Monasterboice - High Cross

Monasterboice - Mainister Buite (Buite's monastery) - is undoubtedly the best known early monastic site in Co. Louth, if not the whole of north Leinster. Though it has an interesting series of early remains including two medieval churches, a round tower, a sundial and some cross slabs, its popular appeal is based mainly on its three high crosses. These date from the late first millennium AD, and in terms of scale and quality of carving they represent one of the best groups of free-standing stone sculpture in early medieval Ireland (for further details, see Harbison 1992).

Amongst these crosses, pre-eminence of place must go to the so-called South Cross. Standing c.5.5m tall, this is the largest of the series, the shaft and arms of which are carved from a single block of sandstone. It is known more widely as Muiredach's Cross, after an inscription on its base that mentions a person of that name. Art historians have equated him with the Muiredach Mac Domhnaill, abbot of the monastery, whose death is recorded in the Annals in AD 922/3. On this basis, and the style of the carved images, the cross is traditionally dated to the early 10th century.

The panels on the cross show a number of scenes from the old and New Testaments, including Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Cain slaying Abel, Daniel in the Lions Den and the arrest of Christ. At the intersection of the cross arms on both faces of the cross are magnificent rendering of the crucifixion of Christ and Christ in Judgement. Much of this detail is captured by Wright in his detailed elevations of the cross but it is the modern photographs of the cross which reveal the finely carved detail of garments and objects.

The tradition of erecting free-standing crosses of wood or stone has a long history in Ireland, almost as old as Christianity itself. The reasons behind their erection can vary from the commemoration of an event or person to the establishment of a monastery or market place. Muiredach's Cross is widely regarded as representing the high point of cross design and execution which peaked in 9th and 10th centuries.

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