Monday, October 31, 2011

ArtSmart Roundtable: The Muiredach Cross as Public Art in Medieval Ireland

Welcome to this month’s ArtSmart Roundtable. What is ArtSmart?  A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling.  This month’s topic is Public Art.  At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers.

If you ever have a chance to visit Co. Louth in Ireland, make sure you stop by Monasterboice to see the Muiredach Cross.  This giant high cross is one of the best preserved early medieval crosses in Ireland.  It dates from either the 9th or 10th century and is named after either the commissioning abbott or local king of the area.  All four sides of the sculpture are carved with various biblical and theological scenes to act as a visual marker of Christianity.

Western side of Muiredach Cross at Monasterboice in Co. Louth, Ireland. Image by Row17 via Creative Commons.

On the western side, the central image is of the Crucifixion.  The image is all about symmetry.  Christ is in the middle on the cross with a soldier on either side as well as the heads of the two thieves crucified with him.  There are two circular forms that represent the sun and moon.  The moon is a symbol of the Old Testament (only slightly illuminating humanity with an incomplete knowledge), and the sun symbolizes the New Testament as the light of Christ shines bright.  A bird, either a phoenix or peacock, rests beneath Christ’s feet as a symbol of the Resurrection.  To the right of this central scene is the Resurrection.  All of these images are familiar if you have visited medieval cathedrals which feature the Crucifixion and Resurrection on the western facade.  If you have seen the Bronze Doors of the Florence Baptistery, you’ll recognize the scenes on the vertical axis of the cross: the Arrest of Christ, Doubting Thomas, and Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) evoke the scenes of the Rise of Man on the doors.  These images all echo each other by featuring three figures in each panel with similar arm positions to create a sense of unity.

Eastern side of the Muiredach Cross. Image by Benson Willis via Creative Commons.

The eastern side of the cross serves as a “greatest hits” of the Old and New Testaments to give you a summary of Christian theological thought.  The central panel features the Last Judgement which parallels the Resurrection on its reverse.  This image is less symmetrical, but it has repetitive symbols to visually link the two such as a phoenix, the rod and scepter to recall the shape of the cross and the lance of the soldier from the Crucifixion, and the figures of good and evil souls mimic the repentant and non-repentant thieves crucified with Christ.  The panels on the vertical axis also echo the western side.  In the same area as the Christ as Ruler of All scene is the Adoration of the Magi.  This signifies the beginning of Christ bringing the Gentiles into God’s flock since the Magi came from far away lands and they were not Jewish.  Below that is an image of Moses striking a rock to provide life-giving water to the Israelites.  This pairs with the scene of Doubting Thomas as Moses trusted God’s commandment to receive something which he could see unlike Thomas who refused to believe unless he saw the resurrected Christ.

Southern and eastern sides of Muiredach Cross. Image by Brian Shelly via Creative Commons.

The north and south sides are much thinner and have fewer narrative panels.  Yet those narrative panels also manage to echo each other.  You have Pilate washing his hands of Christ’s fate on the south side, and you have the hand of God on the north side.  The rest of the panels have animal and abstract interlaced designs that are a key feature of medieval and ancient Celtic art.  The object at the top of the cross is a church built in the Irish style which symbolizes the primacy of the Church in life.  This entire cross served as a teaching tool to remind medieval Irish Christians of their beliefs and how the Old and New Testament fit into the entire cosmology of their religion.  By putting this imagery on an enormous high cross in a public area, it was able to teach a simpler version of what the monks and clergy saw in illuminated manuscripts away from the public.

Image of western side: Row17.

Image of eastern side: Benson Willis.

Image of southern side: Brian Shelly.

This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:

*New!* Leslie of Career Girl Travels: ArtSmart Roundtable: The Not-So-Hidden Marble Tetrarchs in the Piazza San Marco, Venice

Ashley of No Onions Extra Pickles: ArtSmart Roundtable: Has Public Sculpture Lost Its Edge

Jeff of EuroTravelogue: ArtSmart Roundatable: Paris’ Haunted Père Lachaise Cemetery

Jenna of This Is My Happiness: Outdoor Sculpture in Florence

Kelly of Travellious: ArtSmart Roundtable: Jaume Plensas Outdoor Sculptures

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17 Responses to “ArtSmart Roundtable: The Muiredach Cross as Public Art in Medieval Ireland”

  1. 1

    ArtSmart Roundtable: The Not-so-Hidden Marble Tetrarchs in Piazza San Marco, Venice | CGTravelsBlog — October 31, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    [...] The Muiredach Cross as Public Art in Medieval Ireland, by Erin at A Sense of Place [...]

  2. 2

    Jeff Titelius — October 31, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    Wonderful article and photos my friend. Religious art will always fascinate me every time I encounter something new about how people throughout history and from around the world celebrate Christianity and translated their beliefs into works like this. I must see this cross one day. Loved your “greatest hits” metaphor!!

    • ehalvey replied: — November 1st, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

      Thanks, Jeff! Glad you liked the “greatest hits” :) I always enjoy learning about the symbols and stories that make up religious art; it’s like a puzzle to solve the meaning.

  3. 3

    ArtSmart Roundtable: Has Public Sculpture Lost Its Edge? » No Onions Extra Pickles — October 31, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    [...] Erin of A Sense of Place:  The Muiredach Cross as Public Art in Medieval Ireland [...]

  4. 4

    JodieMo — November 1, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

    I am insanely jealous of all of your traveling. Insanely. I love this cross and all of the symbols associated with it. As soon as I get to Ireland ( and I will go before I die)I am going to go see this. Just because you said to. :)

    • ehalvey replied: — November 1st, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

      I saw this cross while I was studying in Dublin for a semester. I lucked out with a bus tour that went here, to Mellifont Abbey, and to Newgrange.

      I’m insanely jealous that you get to sample vino at the vineyard! Om nom!

  5. 5

    Jenna — November 2, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    Interesting, Erin! I especially liked your mention of how this was meant to teach Christianity to the common people since they had no access to the illuminated manuscripts. It’s amazing how much is packed into this cross!

    • ehalvey replied: — November 2nd, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

      Thanks, Jenna! Hope you’re feeling better!

  6. 6

    Kelly — November 3, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    I love the texture! And with all the public art hype of late, it’s good to be reminded that it’s a very old tradition that can be found everywhere, even cemeteries. :)

    • ehalvey replied: — November 3rd, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

      It was so cool to see in real life, the deep relief pops even more when you see it. I had a hard time deciding between ancient stone public art and a piece from a modern sculpture garden, but I felt like going with the old would help illustrate that public art isn’t new at all :)

  7. 7

    » Florence Outdoor Sculpture » This Is My Happiness — November 5, 2011 @ 11:32 am

    [...] From A Sense of Place: The Muiredach Cross as Public Art in Medieval Ireland [...]

  8. 8

    Ashley — November 5, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

    How tall is that cross? It looks pretty impressive! And I love that there are stories all around it (even on the sides)…don’t know if I’ve seen crosses elsewhere that become a narrative too. Great post :-D

    • ehalvey replied: — November 5th, 2011 @ 8:08 pm

      It’s really big, almost 19 feet tall. I like that it kind of serves as a Roman triumphal arch with narrative panels on all sides. Celtic Christian sculpture FTW :)

  9. 9

    Christina — November 7, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    Nice post! I love the medieval crosses in Ireland.

    How do I join the ArtSmart Roundtable?

    • ehalvey replied: — November 8th, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

      Thanks! Do you like our Facebook page, Art Travel Bloggers? That’s where we all connected to start the roundtable. We’d love to have new faces! http://on.fb.me/oBxNmz

  10. 10

    Leslie — November 15, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    I finally got a chance to read everyone’s articles – this is awesome! I never knew about this cross – it’s ginormous! I bet most don’t take the time to interpret any of the images on it, but they’re even more in-depth than I imagined. Very cool! On my list for Ireland, round 2 (whenever that happens). :)

    • ehalvey replied: — November 15th, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

      Co. Louth and Co. Meath are both full of off the beaten path ancient and medieval sites. BusEireann ran the tour I took to see Monasterboice.

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