Irish High Crosses


A monastic settlement was established here in the late 5th century by Saint Buite who died around 521 CE. Buite is the Irish version of the name Boice, an English corruption of the latin name Boecius. The site is mentioned frequently in the Irish Annals from the 8th century up until the 12th century. It was then overshadowed by the establishment of the great Cistercian abbey at Mellifont, just 5 kilometres to the south. The Irish High Crosses were described, by archaeologist Peter Harbison, as Irelands greatest contribution to European sculpture. Two of the finest examples can be found at Monasterboice, Muiredach's Cross and the West Cross. Also present at the site is a third high cross, known as the North Cross, two 12th/13th century churches, a bullaun stone, two early cross slabs and an 10th/11th century round tower.

Muiredach's Cross

East Face

West Face

Standing at 5.2 metres high the Cross of Muiredach, pictured above, is absolutely stunning. The art historian Roger Stalley called the sculptor the 'Muiredach Master'. The theme of the cross is Christ the King, Lord of the Earth. The east face of Muiredach's cross, above left, bears scriptural panels from the Old Testament, and the west face pictured right, scenes from the New Testament. Some scriptural panels also appear on the sides of the cross. At the centre of the head on the west face is a crucifixion scene, Stephaton is on Christ's right with his sponge and Longinus can be seen on his left piercing Christ's side with a spear. Above each of his arms are two angels. Harbison suggest the two bosses between Christ and the roman soldiers may represent the Sun and Moon, and the figures behind the soldiers may represent Tellus/Ocean and the Gaia/Earth.

On the top of the head sits a church/house, pictured below, with three figures, According to Harbison this may depict the Ascension, Christ's arms are being held up by two Angels, Macalister suggests they may represent Moses, Aaron and Hur. The panel at the top of the shaft, below right, depicts the Traditio Clavium, Christ handing Peter the key to heaven and Saul a book. The northern arm bears six figures and the southern arm features the resurrection.


Traditio Clavium

Pictured above right is a detail from the bottom of the shaft. The interpretation of the panels vary, Harbison interprets this one as; the second mocking of Christ, others suggest the Arrest of Christ. There are several interpretations offered for the central panel, pictured left, The Raised Christ or The Doubting of Thomas are two of them.

The inscription at the base of the west side, inscribed around the two cats reads, OR DO MUIREDACH LASNDERNAD.....RO, A prayer for Muiredach who had the cross erected. It may refer to an abbot at Monasterboice, Muiredach Mac Domhnaill, who died in 923CE. It could also refer to Muiredach mac Cathail, a King who owned the lands on which the monastery was built, he died in c.867CE. Most scholars agree that the crosses at Monasterboice were carved sometime between 850 and 920CE. One of the cats is playing with a kitten, the other is about to kill a bird. Two more cats appear at the bottom of the shaft on the south side.

The iconography on the head of the east face depicts the last judgement, at the centre is Christ in Majesty and to his right David with his harp upon which sits a dove (The Holy Spirit). On the same arm, to Davids right, are the good souls all them facing Christ. To the left of Christ is Gabriel ? and on the left arm behind Gabriel a devil with a trident pushes the bad souls, who have turned away from Christ, to eternal damnation. Just below Christ St Michael is weighing the souls and a devil tries to pull them away from Christ. Above Christ sits a dove (the Holy Spirit). At the top of the head sits a house with a shingled roof that bears two unidentified figures.

At the bottom of the shaft are two animals (possibly lions), the lowest panel, pictured below left, depicts Adam and Eve on the left and Cain and Abel on the right. The next panel up bears David with his bag of stones with Saul on his left and to the right it shows Goliath on his knees with David and his sling next to him. The iconography on third panel up depicts Moses striking water from the rock and the top panel features the adoration of the Magi.

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel

Saul and David, David and Goliath

Moses smites water from the rock

Adoration of Magi

The south side of the cross, pictured above left, has two badly weathered panels at the bottom of the base, with a chariot and horsemen immediately above. There are three decorative panels on the shaft, pictured above and below. On the end of the south arm, shown above centre, Pilate is depicted washing his hands.

The panel with the heads and snakes, above left, is carved under the south side of the ring, matching the ring on the north side. The base on the eastern side features decoration at the bottom with animals and two men wrestling above. The north side of the base, below right, features ornament along the bottom with horsemen and centaurs above.

South Plinth, Two Cats?

North base, Horsemen and Centaurs

The West Cross

At about 7 metres high the West Cross, or Tall Cross, is the tallest in Ireland. Because of it's size this cross has more iconography than any other cross in Ireland. Like Muiredach's cross the iconography on the east face depicts scenes from the Old Testament and the west face bears New Testament scenes. Some iconographic panels also appear on the north and south sides. The base is plain.

East Face

West Face

On almost all of the Irish high crosses, where there is a crucifixion scene, Christ is standing erect. He is depicted in his glory, celebrating his resurrection rather than his crucifixion. His arms are out to the side in an orans position. He is also mostly depicted in clothing. The crucifixion scene on the west face, pictured below, shows Christ standing upright, wearing clothing, with outstretched arms. What is unusual about this particular depiction Christ's head is tilted to one side and the nails are shown in his feet, it is the only high cross in Ireland with the nails carved in his feet. The high crosses were probably painted, in colours similar to those used in the book of Kells, so it is possible that the nails may have been painted on some of them.

On either side of Christ we can see Stephaton and Longinus and behind their backs Sol (Sun) and Luna (Moon). The Mocking of Christ appears on the north arm and the Kiss of Judas is featured on the south arm. Between these to scenes and the crucifixion we can see a man with a lamb (N) and a man shearing sheep (S) Both of these are symbols of atonement. Harbison suggests the head of the east face may feature either, David being acclaimed king of Israel or the second coming of Christ, at its centre.

Journey to Emmaus ?

Baptism of Christ, West face

Zacharias, Elizabeth and infant John the Baptist ?

Winged Creature, South side

The panels on the shaft of the west face are badly weathered, the two bottom panels are damaged. The third panel may represent the Baptism of Christ, with the bird representing the Holy Spirit. The four panels above may represent the twelve apostles. It has also been suggested they represent, The Journey to Emmaus, Mission of the Apostles, Incredulity of Thomas and the Arrest of Christ.

Below left is a detail from the east face showing David with the head of Goliath, and below right, the three Children in the Fiery Furnace. Amongst the other scenes depicted are Samson toppling the pillars of the temple, Moses smiting the water from a rock, the Temptation of St Anthony, the Baptism of Christ, Christ in the Tomb and Pilate washing his hands.

David with Goliath's Head, Samuel anointing David

Three Children in the Fiery Furnace

The North Cross

There is a third high cross in the graveyard at Monasterboice, known as the north cross, it is quite plain compared to the other two. Pictured on the left is the west face bearing the Crucifixion, the only scriptural scene featured. The east face bears a single boss at the centre of the head. The shaft of the cross was damaged and replaced at some stage, the original shaft stands to the north east of the cross in the small enclosure and to the south east stands a sun dial.

I have probably visited the high crosses at Monasterboice and Castledermot more than any other Irish crosses. At Monasterboice I was often accompanied by my friend John, who lives close to the site. I would like to thank John for sharing with us some of his gorgeous images of the high crosses here at Monasterboice.

Situated: In County Louth, 8 kilometres north west of Drogheda. From Drogheda take the R132 north, after 7K take a sign-posted left turn for Monasterboice, from here you can see the round tower situated on your left.

Group: North Leinster.

Google Map.

Discovery Map: 36 O 0429 8205. Last Visit: Mar 2012.

Longitude: 6° 25' 4" W

Latitude: 53° 46' 39" N

Nearest High Crosses featured on this web site

Termonfeckin: 10 Kilometres East.

Dromiskin: 16 Kilometres North.

Killary: 16 Kilometres North East

Duleek: 17 Kilometres South.

Kells: 31 Kilometres West.

Photos: Jim Dempsey and John Donnellan.

Ref: Peter Harbison. “Old Testament Prefigurations of New Testament Events on Irish High Crosses.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, vol. 118C, 2018, pp. 123–139. JSTOR,

Stalley, Roger. “European Art and the Irish High Crosses.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, vol. 90C, 1990, pp. 135–158. JSTOR,

Barney McLauglin.

Harbison, Peter. “THE MONASTERBOICE HIGH CROSSES: AN ADDENDUM.” Archaeology Ireland, vol. 30, no. 1, 2016, pp. 40–41. JSTOR,

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