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History of the Celtic Cross
By Leigh G. Maher

There is an old Irish tale of a man who, while trying to explain a new deity, drew a picture of the sun and inscribed a cross in front. This man, St. Patrick, was so successful at his explanation that the entire island of Ireland was soon converted to Catholicism. Today, many historians argue that this story is not factual, but the essence of the Celtic cross has remained intrinsically Irish.

A Celtic cross is a cross with a circle surrounding the intersecting points. This cross was elongated to include the Christian symbol, creating the design that many know today. The symbol of the cross appeared in Celtic art and symbolism previous to the arrival of Christianity. There is evidence of Druid carvings denoting this symbol, representing the sun and the joining of forces from four parts of the world. However, the spread of Christianity decreased the use of the Celtic cross as a pagan symbol, and created the Celtic Christian cross that is most commonly seen today.

Celtic High Crosses, which are richly decorated, free-standing crosses, were created in the 7th century throughout Ireland, Scotland and England by monks to mark significant towns and areas. Carved from stone, examples of these crosses can be found in Kells, County Meath and Ardboe, County Tyrone. During the Celtic Revival, these crosses became very popular and were used as the basis for gravestone designs. During the rebellion in the early 1900s, the English used the beams of the high crosses to hang rebels as a public display. Today, many Celtic cross pendants take cues from these historic markers and include beautiful knots and inscriptions in their designs.

The designs can range from simple borders to intricate knotwork and carvings of Biblical stories. Similar to Gospel illumination, the carvings and designs told specific stories and gave particular meanings to each cross. These designs can be helpful in determining where the cross originated and from what century. The shapes of the crosses themselves, such as a cap on the top of the cross, can also be an indicator.

Today, like the knotwork found on a Celtic knot pendant, Celtic crosses have become more of a declaration of heritage than faith. Celtic crosses are found widely in art, tattoo designs, and in jewelry. Earrings, necklaces, and Celtic bracelets use the Celtic cross as a major design. Many signs, such as the Gaelic Athletic Association's emblem, use the Celtic cross to associate itself with its changing symbolism. Whether seen as a Pagan, Christian, or purely decorative symbol, the Celtic cross is a beautiful design steeped in mystery and continues to evolve.


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