Muiredach Cross

Originally painted, monumental crosses in Ireland like this one are the largest freestanding sculpture from the Middle Ages.

Muiredach Master, Muiredach Cross, c. 923 C.E., sandstone, 18 feet high, Monasterboice (Mainistir Bhuithe), County Louth, Ireland

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re at the site of Monasterboice, in Ireland, standing in front of this monumental-sized cross known as the Muiredach Cross. This is one of about 300 made in Ireland between the 8th to 12th centuries.

[0:20] It is one of the most famous, in part because of the exceptionally high quality of its carving and also its size. These are the largest freestanding sculpture that we have from the fall of the Roman Empire until artists create monumental sculpture in Italy in the early Renaissance.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:39] This was a monastic compound; there were a number of buildings and open spaces where the monks could meditate.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:45] The monks who lived here developed a center of great intellectual learning. Pilgrims were also coming here, because stored inside the round tower, most likely, were relics.

[0:56] When this cross was constructed in the early 10th century, it would have been a monumental feat. It is made of sandstone in three parts: the base, the cross itself, and the capstone.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] These crosses are out, they’re exposed to the weather, and sandstone is relatively soft stone, and so they have rounded, they have weathered, they have lost detail.

[1:17] Art historians are confident that originally these crosses were painted. Different colors would’ve picked out different forms, and this would have been far more legible than it is today, although they are remarkably legible even now.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:30] Which is a testament to the skill of the carver, or carvers, who created this.

[1:35] What is immediately striking to me is how much bigger it is than what I’ve seen in photographs. It’s on this trapezoidal base, and then the cross rises upwards. At the crossing, you see this distinct circular element that connects the arms of the cross to its vertical portion.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] This has become identified with Irish crosses.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:57] Often referred to as Celtic crosses, these are not specifically associated with the Celtic peoples. It’s better to refer to them as high crosses.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] At the center of the cross, we see a representation of the Crucifixion. We can see a figure whose arms are outstretched, whose legs dangle, and who’s being tortured by two soldiers.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:16] Below, we see scenes associated with the Arrest of Christ and Doubting Thomas, among others.

[2:22] At the base of this west face of the cross are two adorable cats, one licking a kitten and one that’s about to eat a bird. Wedged in between them is the inscription that helps us to identify this particular cross with an abbot who was at Monasterboice.

[2:39] The inscription roughly reads, “A prayer for “Muiredach who had the cross erected.” That particular abbot was here at Monasterboice in the early 10th century, which is how we date this.

Dr. Zucker: [2:50] I’m struck by how clearly structured the narrative scenes are, separated by framing. The lavish abstract forms, interlace patterns, there are spirals, there are interwoven snakes.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:03] Those decorative panels call to mind the filigree designs that we see on things like the Ardagh Chalice or the interlaced designs that we see throughout the Book of Kells. I can’t help but also be struck by how much attention to detail the artist gave to the figures.

[3:18] We see details of the textiles. We see brooches that fastened cloaks. We see curly hair and mustaches.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] At the center of the cross, on the other side, is what may be the earliest carved representation that we have from medieval Europe of the Last Judgment, a representation of the end of time when Christ sits as judge over all of the souls that have ever lived.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:42] We see Christ in the center as souls are being judged below him. We have St. Michael weighing the souls of the dead, determining where they’re going to go, to hell or heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] You can actually see that he’s holding scales, and in the left side of the balance you can see a little figure which is meant to represent a soul whose goodness or evil is being judged.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:03] One of my favorite details is a demon to Christ’s left. His knee is bent upwards and he looks like he’s kicking or pushing one of the souls into hell.

Dr. Zucker: [4:12] And so it is the figures on the right that are damned and the figures on the left who are the elect, who have been chosen for heaven.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:19] The narrative scenes below include the three magi coming to visit the Christ Child, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, where we see Eve picking an apple from the tree. This moment of original sin that causes sin in the world that humans have to atone for.

Dr. Zucker: [4:37] Christ takes on earthly form in order to relieve mankind of that original sin, and so in a sense the entire history of mankind is summed up in this cross.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:48] We don’t know exactly how this high cross functioned, but it likely had some type of didactic or educational role, to help people learn about the narratives in the Christian Bible, in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

[5:02] It could have also served as a devotional aid, helping the monks or the pilgrims who came here to reflect and to think more deeply about how to achieve salvation.

Dr. Zucker: [5:12] It also likely functioned as a way of marking this space as a sacred one, by creating visual echoes and references to the Holy Land, specifically to Jerusalem.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:23] Some art historians have argued that this cross, this form that seems to develop almost out of nowhere, relates to a jeweled cross that was on Golgotha in Jerusalem.

Dr. Zucker: [5:35] The hill that by tradition Christ was crucified upon.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:38] When that jeweled cross was erected, it had stairs that led up to it, so people have suggested that maybe the stepped base is replicating those stairs, that the various bosses and the elaborate decoration could mimic jeweled crosses from late antiquity, and then the capstone of the cross looks like a small house or a shrine.

Dr. Zucker: [6:01] We think that that’s an attempt to replicate the shrine that was built atop Christ’s tomb.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:07] Here in Ireland, in a monastic community, having these elements associated with the Holy Land could have vicariously transported monks or pilgrims thinking about Christ’s Passion and the final days of his life and his resurrection.

Dr. Zucker: [6:21] It is this lavish, monumental sculptural effort that marked this place as one of the great centers of Christianity.

[6:29] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Muiredach Cross," in Smarthistory, September 30, 2022, accessed May 28, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/muiredach-cross/.