The Origin of Displaying High Cross Reproductions

Kildare St

An international audience for High Crosses

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a growing awareness of national identity led to an increased interest in archaeology throughout Europe. Through displays at international fairs and the exchange of reproductions, museums could show the wealth of their respective nation’s archaeological heritage.

The Irish audience

In Ireland the Golden Age was highlighted as the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment. Of all the Irish reproductions manufactured at this time, the most impressive are the plaster casts of Irish high crosses, copies of which were exhibited in England, America and Australia. The 1853 Irish Industrial Exhibition in Dublin showcased Irish industry, art and crafts alongside those of other countries. Particular prominence was given in the main hall to sculpture, including a number of high crosses, both originals and casts. These were described as ‘fine monuments of the artistic skill and devoted piety of our Celtic ancestors, who imbibed a deep veneration for the cross as the symbol of Christianity’.

The National Museum of Ireland and High Cross replicas

The casts of the high crosses exhibited here were commissioned by Col. T. Plunkett, Director of the Museum. They were prominently displayed in the National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street for much of the last century. In recent years the National Museum of Ireland sent these High Cross casts to Nagoya, Japan for exhibition at the World’s Fair.

Crosses represented in the exhibition

North Cross Ahenny, Co. Tipperary

A common early medieval image is that of animals and humans with their arms and legs interlaced or twisted around each. On this cross there is an image of four men with their arms and legs knotted together, this image is also on the Banagher cross shaft which can be seen at the entrance to the exhibition

South Cross, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary

Some of the decoration on the crosses is very similar to or was inspired by decoration on metal objects. There are often large bosses on the cross arms; these look like the decorated tops of nails which hold metal objects together. The triple-spiral decoration like that on the cross can also be seen on ‘Tara’ brooch and in manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.

Tall Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth

As a teaching aid the shape of the cross was actually the embodiment and symbol of Christ in person. It is not until the later crosses that the figure of the crucifixion dominates the surface area of the crosses.

Muiredach’s Cross, Monasterboice, Co. Louth

The figures on the crosses conveyed the teachings of Christianity but also contain insights into the ninth-century world of the stonemasons. The styles of dress and hair are depicted along with chariots, books, crosiers, swords, and processional crosses.

Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo

The original cross is in the church yard of Drumcliffe in Co. Sligo, next to a round tower; the grave of the poet, W.B Yeats is nearby. On its base is a symbol resembling an arrow. This is known as a ‘benchmark’ and was placed there by Ordnance Survey map makers as a point of reference when recording height above sea level when conducting surveys in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Dysert O’Dea Cross, Dysert, Co. Clare

In later periods High Crosses were often made of stone with wooden additions. These wooden pieces have not survived. It is possible that the figure on the Dysert O’Dea cross would have carried a wooden crosier and that there may have been wooden extensions to the arms.

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