21 October 2015

Grave matters: Celtic crosses

The elaborate knotwork of Celtic art has long beguiled me.

I have a lovely gold ring shaped in a knot pattern; I have a book full of charted embroidery patterns adapted from such exquisite works as the stone Crosses of Moone and Muiredach, the metalwork of the Petrie Crown and the Ardagh Chalice, and the incredible illuminated manuscripts of the Books of Kells and Durrow; and I have used simplified versions of these patterns in my knitting designs.

So, during my wanderings around the graveyard that sits adjacent to Llandaff Cathedral and through the extensive grounds of Cathays Cemetery, both here in Cardiff, I find myself attracted again and again to the many fine Celtic cross headstones.

This design is a combination of a cross, with a ring the surrounds the intersection of the two branches of the cross. Though usually labelled a Celtic cross, its origin is something of a mystery. Some sources claim it comes from the 6th century Coptic Church because it resembles the Egyptian Ankh (or key of life); others see its roots in pagan religions, with the circle symbolising both the sun and the eternal circle of life; while the Romans believed it developed from the draping of victory wreaths across the horizontal bars of crosses.

There’s also a popular legend that attributes St Patrick with the idea of combining the Christian cross with the Sun cross to create the Celtic cross, in an effort to convert the Druids and Pagan Irish to the new Christian religion. Whatever its origins, it was adopted by the Celtic tribes of Ireland, Scotland and Wales in medieval times, and is now most often associated with those peoples. It is also the official cross of the Church of Scotland.

In the mid nineteenth century, the Celtic cross became popular as a grave marker, often in conjunction with decorative bands of intricate Celtic knotwork. It was not only used for people of Celtic origin but also for the general public, so it’s not surprising to find many examples in graveyards dating from Victorian times.

All the photographs included here are of crosses I found in the Llandaff Cathedral cemetery. The structural designs, the complex patterns, and the construction materials vary but each cross is a work of superb craftsmanship and intricate beauty.

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