Stylised animals, sinuous snakes, Celtic knots and traditional strapwork, flowers, angels and even a cat! The decoration on Celtic crosses within cemeteries can be varied and interesting. But it wasn’t until I was exploring Brompton Cemetery with an apps designer that I really began to look at them more closely. He spotted the Viking style animals on Margaret Stevenson’s cross near the Chapel and we were soon seeing spirals and the more emblematic strapwork known as Hiberno-Saxon art or Insular art amongst others.
Celtic Crosses first appeared within cemeteries during the Celtic Revival of the 1850’s and it has since become a worldwide emblem of Irish identity. The Revival has also been described as the Celtic Twilight and the Cross is seen as its lasting contribution to the western world’s funerary art. The Celtic Cross has been known in Ireland since the 9th century and in mainland Britain since medieval times.
It’s a form of the traditional cross but with the addition of a nimbus or ring. The latter is seen as a symbol of eternity as it has no beginning or end. The addition of the nimbus has been attributed to St Patrick who is reputed to have added it to a Christian cross, extended one of the of the lengths to form the stem and then placed it on top of a stepped base. It was this combination of a pagan symbol and a Christian one that became the Celtic Cross. It has also been described as the ‘sun cross’ by those who interpret the nimbus ring as a representation of the sun. The four arms have also been interpreted as representations of the four elements; air, earth, fire and water as well as the stages of the day or the four fixed compass directions.
The more traditional, intricately patterned bands known as strapwork are known for the unbroken lines that make up any piece. There have been 8 basic designs that have been identified and claimed to be the basis of nearly all of the interlaced patterns in Celtic decorative art. Hiberno-Saxon art is also known as Insular art and examples appear in the Books of Kells. Here are four examples from West Norwood Cemetery.
It was in Brompton that I noticed two examples with single spirals on them. A spiral on a Celtic cross is generally drawn clockwise to represent either the sun or the direction of running water.
It is one of the most ancient symbols known to mankind. A double spiral is more difficult to create and has been seen as a depiction of universal balance such as yin and yang or night and day. The triple spiral or triskele is the most difficult for obvious reasons and has several meanings attributed to it. But the one that I thought was the most appropriate in a funerary context was the triskele being seen as a representation of three worlds: the spiritual, the earthly and the celestial. The word Triskele is reputed to have come from the Greeks and it’s one of the most complex Celtic symbols.
Also in Brompton, I discovered a Celtic cross with decoration that ended in snakes heads which is interesting as snakes which were revered by the Celts. They saw them as a representation of rebirth as they shed their skins and then live again. Notice also the Celtic knot in the centre of them. These have been found in Scandinavia and Western Europe as well as appearing within Celtic insular art. They are supposed to represent eternity or the never ending cycle of life with the closed ends signifying unity.
So the next time you visit a cemetery or churchyard look out for the Celtic Cross and see what you find. It’s not only Celtic inspired decoration that appears on them. These two examples are from my local churchyard – one features traditional strapwork and the other has a lovely and unusual angel with beautifully carved feathery wings and the nimbus is almost like a halo.
This is the Mills memorial from Nunhead Cemetery and features beautifully carved passionflowers, a deeply significant symbol in the language of flowers, and also the IHS in the centre of the cross.
And finally, again from Brompton, one with a cat in its centre which is possibly a pun on the name of the family commemorated – Cattenach.
©text and photos Carole Tyrrell
Further reading and references