The Pagan Roots of the Celtic Cross

The ancient Celts were first mentioned by early Roman historians in the fifth century BC. They were warlike tribes who lived in the foothills of the Alps in southern France. They gradually expanded their territory and eventually migrated to Britain and Ireland. When we think of Irish Celtic Art, we tend to associate it with these people to arrived on our shores and brought their visual art with them. In particular, we refer to period of artistic expression after they had been Christianized during the early part of the fifth century. This Celtic art is best expressed in the iconic knotwork found in Irish Celtic crosses.

muiredach celtic cross

Celtic Cross of Muiredach, found at the monastery at Monasterboice, County Louth.

The Celts believed themselves to be part of a complex natural system. Central to this system is the concept of a center or cosmic axis, imagined as an oak tree carrying mistletoe, whose branches support the canopy of heaven and the roots joining the underground world. It thus linked together three superimposed worlds: the Heavens, the Earth of the humans and the Underground world.

The early symbolism of The Cross

Since the fifth century The Celts have used the simplest representation of a cross, a circle and a superimposed cross, to explain the interconnectedness of the world. The cross represents the four major directions, with the circle indicating the limits of territory that surrounds the central point. The cross also suggests the movement of the sun, not only throughout the day from sunrise to sunset, but also its journey through the annual events of solstices and equinoxes.

Dragons and the Celtic Knot

Early Celtic art also incorporates the emblem of the pair of dragons. Intertwining dragons form the basis of the stylized Celtic knot we are so familiar with today. The knotwork was typically used to decorate weapons, especially sword scabbards and shields of Celtic warriors. According to an account of the Welsh Mabinogi, such dragons would have been found on Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur.

Celtic Art and the Celtic Cross

Saint Brigid’s Well in County Kildare

Rather than subdue the pagan world the people of Ireland were won over to Christianity by adopting pagan beliefs and traditions to the new faith. Pagan springs became holy wells and pagan festivals became patterns in the Christian calendar. Even Celtic heroes evolved into Saints. Saint Brigid was a goddess of Pre-Christian Ireland, associated with the spring season, fertility, healing and poetry. The ultimate representation of the evolution of early Celtic Art into Celtic Christian art can be found in the example of the Irish Celtic High Cross. The pattern is arranged vertically with Christ figure in the center representing the connection between the heavenly, terrestrial and infernal worlds. The earliest pagan symbolism reused to represent Christianity. Saint Patrick was a clever fellow.