of Europe, had its own version of Christianity. Ireland had no martyrs, and Irish monks, influenced by Syrian and Coptic Christianity (abbots could marry, for example) lived in autonomous monasteries answerable to no Metropolitan, Bishop or Pope. Many monks lived in alone as hermits, or in very small groups on remote headlands or islands. Most of the monasteries were small and primitive, but some (on rich grazing land) became large and rich. They attracted visitors from an unstable Continental Europe - and probably some monks travelled to Western France and Northern Spain, where they saw Merovingian and Roman sarcophagi, and Vizigothic churches. The Latin cross with ring, thought to be an Insular development or quirk, has Coptic and Byzantine models.

At any rate, some sophisticated sculptors were attracted from the Continent to Ireland and met craftsmen proficient in the whirls and knots of Celto-AngloSaxon-Pictish ornament (fine examples of which can be seen at Ahenny and Tibberaghny) which derived from metal-and-wood artefacts. High-relief figure-sculpture was something entirely lacking in Ireland - if we discount the very phallic Turoe Stone - but it arrived at some time in the late 9th century.

North face of Tibberaghny  (Tybroughney) cross-shaft.

The richest Irish monasteries - far poorer and simpler than the later cultural engine of the Benedictine monasteries of Europe, and with only remote access to the Classical sculpture and architecture, which, though ruinous or damaged, littered France, Italy and Spain - erected Teaching Crosses - the Scripture Crosses which have seen so much damage, destruction, neglect and pollution-dissolution. These are modest achievements compared with the great basilicas, cathedrals and collegiates which mushroomed all over Europe from the middle of the eleventh century - but they are appropriate to an island which had been going its own quiet and modest way while the rest of Europe to the East and South was dominated by Imperial Rome - and the consequences of its collapse.

The Continental origin and inspiration of the later Scripture Crosses is evidenced by the rarity of any Irish element in their iconography: no Irish saints (from whom there are so many to choose besides Patrick - from the early Declan to the late Columbanus, Fiacre and Gall) and no Irish legends or references. The snake, which features on 'Muiredeach's Cross at Monasteroice', had never been part of Irish iconography, but was a very common symbol of earthiness and evil in Europe. In early mediæval iconography it had positive significance, being associated with Terra, herself partly modelled on Greek if not Minoan avatars.

The Irish element is shown by the choice of certain subjects relating to the monastic tradition: the saints Anthony and Paul the Hermit, and subjects such as the life of King David which appealed to the Celtic heroic tradition.

But the first slabs and pillars are obviously influenced by (or shared their origin with) contemporaneous carvings in Scottish Pictland (Christianised by St Columba) and feature strange beasts and scenes with horsemen.


Just as the Romanesque churches of southern Europe carried enigmatic images of strange beasts and bizarre scenes as well as hackneyed but magnificent depictions of the Crucifixions, the Prophets, Christ in Glory, the Resurrection and the Damned in Hell, so the Irish crosses have their own enigmas.

This Centaur is very Pictish in appearance.

Tibberaghny (Tybroughney), south face. or pillar or shaft
This carving resembles a famous Pictish centaur
(with foliated branches) on a slab at Meigle (Perthshire).

The common scenes on Irish Scripture Crosses include the Fall of Man, the first murder (Cain and Abel), the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Children in the Fiery Furnace, David playing his harp from the Old Testament. New Testament scenes include the Flight into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Baptism of Jesus, the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes and the Wedding at Cana, the Crucifixion, Christ in Glory, and so on. Daniel in the Lions' Den on the east side of crosses prefigures the Crucifixion on the west side.


The miracle of the Loaves and Fishges
South Cross, Castledermot.

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel
Muiredeach's Cross, Monasterboice.

The Fiery Furnace and Daniel in the Lions' Den.
Arboe .

Daniel and the Lions on the Tower Cross at Kells. East face of the Tower Cross, Kells.

Daniel and the Lions on a Vizigothic (8th century) capital at San Pedro de la Nave (Zamora), Spain
and on a late-twelfth century capital in the church of Sainte-Radegonde in Poitiers (Vienne), France.

The Fall of Man is the commonest Old Testament scene on Irish crosses.

Cross-shaft,  from Galloon Island, now  at Lisnaskea.
Lisnaskea: cross from Galloon Island.

Broken Cross, Kinnitty (Castletown and Glinsk)..
Kinnitty (Castletown and Glinsk).

Cross-shaft at Boho, county Fermanagh.
On the Moone cross Adam and Eve are at the top, with the Sacrifice of Isaac and the Ordeal of Daniel below.

Moone Cross, East face of base.
Compare the sacrifice of Isaac here
with a very sophisticated capital of a little earlier in Vizigothic Spain)


At Killary (below) Adam and Eve are at the bottom, with Noah's Ark immediately above, then the Sacrifice of Isaac and Daniel in the Lions' Den. So the discrete sections of Irish crosses were to be read either from the top down, or from the bottom up.


The story of Noah is not common on Irish crosses. But at Castledermot there is a fine representation of the animals being driven along to the Ark.

Castledermot, South Cross, South side of base.

Though Daniel and the Lions and the Sacrifice of Isaac, for example, appear on Vizigothic churches of the 9th century, Saints Anthony and Paul in the Syrian Desert - the first Hermits or 'Desert Fathers' - hardly occur at all in the European Romanesque, but appear on several Irish crosses, along with strange scenes such as Whispering Beasts which might be the Tempation of Saint Anthony the Hermit - or might not.

On the Moone Cross (right) with its famous depiction of the 12 Apostles on its base below the Crucifixion, the North side of the base shows the Raven brings SS Anthony and Paul a loaf of bread at their desert rendezvous. The second panel is the Pictish-looking "Whispering Beast" motif which may be the Temptation of Saint Anthony. The bottom panel may be the Beast of the Apocalypse - missing one of its seven heads.

Moone Cross, West face.

Moone Cross, North side of base

Moone Cross, South side of base.
South side of base showing the Miracle of the Loaves & Fishes; the Flight into Egypt; the Children in the Fiery Furnace.

Saints Paul the Hermit and Anthony are shown on the Clonca cross with hands on their laps. But what do the very Mesopotamian (or Pictish!) lions or sphinxes mean ?
Note the wicker-like interlace carving.



The human figure between two beasts is very common. These two pictures show two different scenes on the Market Cross at Kells. The scene on the right is placed below the ring on the North side, while the scene below is on the West face.


While the scene above (resembling one on a Pictish stone at Kettins, Angus) might be the Temptation of Saint Anthony (though he is unbearded), that on the right is completely mysterious, because the braid-bearded figure has a bovine tail, while his right ear is ?bitten by one of the pawing or mauling beasts.
The genital area - which is the centre of the design - has been defaced.
It is not clear whether the beasts, his beard or his hands - or all three - were covering it.


Muiredach's Cross, South side.

Also on Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice is a clever interlace of beards (left) symbolising - what ? - the companionship or the mortal danger lurking in the companionship of monks ?

And what are the cat-like lions doing underneath this panel ?
Are they hellish beasts ?





This "whispering beasts" carving with Pictish overtones is echoed, like many carvings on Irish crosses, by similar - often earlier - metalwork figures, such as this one from a portable cross from Tully Lough, county Kildare.

The motif is also very Romanesque, and would not be out of place on a twelfth-century doorway in Poitou or Gascony. Compare it with the Poitiers capital of Daniel (above).

Click the picture above for interesting solarisations of this panel.


The motif of mutual beardpullers also occurs on Continental Romanesque churches, where it may represent the sin of mutual masturbation: a common concern amongst celibate monks. These beardpullers, however, do not seem to be monks, since they have their hair (and perhaps their beards) in a kind of bag worn by the rich and known as a tresse.

Click the picture above for a Catalan example.


NOTE: like Romanesque churches (and Greek sculpture and prehistoric rock-engravings) Irish crosses were originally polychrome-painted.


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