Low Key Treasures: The Cross of the Scriptures and Ogham at Clonmacnoise, Ireland

The monastery of Clonmacnoise (best monastery name ever, by the way) in County Offaly, Ireland was founded in the 6th century CE, though the cross that I want to show you, the Cross of the Scriptures, or King Flann’s Cross, is from 900 CE.  Fortunately, the cross has been moved inside, though a replica stands outside on the Clonmacnoise grounds among the ruins you see here:

Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland

Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland, on the River Shannon

Although the high crosses of Ireland weren’t necessarily grave markers, it is thought that the Cross of the Scriptures did mark a grave (in its original location), that of High King Flann, and was commissioned by Abbot Colman (we’ll return to this).  The original Cross of the Scriptures, covered with scenes from the life of Christ, is now inside the Interpretative Centre:

Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland, 900 CE

The scene at the top of the shaft (the supporting part of the cross) shows Jesus with Peter and Paul.  I am very curious, though I haven’t been able to find any information on the topic, about how we know this.  And the other two scenes below it have yet to be interpreted.  How can it be that the top scene has been identified, but the other two haven’t?  It’s unexpected! (Don’t you love a little mystery?)

In the center of the circle, you see the Last Judgment, depicting, to put it very simply, when, according to the Christian religion, Jesus determines who will go to heaven (the saved) and who will go to hell (the damned):

Last Judgment, Detail of Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, Ireland, 900 CE

Christ is in the middle, and although you can’t easily tell on this cross, and quite understandably, considering that it stood outside in the elements for over 1000 years, the saved are usually on Christ’s right (so our left), and the damned on his left.  You might be able to guess this: it looks like the damned are being pushed away and the saved face Christ.  Now here’s what I love: once you start recognizing Last Judgments, you’ll be able to recognize them forever.  They were widespread in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, including this example by Gislebertus at Autun:

Gislebertus, Tympanum (above the doorway) at St. Lazare Cathedrai, Autun, France, 1130-35. You can see the damned on our right and the saved on our left.

Or this one, arguably the most famous of all:

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome, 1537-41

While you might not immediately get there with the Clomacnoise cross above, I think you can see what I’m talking about. Here’s another image from the Cross of the Scriptures, this time of the Crucifixion, from the other side of the Cross:

Crucifixion, Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland, 900 CE

I’m particularly fond of the small figures above and next to Christ here, and although the details have been worn away, it’s still obviously a crucifixion scene.

And from that same side, from the bottom up, soldiers guarding Christ’s tomb, the arrest of Christ, and the flagellation (all scenes from Christ’s Passion, the events leading up to his death) :

Like the Last Judgment, these are all common iconographies (illustrations of a subject), that we see from Byzantine through modern art. Below are some examples:

Duccio, The Flagellation from the Maesta, 1308-11, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy

Duccio, The Arrest of Christ from the Maesta, 1308-11, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy

Soldiers sleeping while guarding Christ’s tomb (at the bottom of the panel), Workshop of Gerhard Remisch, Cloisters of Steinfeld Abbey, near Cologne, Germany, 1540-2

If you compare them to the Cross of the Scriptures, you can see the similarities, even though it’s worn down.

And finally, and then we’ll leave the cross, this image, possibly of the hand of God, although again, no one’s sure:

Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland, 900 CE

There must be more to it, though – the hand with the halo over it certainly seems holy, but what appears to be an arm with faces in the crooks is puzzling and seems specific. And seems to be lost to history.

There’s much more in the Interpretive Centre. This stone was found there in the recent past; Colman is the name of the abbot who commissioned the Cross of the Scriptures.

Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland, 900 CE

This stone, for me, is quite poignant. There’s something so personal and intimate about this name from history, carved in stone.

I didn’t realize until I looked at this photo again for this post that the lines under the name “Colman” are Ogham, an old Irish lettering system.

Ogham letters were primarily used between the fourth and tenth centuries CE, primarily used for names, and primarily for marking territories and graves, so in this case we have a slight variation on a theme. (I’m sure it comes as no surprise that Ogham lettering is now used for souvenirs. When I was young, my parents got me necklace with my name in Ogham letters on it. I thought it was about the coolest, most elegant thing ever.). The Ogham lettering system is a fascinating topic; each letter is named after a tree.  You can look at some examples here, or click on the link above to read more than you want to know about the letters (don’t get me wrong – it’s a very thorough article, which I appreciate, but more than I need to to know, anyway!).

Here’s another stone, hanging innocently on the wall:

From Clonmacnoise (monastery), County Offaly, Ireland, 900 CE

Remarkably beautiful in its simplicity.  The writing is translated as “A Prayer for Servant of Michael.”

Because I can’t resist, I’ll leave you with an image of Clonmacnoise Castle:

Clonmacnoise Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, 13th century CE

The castle was built around 1214 CE and was abandoned soon after, by 1300. It must have been slowly falling apart ever since, to the point that now, it’s only reminiscent of a building.  But so evocative, and romantic, almost beckoning you over to climb and jump from wall to wall. Don’t do it, though, no matter how badly you want to. It really is dangerously precarious. And that’s what makes it so fabulous, as if it’s tumbling down the hill.

Clonmacnoise Castle, County Offaly, Ireland, 13th century CE


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