Tonight, I am focusing on the ancient Christian crosses on the island of Iona which lies off Scotland’s West Coast.
Iona is famous for the connection with St. Columba who arrived on the island in AD 563 and proceeded to build a monastery. Over the succeeding centuries these early foundations proved secure as the ecclesiastical community has survived savage Viking raids and the Reformation. Today, the Abbey is a world-renowned ecumenical centre.
There were probably a much larger number of crosses prior to the Reformation. Those which survive afford an insight in to the art, culture and propaganda of the period between AD 800- AD 1500. Note in particular, the 8th century, St. Oran’s Cross which was ground-breaking and probably very expensive to produce.
This dates from the 15th century and displays rich, interleaved patterns. A fine example of the Iona carving school of the period. In medieval times the cross was located at a junction comprising the confluence of three roads.
St. Martin’s Cross
This cross still stands in the position where is was originally erected over 1000 years ago. It was crafted from a single block of epidiorite. The east face (shown in image) comprises patterns of round bosses encircled by serpents with creatures resembling lions at the top.
St. John’s Cross
Now located in the Abbey museum. It has been carefully reconstructed to original height of 5.3 metres (17 feet.). An exact concrete replica can viewed outside St. Columba’s Shrine. Much of the stone was imported from nearby Argyll and the skilled craftsmen may have been Irish or Pictish.
St. Oran’s Cross
This represents one of the oldest surviving Scottish cultural artifacts. The Cross dates from the 8th century and is carved with Celtic and biblical images. Now located in the Abbey Museum following extensive restoration. More information:
• Stands at 4.4m (14.5 feet) in height.
• Originally weighed around a tonne, but this has increased recently due to addition of steel supports.
• Features exuberant Celtic spiral ornamentation, closely matching that on the Book of Kells manuscript which was produced at Iona
Only the richly decorated shaft of this 15th century cross remains. Information and features:
The upper section of the front is covered in intertwined foliage. An inscription states that the cross was carved in 1489 and dedicated to Lachlan MacKinnon and his son John, Abbot of Iona. An effigy of the latter can be seen in the choir of the Abbey church.
The lower section of the front has a fine depiction of a West Highland galley or birlinn with a banner flying at the prow and a well-defined rudder at the stern. This provides an insight into evolving ship technology as stern rudders were a key technological development from the earlier Norse longships from which birlinns evolved.
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