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Crux Gemmata

Why did the Celts decorate their crosses? Let's take a little trip through the ages to find the inspiration that sparked the Celtic imagination:

To begin with, the pre-Christian Celts already had a tradition of decorative stone carving. The Picts chisled spirals, key patterns, and other designs into boulders that possibly served as boundary and land markers.  In the 8th century, more and more slabs featured large cross shapes filled with spirals, keys, and intricate interlaced knotwork. This coincided with Irish Gaels and Anglo-Saxons pushing into Pictish lands, bringing Christianity along with them.

Aberlemno Cross Slab
(Anne Burgess / Aberlemno Cross)

The Irish high crosses, as I explained in my last post, often displayed saints, biblical figures, and Christ surrounded by a ring which could represent the victory wreath, eternal life, or the cosmos. These concepts and imagery travelled along with clerics, missionaries, and pilgrims from Rome, Jerusalem, and perhaps even Egypt.

Ruthwell Cross

The Anglo-Saxons had a tradition of decorative crosses as well. The most famous of these, the Ruthwell Cross, bears a runic inscription which is part of an Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood. The poet describes a mystical dream in which he speaks to the cross on which Christ was crucified. Here's an excerpt:

I gazed upon the glorious growth,
wreathed in its worthy windings,
joyfully aglow, garnished in golden:
gemstones gladsome bandaged its scars,
the wielder’s tree. (13–17) 

Remnants of an Anglo-Saxon cross, gold with interlace designs and garnets.
(Jon Callas from San Jose, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

If we trace this imagery further, we find golden, jewel-encrusted crosses in church mosaics in Rome such as this one in Santa Pudenziana:

Apsis mosaic of Santa Pudenziana, Rome, c. 410 AD.
(Welleschik, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

The golden cross on a hill represents the New Jerusalem, and the cross itself the Tree of Life. A jeweled golden cross representing Jersusalem is a reference to the crux gemmata of Golgotha, a large decorated memorial cross commissioned by Emperor Theodosius II and placed on the site of the crucifixion which had been enclosed by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This became the most revered pilgrimage site in the Christian world. Destroyed by invaders, evidence of the crux gemmata of Golgotha remains in these sorts of apse mosaics, other crux gemmata inspired by the original, and the illustrations on ampullae (souvenir flasks sold to Holy Land pilgrims in the 5th-7th centuries).

One of the Monzo Ampullae
(unknown handicraft worker VI c., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

So the Celtic cross takes us back through the centuries all the way to Jerusalem. Why did these earlier Christians first choose to decorate crosses? Because it communicates something of the paradox of the Christian cross. What was previously a brutal and shameful execution implement changed, because of Christ's sacrifice, into a glorious instrument of our eternal salvation worthy of our veneration. St. Paul writes of Jesus:

He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross. For which cause God also hath exalted him, and hath given him a name which is above all names: That in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth: And that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father. 
Phillipians 2:6-11

Another Old English poem, Elene describes in epic style the legend of St. Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother, finding the True Cross in Jerusalem and having it decorated for the purpose of veneration. The overall anti-Semitic tone probably accounts for why this poem isn't better known, but it does provide a glimpse of the thinking behind this particular devotion:

Then the queen ordered them separately to seek out those best
schooled in their craft, those that knew how to work most wondrously
in the stone-cutter’s art, to build the temple of God in that place,
just as the Ward of Souls had spoken to her from the heavens.
She then commanded the cross to be adorned with gold
and the kindred of gems, with the most noble of precious jewels
surrounded with crafty skill and locked up with a clasp
inside a silver vessel. That Tree of Life, best of the Victory-beams,
afterwards it abode there inviolable in its excellence.
There it will be always a ready support for the weak of health,
for all torments, conflict and sorrow. Immediately they there
through that holy creation will find help and the divine grace. 

The gilded, jeweled, decorated cross thus became a way of symbolizing all of these concepts...Christ's historic death in Jerusalem, the finding of His cross, the pilgrimage to the Rock of Golgotha within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the way of salvation from sin and entry into the New Jerusalem via the Tree of Life.  Now, bouncing back to Ireland, the Cross of Cong (12th century A.D.) is a crux gemmata designed to represent these ideas as well as house a relic of the True Cross for veneration, bringing everything full circle:

The Cross of Cong

This year, St. Patrick's Day falls on Passion Sunday beginning the two-week countdown until Easter Sunday.  When you see a Celtic cross, let it lead your thoughts and meditations on a journey back to Our Lord's suffering and death on the cross during Holy Week, to venerating His cross on Good Friday, to the mystery our salvation, and the hope of eternal life with Him as He rises again on Easter.

(Title artwork: Celtic Cross by A.R. Danziger, copyright 2023)