High Crosses

by Catherine E. Karkov


High crosses are freestanding stone sculptures that are a feature of early medieval art in England, Ireland, Scotland, and, to a lesser extent, Wales. They are distinct from cross slabs, which are shaped slabs decorated with relief carvings of crosses and sometimes other types of decoration on one or both sides. The exact origins of the high cross are controversial. Much debate continues concerning in which area they were developed first. In terms of their form, the influence of prehistoric insular standing stones, the Jupiter and victory columns of the Roman world, and Early Christian processional crosses all have been cited. Surviving monuments suggest that high crosses first appeared in the 8th century and that their popularity varied both regionally and chronologically. In England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales they tended to disappear after the 10th or early 11th century, while in Ireland they remained popular well into the later Middle Ages. They also vary greatly in size (some are no more than a meter high, while others rise to 5 meters or more) and in decorative programs. In England and Scotland, for example, the earlier crosses are generally the most complex, but that is not the case in Ireland. (Note that high crosses are also discussed in the Oxford Bibliographies article Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture; see that article for general bibliographies as well.)


The high cross is one of the characteristic monuments of Anglo-Saxon England. The vast majority of crosses date from the early Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian periods (8th through 10th centuries), and they are located in the north of England. The southern examples not only are fewer in number, but they tend to receive far less scholarly attention than do their northern counterparts. As is true with Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture in general, Anglo-Scandinavian high crosses (the Gosforth Cross, for example) often display a greater secular content than do their Anglian counterparts. There are surprisingly few overviews of English high crosses, perhaps due to the large number of monuments that survive and the range of forms that they take. In general, pre-10th-century crosses are monastic sculptures, while the Anglo-Scandinavian period sees a marked increase in secular patronage. The first place to go for information on any individual sculpture is the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture. Collingwood 1989 (originally published in 1927) was the first systematic attempt to classify the Northumbrian crosses, and it remains a good introduction to the field, even if some of the author’s dates and conclusions have been proved wrong. Brown 1903–1937 is equally out of date, but it is an excellent source for early understanding of the crosses, especially their iconography, and for anyone interested in the historiography of the subject. Mitchell 2001 is also excellent for the information it provides on why some of the early crosses were erected. Karkov and Orton 2003 is useful for its new approaches to the study of Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture”.


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