Irish High Crosses


The Monastery at Kells was re-founded in c.804CE by monks from St Colmcille's abbey on Iona. As well as the Book of Kells the town is also famous for it's five High Crosses. Three of the crosses, and the base of a fourth cross, are located on the grounds of St Columcille's C of I Church on the west side of town, the fifth, and probably most well known, is the Market cross. It is presently situated at the west side of the old courthouse, on the northside of the old Navan Road.

The Market Cross

West face

East face

The Market Cross, east face pictured above right, is a sandstone cross standing at 3.35 metres high. It was once known as the Gate Cross, as it once stood at the eastern gateway to the monastery. The monument has been moved on several occasions. It was re-erected at the junction of Market Street, Castle Street and John's Street in 1688 until it was damaged by a school bus in 1996. It has stood in it's present location since 2001. Latitude: 53° 43' 35" N. Longitude: 6° 52' 16" W

South side, Massacre of the innocents ?

South side, Man spearing a stag

At the centre of the head on the east face, pictured top right, is a depiction of Daniel in the lions den, to Daniel's right is the sacrifice of Isaac, and to his left is the temptation of St Anthony. David sits immediately below Daniel, playing his lyre. The panel below David features Adam and Eve on the left with Cain Slaying Abel on the right. The large iconography in the centre of the shaft is open to interpretation, is it David or Goliath? Harbison suggests the iconography represents David (acclaimed king) with his army of Israelites. The panel below that shows Christ in the tomb guarded by soldiers. The west face, pictured top left, bears the crucifixion on the head, below that, at the top the shaft, the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is depicted. The central iconographic panel may depict Christ healing the centurion's servant. The panel below that bears the suffering children. The iconography on the lowest panel was chipped away and an an inscription was added in 1688. The north and south sides of the cross, see images above, also bear iconography.

West Face, Inscription

East Face, David acclaimed ?

East Face, Horsemen with shields

West Face, Deer hunt or Noah?

The east side of the base bears four horsemen with shields. On the west side is a scene depicting a deer hunt or a man herding animals. The north side features birds, animals and centaurs and on the southern base a battle scene. Professor Roger Stalley believes the Market cross, the Durrow Cross and Muiredach's Cross at Monasterboice were probably works by the same school of stonemasonry. The cross was carved in the late 9th or early 10th century.

North Face, Hunting scene with centaurs

- South Face, Battle scene

Cross of St Patrick and St Columba

This is the earliest of the high crosses in Kells, it was erected in the 9th century. An inscription in latin, at the top of the base, on the east face reads; PATRICII ET COLUMBAE CRUX -The Cross of Patrick and Columbia. Also known as the south cross it stands about 3.30 metres high.

East Face

West Face

This cross along with the south cross at Clonmacnoise, is considered to be a transitional cross. The carvings on the high crosses changed from the ornamental patterns on the early crosses at Ahenny, to the more structured iconographic panels of the scriptural crosses. Although this cross bears a lot of figure sculpture the iconography is more free flowing, there is no clear line separating the panels, your eye moves freely around the figures. The lowest iconography on the east face of the shaft represents Adam and Eve and Cain slaying Abel, see below left. above that there is a depiction of the Three Children in the Furnace, and above them on the lowest part of the head, you will find Daniel in the Lions' Den.

East Face-Adam and Eve + Cain and Abel

Raven brings bread to SS Paul and Anthony

It is unusual to see the crucifixion, pictured above left, depicted on the shaft of the west face, rather than at the centre of the head. The head features Christ with a sceptre and a cross-staff, this is associated with the last judgement, similar to the east face of the Durrow cross. The end of the south arm, pictured above right, features David slaying a Lion. The east side of the base features a man hunting animals, similar to the west side of the Market cross. The west side of the base depicts a chariot procession.

Base west side

Base east side

The West Cross

The West Cross or Ruined Cross, which stands at the west end of the graveyard must have been absolutely stunning, it has some beautifully inscribed decorative panels on it's north and south sides. The west side has some scenes from the Bible, including Adam and Eve and also the Israelites returning to the promised land. The east side has many scenes such as The Marriage feast of Cana, Christs Baptism and Christ entering Jerusalem. The cross was probably erected in the 10th century. It is believed the damage to the cross was done by Oliver Cromwell's soldiers.

The west cross, east face

The west cross, west face

West cross - west face - Moses and Aaron

West cross - west face - Moses, Pillar of Fire

Archaeologist Peter Harbison suggests this cross may be one of the earliest scriptural crosses and if his interpretation of the panels are correct, they show a particular theme, baptism. Water was used in the sacrament of baptism, Noah was saved in water, Christ's first miracle he turned water into wine at Cana, The Iraelites passed through water unharmed (Red sea), the lame man was healed at the pool of Bethesda. The last two panels are not pictured. Above left we have Adam and Eve and to the right is Noah's Ark.

Even without the head the cross stands at an impressive 3.96 metres high. Pictured above right is the south face and to the left a detail showing one of the decorative panels. The decoration on the north side is similar.

West cross - east face - Baptism of Christ

West cross - east face - Marriage at Cana

West cross - east face - Christ the child is bathed

West cross - east face - Magi question Herod

The East Cross

The east or Unfinished Cross, head pictured above, gives us an insight into how these High Crosses were constructed, the actual carving being done on site and the various segments of the crosses are clearly visible. At the centre of the head on the east face, pictured above, we can see an unfinished crucifixion scene. We can also see rectangular panels that have been marked out on the shaft, ready for carving. They had also started to carve an intricate key design on the underside of the south ring. The cross lay in fragments until it was re-erected in the late 19th century.

The unfinished west cross

The unfinished east cross

The North Cross

All that remains of The North Cross is the base pictured on the right, but judging by it's size the cross would not have been as tall as the other crosses at Kells. There are badly worn horizontal bands of decoration running around the base. Because of it's size, shape and decoration it has been suggested that this base and the one at Nobber graveyard were carved by the same person. If you do visit the high crosses at Kells allow yourself plenty of time view all the crosses and the wonderful craftsmanship on display. Also present at Kells is a round tower, a small oratory known as St Columb's House, a sundial and a medieval bell tower.

Situated: From Dublin take the N3 North through Navan, follow the main road through Kells till you see the round tower on your left, then turn left and left again and park up next to the gate at the round tower. You may have to walk around to the main gate for entry.

Group: North Leinster.

Google Map.

Discovery Map 42: N 7391 7587. Last Visit: Sept 2012.

Longitude: 6° 52' 47" W. Monastery.

Latitude: 53° 43' 39" N

Nearest High Crosses featured on this website

Killary: 16 Kilometres North East

Duleek: 25 Kilometres ESE.

Monasterboice: 31 Kilometres ENE.

Dromiskin: 38 Kilometres NE.

Termonfeckin: 40 Kilometres East.


Photos: Jim Dempsey.

Ref: D'Aughton, Malgorzata. “The Kells Market Cross: The Epiphany Sequence Reconsidered.” Archaeology Ireland, vol. 18, no. 1, 2004, pp. 16–19. JSTOR,

Harbison, Peter; "Irish High Crosses: With the figure sculptures explained "

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