Celtic Crosses are dotted around hundreds of cemeteries across Europe, most notably in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There are few symbols that are as iconic as the Celtic Cross as the embodiment of Celtic Christianity. Legend believes that St. Patrick introduced the Celtic Cross in Ireland, during his conversion of the kings from paganism to Christianity.
While the Celtic Cross is certainly a Christian symbol, it has deep roots in ancient pagan beliefs at the same time. The stone circle at Calanais, situated on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, is formed in a rough circle, which has an even-armed cross within it. This ancient design is believed to be the sun symbol to the creators of the stone circle. Legend once again says the birth of the Celtic Cross came as the result of St Patrick extending the length of the ancient sun symbol.
Original Celtic Crosses were not carved out of the rock, they were inscribed on the rock. Such inscriptions can be seen near Gallerus Oratory in Ireland, It is a slab of stone, erected and carved with a Celtic Cross on the surface. The Killaghtee Cross in Dunkineely, Ireland is another great example, dating back to around 650 CE.
In Ireland High Crosses were very popular in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, and were often constructed to memorialize well known people or places. As times progressed, the Irish started carving more elaborate designs, sometimes telling biblical stories. The famous Clonmacnoise Cross is called the Cross of the Scriptures. It is decorated with images from the bible, such as the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Guarding of the Tomb.
This idea of elaborate story telling through sculpture carvings could be an imitation of Roman sculptures, or perhaps the much closer Pictish carvings in Scotland. While many of the stylized designs on the Pictish stones are as yet a mystery, some obviously tell stories about their battles.
While there are thousands of high crosses scattered throughout Ireland, the majority of these Celtic Crosses are seen on gravestones, a result of a fashion around the 1850s to use them as headstones. This was the style that crossed oceans and has taken root wherever Irish or Scottish immigrants landed, be it the Americas, far off Australia or New Zealand, bringing with them the beauty and mystery of the Celtic Cross.