An artistic exploration of some archaeological theory.

11 February 2007

Reflexive Representations [3]: South Cross, Ahenny, Co. Tipperary

09 – 16 August 2006
Digital Photomosaic (100 × 173 cm) of
Freestanding Sandstone Cross
(height: 267 cm;
base: 122 × 117 × 45 cm; shaft: 48 × 35 cm; crosswidth: 135 cm)
Detail below.

This photomosaic depicts the west face of the South Cross at Ahenny, Co. Tipperary, Ireland (Discovery Map OSI. Sheet 75; Grid Ref: 413 291) (W 7°23'34.78"; N 52°24'43.1"). This is one of a pair of freestanding, decorated ‘high crosses’ in the churchyard known as the monastic site of Kilclispeen, located on a sloping field, straddling the border between the provinces of Munster and Leinster. This example is thought by Peter Harbison to be amongst the earliest surviving examples in Ireland, dating to the eighth century ad.21 The earliest literary reference to ó chrois áird (high cross) relates, however, to Clonmacnois, Co. Offaly, in ad 957.

Although the extensive occurrence and survival of ‘high crosses’ is unique to Ireland, other striking examples are also known in England, Scotland and Wales, such as the Kildalton Cross, Isle of Islay, the Hebrides, Scotland (made from epidiorite in the ninth century ad) and the Carew Cross, Dyfed, Pembrokeshire, Wales (made from microtonalite in the eleventh century ad), which notably inspired the logo for Cadw (the Welsh Assembly Government’s historic environment division).

This cross is composed of three sections — a
base, shaft and capstone — and is carved from locally available sandstone. This example is decorated with non-representational geometric and ‘interlacing’ designs, such as ‘Stafford knots’ which adorn the top of the cross. The cross is also punctuated by five bosses, and the base is decorated by hunting scenes which are now well worn. These interlinked coils and interlacing motifs are popularly referred to as ‘Celtic’, ‘knotwork’ or ‘Celtic knotwork’.

Although the original purpose of the crosses or the cause for their erection are unknown, the ‘high cross’ today performs as an icon of Christianity, Celtic culture and traditional craftsmanship. In particular, the ‘high cross’ was a regularly used symbol in the nationalist cultural revival in Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as grave markers and public political monuments. Throughout England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the crosses are legally titled ‘national monuments’ — the same legal status given to the modern political and cultural monuments which schematically mimic their form.

Today, crosses such as this example, have been replicated as ‘Celtic Cross’ jewellery and are marketed to tourists as souvenirs or signifiers of ‘Celtic Christian’ identity. These schematic representations of the ‘high cross’ form, decorated with ‘Celtic knotwork’ and interlacing motifs have helped divorce the original objects’ form from their material context and created an abstract representation of modern aspirations for cultural authenticity.

This image is composed of 7200 ‘cell-images’ collected from unfiltered searches for the words ‘Celtic', Christianity’, ‘cross’ and ‘monument’ through the Google ‘Image Search Engine’. In doing so, these now iconic terms are juxtaposed with the material icon. The viewer is invited to explore the visual association between the public ‘monument’ of the South Cross at Ahenny and the public images associated with the words most commonly used to describe the object. This juxtaposition makes overt the conflict of images and crisis of meanings that are inherent in these textual terms that seek to understand visual images and material agency.

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