Cross of the scriptures

Cross of the scriptures

One of Ireland's finest surviving decorated ringed crosses, the shaft and ringed head were carved from one piece of sandstone. The cross, 13 feet (4m) high, stood to the west of the cathedral probably facing the doorway of the main church. Its surface is divided into panels with figured scenes

Archaeological excavations around the Cross of the Scriptures and the South Cross at Clonmacnoise indicated that they had replaced earlier, wooden monuments. The form of these is unknown, but is possibly suggested by images of ringed crosses with shafts sharpened at the end like timber stakes incised on grave-slabs from there and nearby Leamonaghan.

Cross of the scriptures

Representation on the Cross of the Scriptures

The lower scene on the east face of the shaft shows an Ecclesiastic and a King driving a pole into the ground. This has been variously interpreted but may represent Abbot Colmán and Flann Sinna, king of Ireland (d. 917) who erected both this cross and the church now known as the Cathedral.

Different interpretations: Interpretations vary, one suggesting that it represents the early 10th-century abbot Colman holding up a dedicatory cross with his contemporary High King Flann Sinna (879-916), both of which names appear in the inscription beneath proving that important kings were involved jointly with the church in commissioning high crosses.

However, given the tall stem of the object held by the two men, its upper part could also be seen as part of the plant world, with a leaf branching out on each side and a third on top which - given that the ancient Irish called this the 'Cross of the Scriptures' - might point towards a more biblical context.

Folio 253v from the Book of Kells MS.58

One such could be Joseph interpreting the dream of Pharaoh's butler, involving the budding of a three-branched vine, as related in the Book of '1 Genesis, chapter 40. Joseph told the butler, who had lost his job, that the branches symbolised the three days at the end of which he would be re-instated, a prophecy that was duly fulfilled. The scene could then be seen as a pre-figuration of the aforementioned panel placed back-to-back with it at the bottom of the west face of the shaft showing Christ (with the aid of a bird) about to rise from the dead after three days in the tomb, as he himself had foretold.

Thus, the Colman of the inscription need not necessarily be taken to be the name of a Clonmacnoise abbot and could, instead, be that of the master mason who carved the cross - one so revered, like an aosdana, that he could place his name before that of a king, but who could also perhaps be the Colman who carved his name on another Offaly cross at Kinnitty, which was erected during the reign of Flann Sinna's father, Maelsechlainn I (846-862). Macalister, however, suggested that the mason - in his view 'one of the greatest sculptors of northern Europe' - may have been Turcan who is described on one of the many Clonmacnoise memorial stones as the man 'who made the cross' which, however, sadly remains unidentified.

11th century Islamic Abultion Basin

There are numerous examples of images of beard pullers, such as in the Book of Kells (f.253v) or the 11th century Islamic Ablution Basin

Cross of the scriptures

The Cross of the Scriptures also has a number of carvings which still pose problems of interpretation. No satisfactory explanation has ever been found, for this curious panel with a large man seated on top of a smaller figure into whose eye he pokes a stick with a bird on top of it.

Representation on the Cross of the Scriptures

Cross of the scriptures

Representation on the Cross of the Scriptures

The centre of the head cross and the arms form an integrated scene. It's the last judgment. Jesus stands in the middle of the scene, with a rod over his right shoulder and a cross over the left one.

Arboe High Cross, Co. Tyrone

On the Cross of the Scriptures, the depiction of Christ is curious, showing him standing rather than enthroned, holding a cross and a flowering rod. There are no direct European comparisons for this, and it has been suggested that the rod may be a symbol associated with a judge in early Ireland. Similar representations survive at Arboe, Co. Tyrone and Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice.

Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth - image from Abarta Audio Guides

Here are one of the most famous representations of the last judgment. It's a painting realised by Michelangelo on the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

The last judgment by Michelangelo

Cross of the scriptures

The arms of the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise meet the ring at a tilting angle and, unlike the other crosses in the group which have separate capstones, its tomb-shaped capstone is carved of a piece with the cross itself. The capstone is often carved in the shape of a house, with a sloping roof.

Capstone from Muiredach's Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth

It is thought that such house-shaped capstones may represent reliquaries, which, like the Monymusk Reliquary, typically took this form in Irish Christianity.

The Monymusk Reliquary, early 8th century

The 11th century Bell and Bell Shrine of St. Conall Cael from The British Museum, London

Cross of the scriptures

Representation on the Cross of the Scriptures

The centre of the cross head features the crucifixion of Jesus. The figure on the left is identified as Stephaton who offers Jesus vinegar on a pole and on the right, it's Longinus who stabs Jesus with a lance. The figures above Jesus' head could be an angel who symbolizes God's presence.

An 8th century Crucifixion Plaque from Co. Roscommon

The representation of the crucifixion didn't evolve since this model in bronze (8th century) discovered at St John's Rinnegan.

Cross of the scriptures

Representation on the Cross of the Scriptures

This part of the cross represents the Christ on the way to death. From up to down, you can see the crucifixion in the head of the cross, the flagellation of the Christ, his arrest and finally his tomb with two soldiers.

The panel with the flagellation is subject to interpretation. If we consider that the person in the middle is the Christ, it could really be the flagellation. But if we interpret the halos as helmets, the person in the middle could be a soldiers too. So they are represented when they divide the Christ's garment.

Cross of the scriptures

Representation on the Cross of the Scriptures

This scene represents a dynamic action. Jesus body is in the tomb surrounded by two guard. On the right side, we see the face of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. What we see here may represent the last moment before the resurrection. There is almost the same representation on the DurrowCross.

Representation on the Durrow Cross

The increased prominence of broad bladed swords in warrior representations on ninth- and tenth century high crosses such as the Cross of the Scriptures, Durrow and Monasterboice, Muiredach's Cross may reflect Viking influence, though, in view of the absence of armour, one cannot assume that these figures actually represent Vikings. The occurrence of helmets on soldiers guarding Christ's tomb on the Cross of the Scriptures and Durrow may indicate Vikings, but could alternatively serve as a warning that some scenes may be based on foreign exemplars and may not accurately represent Irish conditions.

Warrior from the Durrow high cross

Cross of the scriptures

The badly damaged inscriptions on the east and west faces at the foot of the shaft appear to mention both King Flann and Colmán who caused the cross to be made.

Folio 84v from the Book of Durrow, TCD MS.57

The earliest known book-shrine that can be dated by an inscription was the shrine for the Book of Durrow, which was taken from the Library of Trinity College, Dublin during the military occupation in 1689. In 1677, Roderick O'Flaherty, an historian, antiquarian and Irish scholar, visited the Library at Trinity College where he viewed the book and its shrine. He recorded and transcribed an Irish inscription which was engraved on a silver cross attached to the shrine. The inscription referred to the patron, Flann mac MáelSechnaill, who was king of the Southern Uí Neill between 879 and 916, and therefore presents the dates within which the shrine was commissioned. Flann was an active patron of ecclesiastical activities. He is the same who is named in the inscription on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise and was a co-patron in the building of the great stone church at the same site.

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