An ornamented standing stone cross, often with a circle1, is called a High Cross. There are various other names, including Iona Cross, Scottish Cross, Irish Cross, Welsh Cross, Anglican Cross, St. John's Cross, Halo Cross, Sun Cross... and a few more names mentioned below. The cross arms may extend beyond the circle or terminate at the circle, in which case it can be referred to as a Disc Cross.
In Germany and Netherlands, it is called the Keltisch Cross and in various countries it is known as the Gaelic Cross2. The design is popular in Ukraine and adorns the tops of cupolas, where the circle sometimes has rays emanating out, much like a Sun symbol.
Other Celtic crosses have the rays pointing inwards, intertwining with each other to form intricate swirls.
One such example is seen on this old Bible, carefully renovated for us by Hollingworth & Moss bindery in Leeds, England. For this particular work, even though the gilded cross is embossed on leather, the fine detail of the swirls is quite sharp (as one would expect from a professional bookbinder).
Interestingly, the detail found on much older weather-beaten stone crosses also remains quite clear.
Such knotwork can also be found carved on the Pict Cross, Carolingian Cross, the Sun Cross and the Crown of Thorns Cross
Anglicans and Episcopalians usually call this the Anglican Cross, Episcopal Cross or Celtic Cross, whereas Catholics often refer to it as the Irish Cross. But just as the Protestant Christ is the same as the Catholic Christ is the same as the Lutheran Christ, all these crosses are one and the same.
Other names include St. Columba Cross, after the 6th century Irish missionary, Iona Cross, Ionic Cross, and sometimes mistakenly called an Iconic Cross, although no doubt many pilgrims have treated this cross as an icon.
One of the oldest Celtic Crosses is found in Whithorn, a former royal burgh in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland. This is the site of the 4th century Candida Casa, the first recorded Christian church in Scotland, and the Monreith Cross (or Whithorn Cross).
Churches in Scotland and Ireland are often dedicated to St. John and therefore a Celtic Cross in those churches might be called St. John's Cross. Confusingly, during the First Crusade, there was an order of medieval monks known as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem who used the Maltese Cross as their emblem. That emblem is also referred to as St. John's Cross.3
Another name is the St. Peter's Cross, although St. Peter is usually associated with an inverted cross. An example can be seen outside the Cathedral of St. Peter-in-Chains, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
On the lawn there is a bronze statue named "Christ the King", erected in 1926. The artist's name is unknown but it was purchased by Bishop O'Brien when visiting Rome circa 1925. The statue was his gift to the Diocese for their 100th anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in Peterborough on 5 June 1826.
The white Canadian granite base is by a local monument maker, an Irishman, who formed an incuse image of a Celtic cross in the stone and then poured molten lead into the hollow. There are two such crosses on this monument. The arms are shaped like nails, representing the nails that were driven into Jesus on the cross. (See also Nails Cross)
On the right is another circled cross with nails and also from eastern Canada. It is the only survivor of four that were mounted on gables of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. The church was built in 1906 and several parts have recently been restored, including this wooden cross.
A special feature is its centre. Most Celtic crosses have intersecting arms but in the centre of this one, we see a voided cross in the shape of four buds. This may represent the Lutheran Rose, or as the Rev. Jensen of the church suggests, it could also represent the four gospels. It is a common design found throughout his church. (See www.stpaulsbridgewater.ca/)
Nova Scotia happens to lead us to another saint associated with the Celtic Cross - St. Brendan. You may have noticed that the above crosses resemble a ship's wheel or points of a compass4. Well, St. Brendan might have been the first European to sail across the North Atlantic. See the story of St. Brendan and his legendary journey across "the pond".
Because of its antiquity, the Celtic Cross is popular with neo-Druids, occultists, neo-Pagans and New Age followers, who see the ring representing the thunder god Taranis and refer to the cross as a Taranis Wheel. (See also Kabbalah Cross and the St. Brighid's Cross.) When a circled cross is seen to represent the Cosmos, several religions refer to it as a Mandala Cross.
Another interpretation is that the cross might be an astrological navigation instrument. (See also Navigation Cross)
The most common Christian interpretations of the ring include:
- a symbol of eternity that emphasizes the everlasting life in heaven for those who accept Christ
- the world, for which Christ died and the everlasting love of God, as shown through Christ's Crucifixion.
- The circle has been linked to the idea of the Eucharist. Early Crosses in Scotland depicted round millstones used for grinding wheat that were hung in the centre of large Crosses.
- a crown of thorns
- the resurrection of Christ
- a halo
- the story of St. Patrick, living with some new Christian converts (formerly Druids). Patrick took one of their standing stones etched with a circle that symbolised their moon goddess, and scratched a Latin cross mark over the circle. This was to show that Christianity had replaced their pagan beliefs.
- and perhaps the most compelling symbolism; as a Celtic version of the Chi Rho. We are told by Dr Alexander Roman about archaeological sites of Celtic Christian monastic dwellings where the Chi Rho and Celtic Crosses are traced in stone one above the other. The circle in the Celtic Cross is therefore the 'P' of the Chi Rho.
There is one further, albeit unlikely, suggestion about the circle; that it might be simply a structural support for the horizontal arms.
One of the best-preserved Celtic crosses is the 8th century St. Martin's Cross (photo on the left), which stands in front of Iona Abbey. This is a replica of the earlier St. John's Cross, which has an enormous arm span for a stone cross; over two metres.
Without the circle to support the weight of the arms, it is unlikely the cross would have stood for such a long time.
However, we discount that suggestion in favour of a religious connection for the circle. If ancillary supports were necessary then straight braces at 45 degrees would be more effective.
Whilst the circle might have originally represented a moon god, the Sun god, a cosmic wheel, or a phallic symbol plus an association with everlasting life; when the stone crosses were carved by Christians, they were doing so with their Christian God in mind.
Church buildings, hymns, vestments and many other trappings used by the early Church in Europe were influenced by existing pagan customs and culture in their art and design. There was no reason to invent anything new to worship the Christian God6
The Church has moved, and continues to move, with the times. Perhaps not fast enough for some people, and too fast for others.