The West Cross at Monasterboice: scripture for the illiterate

The West Cross at Monasterboice: scripture for the illiterate

Anthony Murphy takes a look at the Tall Cross (West Cross) at Monasterboice and briefly describes the biblical scenes depicted on the 21ft-tall sandstone monument.

I had occasion in recent weeks to visit the ancient monastery of Monasterboice (Mainistir Bhuithe) in County Louth, not far from Drogheda, the location of two of Ireland's finest early medieval high crosses. 

The impressive West Cross, also known as the Tall Cross, at Monasterboice in County Louth, pictured under the winter stars. 


I took time to get some nice photographs of the West Cross or Tall Cross. It is taller and more slender than the slightly more famous Muiredach's Cross which is located on the same site (I have lots of nice photos of the latter). There is also a largely intact round tower and at least one other ancient cross at Monasterboice. 

Bible of the poor

The panels on Irish high crosses, which feature scenes from sacred scripture, were once described as "scripture for the illiterate" by the late Prof. Donnchadh O'Corráin of National University of Ireland Galway. The murals were for "those who cannot read", so that they could "read in pictures", he said. The high crosses represent a "Bible of the poor".

Historian Dr. Peter Harbison says Irish high crosses likely had a multiplicity of functions, which may even have included boundary markers. However, their main purpose was undoubtedly religious. 

"They fulfilled the same uses as the frescoes on continental churches in inducing feelings of piety in the beholder through encouraging meditation on the biblical message, concentrating on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ."

The head of the cross on its west side depicts the crucified Christ being supported by two soliders. In the background is the constellation Orion.

"Allied to this was the teaching function, educating the – probably largely illiterate – laity through a series of interlinked panels, as in a modern film strip".

The West Cross is around 7m, or 21ft, tall, The panels on its east face depict David slaying the lion, the sacrifice of Isaac, Moses smiting water from the rock in Horeb, David with the Head of Goliath and Samuel anointing David, and Sampson toppling the pillar of the temple. Also Elijah ascending to heaven in his chariot.

On the west face (the one shown in the photo above) are depictions of a scene showing Christ in the tomb, with soldiers on the tomb-slab covering his prostrate body; the baptism of Christ; other scenes thought to include the three holy women coming to the tomb; Traditio Clavium, with Christ handing the keys to St. Peter and the New Testament to St. Paul; two figures turning towards a central figure; the soldiers casting lots for Christ's seamless garment.

(The video below shows Prof. Donnchadh Ó Corrain speaking about 'scriptures for the illiterate' in relation to the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise. Go to 35 minutes to see the relevant section.)


In the centre of the head of the cross are two soliders supporting the body of the crucified Christ, with Stephaton and Longinus flanked by the heads of the Sun and the Moon. There are two representations of the denial of Peter on either side. It is thought that the crosses at Monasterboice date to around the late 9th century. The monastery of monasterboice was said to have been founded by St. Buithe (hence the Irish name, Mainistir Bhuithe, the monastery of Buithe), who died in 521AD.

Photos of Monasterboice

See more of my photographs from Monasterboice on this page.

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