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High crosses Monasterboice

The historic ruins of Monasterboice are of an early Christian settlement in County Louth in Ireland, north of Drogheda.It was founded in the late 5th century by Saint Buithe who died around 521,and was an important centre of religion and learning until the founding of nearby Mellifont Abbey in 1142.

Monasterboice is most famous for its 10th century high crosses. There is a round tower about 35-metres tall, and it is in very good condition, although it is not possible to go inside. The passage of time has laid down layers of earth so now the doorway is almost at ground level. The monastery was burned in 1097.

The 5.5-metre Muiredach's High Cross is regarded as the finest high cross in the whole of Ireland. It is named after an abbot, Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923 and features biblical carvings of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The North and West crosses are also fine examples of this kind of structure, but these have suffered much more from the effects of the weather.

The name Monasterboice is a part-anglicization of the Irish name Mainistir Bhuithe meaning "monastery of Buithe".


High crosses are the primary surviving monumental works of Insular art, and the largest number in Britain survive from areas that remained under Celtic Christianity until relatively late. No examples, or traces, of the putative earlier forms in wood or with metal attachments have survived; the decorative repertoire of early crosses certainly borrows from that of metalwork, but the same is true of Insular illuminated manuscripts. Saint Adomnán, Abbot of Iona who died in 704, mentions similar free standing ringed wooden crosses, later replaced by stone versions. Perhaps the earliest surviving free-standing stone crosses are at Carndonagh, Donegal, which appear to be erected by missionaries from Iona, fleeing the Viking raiders, “giving Iona a critical role in the formation of ringed crosses”.

Most Irish High crosses have the distinctive shape of the ringed Celtic cross, and they are generally larger and more massive, and feature more figural decoration than those elsewhere. They have probably more often survived as well; most recorded crosses in Britain were destroyed or damaged by iconoclasm after the Reformation, and typically only sections of the shaft remain. The ring initially served to strengthen the head and the arms of the high cross, but it soon became a decorative feature as well.
The high crosses were status symbols, either for a monastery or for a sponsor or patron, and possibly preaching crosses, and may have had other functions. Some have inscriptions recording the donor who commissioned them, like Muiredach's High Cross at Monasterboice. The earliest 8th- or 9th-century Irish crosses had only ornament, including interlace and round bosses, but from the 9th and 10th century, figurative images appear, sometimes just a figure of Christ crucified in the centre, but in the largest 10th century examples large numbers of figures over much of the surface. Some late Irish examples have fewer figures, approaching life-size, and carved in very high relief. The Irish tradition largely died out after the 12th century, until the 19th-century Celtic Revival, when the Celtic cross form saw a lasting revival for gravestones and memorials, usually just using ornamental decoration and inscriptions. These are now found across the world, often in contexts without any specific link to the Insular Celts or Britain.

Anglo-Saxon crosses were typically more slender, and often nearly square in section, though when, as with the Ruthwell Cross and Bewcastle Cross, they were geographically close to areas of the Celtic Church, they seem to have been larger, perhaps to meet local expectations, and the two 9th century Mercian Sandbach Crosses are the largest up to that period from anywhere. The heads tend to be smaller and usually not Celtic crosses, although the majority of cross-heads have not survived at all. Carved figures in these large examples are much larger and carved in deeper relief than the Irish equivalents with similar dates - only some very late Irish crosses show equally large figures. Anglo-Saxon decoration often combines panels of vine-leaf scrolls with others of interlace, although the placement and effect from a distance is similar to Celtic examples. Smaller examples may have only had such decoration, and inscriptions, which are much more common on Anglo-Saxon than Irish crosses.

After the Viking invasions, the settled Norse population of the Danelaw adopted the form, and a number of crosses combine Christian imagery with pagan Norse myths, which the Church seems to have tolerated, and adopted at least as metaphors for the period when conversion was bedding down. The Gosforth Cross, a very rare almost-complete cross in England, is an example. By the 10th century such Anglo-Norse crosses were the bulk of the production in England, as the high cross seems to have been abandoned further south, although the simple and practical Dartmoor crosses, no doubt an essential aid to navigating Dartmoor, appear to have continued to be made for centuries after. Given the tough granite used, decoration is mostly slight and they are hard to date confidently. Market crosses, many once dating to the Early Medieval period, have continued to be erected and relaced until modern times.

In Pictish Scotland the cross-slab, a flat stone with a cross in relief or incised on an essentially rectangular stone, developed as a hybrid form of the Pictish stone and the high cross. The cross is normally only on one side of the stone and the remaining areas of the stone may be covered with interlace or other decoration. These are usually distinguished from true high crosses.

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