While damaged through constant exposure to the elements and even being once hit by a bus, the Kells Market Cross is a fragile, beautiful yet defiant survivor of over 1,100 years. Dating to the late 9th or perhaps the very early 10th century, the cross has a complex story regarding its art that has yet to be fully decoded, as well as a rich and varied biography of reuse and translation to its present location with a protective canopy outside Kells Tourist Information Centre in the old Court House. This final location, since 2001, explicitly commemorated as a Millennium enterprise, is the focus of my post here, but before that, it would be bizarre not to review its detailed form and figural art.
The form and art of the Market Cross
Originally, the cross was undoubtedly vividly polychrome following its carving, installation and painting as a key station on the eastern edge of the monastic enclosure of the rich and expansive monastic landscape dedicated to St Colmcille. As such, it is one of a series of crosses attributed to the ‘Monasterboice Master’ by Roger Stalley (2020: 181-183) who describes it as ‘one of the most impressive of the Irish crosses’ and dates it to the time when Mael Brigte Mac Tornain was abbot of Kells – AD 891-927). It is a full 2.75m high with an arm-width of 1.65m.
There are now exciting projects laser-scanning the monument and exploring its conservation: Kells Market Cross 3D model. The images are far superior to my 2015 photographs.
All the panels are figural with abstract decoration appearing only on the ring of the cross, and it is remarkable in having major panels on all four faces of the base, shaft and cross itself: only a small number of Irish crosses share this feature (and it is far rarer (?unknown) in the island of Britain). Stalley (2020: 182) states that the ‘range of subjects is remarkably diverse and the sequence of subjects is not always easy to explain’ but he notes the similarities, some near-identical, to representations on the Tower Cross at Kells and the Monasterboice tall cross.
The detailed figural panels speak to a complex and sophisticated iconography. Let’s consider the base first, before moving to the shafts and then the cross. Obviously this order might not suit you, and you might prefer to read Stalley’s (2020) detail and dense across, but I arranged it in this way to achieve a clockwise perambulatory approach as opposed to a stationary vertical ascent perspective.
The base is dominated by purely secular contemporary scenes, although the east, south and west hypotheticallycould evoke Biblical stories too. The east side has a procession of four horsemen. Five warriors are on the south-face – two confronting three. The west face of the base has a herdsman with a dog with a procession of animals: two deer and a sheep or boar (Stalley 2000: 180).
The north side is more enigmatic still and shows awareness of classical mythology. There is a centaur holding a bow and arrow with an indeterminate figure in front of him and above the arrow, a bird on his back. Then there is another centaur clasping a three-pronged item in the centre of the panel. To the left there are two confronting birds, perhaps one holding a lamb, the other holding a fish.
The east face there is a narrow panel of spiral scrolls. Above this is the Resurrection of Christ – Christ is lying down and two soldiers lean forward, holding spears.
The middle scene might represent Goliath or the Second Coming, but it is unclear. I’m not convinced relative scales of figures helps us to recognise this as a representation of any specific person, other than an individual central to the narrative.
Adam and Eve are juxtaposed with Cain and Abel: Cain represented as incredibly tall (Stalley 2020: 181) points out this combination also appears on the Tower Cross and Muiredach’s cross at Monsterboice).
The south side has panels showing a hunting scene. Above this is a scene variously described as the death of St Peter, the Slaughter of the Innocents (if slaying a mega-sized baby boy) or the Judgement of Solomon. The next panel above is unclear (but suggestions including Jesus healing the blindman or the anointing of David by Samuel have been proposed). Moses receiving the tablets of law above that, at the top of the shaft, with the hand of God descending to the right. Two small figures below the hand of God are presumably writing down the word of God.
There are four panels on the west face.
The erased section is replaced by the Robert Balfe 1688 memorial text: THIS CROSS WAS ERECTED THE CHARGE OF ROBERT BLFE OF GAILLIRSTOWNE ES NG SOVERAI OF THE CORPORATION OF KELIS. ANNO DOMI 1688.
Above this we may have the Adoration of the Magi but it is uncertain. Then we may have the Marriage at Cana. And above we have the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Together these scenes are linked to the feast of Epiphany.
The north side of the shaft Stalley (2020: 182) regards as ‘decidedly enigmatic’, with a pair of wrestlers (a theme found on other Irish crosses), a damaged scene of armed combat, three men with legs interlocked in a decorative patterns, the staffs of the side figures holding staffs to create a Christos motif. The top panel shows beasts flanking a bearded creature with horns.
The east face of the cross-head shows Daniel in the lions’ den, with King David playing harp or lyre at his feet, and Daniel is shown above holding a child, maybe evoking associations with the Nativity. The left arm shows Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac with the ram above. On the right arm is a man wearing a penannular brooch, perhaps showing a soul in Hell tormented by the Devil. This is the only example of explicitly early medieval dress on the cross.
On the south side of the cross we see two snake-bosses underneath the arm. On the outsider face of the arm, David is shown overcoming a lion with one of his sheep above him and his crook. There is fret ornament beneath with pairs of human figures with legs linked to interlace patterns. Out of sight from ground level, there is a meander pattern flanked by interlace.
The west face of the cross-head shows Christ flanked by Stephaton and Longinus, possibly with the sun and moon behind. The figure at the foot might be Adam. The left arm contains two figures and a smaller creature, perhaps showing an exorcism (Stalley 2020: 182). The right arm shows the fall of Simon Magus wit St Peter and St Paul.
Finally, the north side of the cross contains four human figures under the arm, arranged in a rotation with their limbs interlaced. The underside of the ring has diagonal fret with figures on each sides, limbs interlocked. The upper side of the ring is badly decayed and out of site in these images, but contains traces of interlace. The outer face of the north arm shows St Paul and St Anthony receiving bread from the raven in the desert, their crosiers forming a cross, a chalice between them.
The biography of the cross is complex and I can only relay it in part here. The base and cross are extant and clearly part of an original combination, but the capstone is now missing. There has been deliberate chipping away of the corners of the shaft at various points, and some destruction of individual panels, at least partly iconoclastic and some perhaps to acquire relics as part of devotional practices. There is also the massive destruction of the bottom panel on the west side to accommodate the commemorative plaque to the restoration of the monument by Robert Balfe in 1688 (Stalley 2000: 180).
Here I want to present the fact that this is only a 21-year-old context for the monument including its conservation canopy, interpretation panel and a memorial plaque marking the site where a time capsule was buried in front of the western face. Also note the single bench west of the cross, with its early medieval art-inspired plaitwork along its edge, thus making the seat too a citation to the 1100-year-old cross.
So while the original context of the cross is dislocated for its own safety and to ensure its long-term survival, there is more to it than that. Situated to the east of the town centre and its former location, at the bifurcation of R163 (to Droghed) and R147 (to Navan), besides the historic St John’s Cemetery, the cross’s western approach is framed by a part of rectangular lower plantings, and to its east a paved and lit area.
In this Millennium situation, the cross is overtly framed as a monument of the ‘historic’ past and through its name a cross ‘of’ the market it no longer inhabits. Outside the tourist information centre, it is a cross for tourists and local people in today’s world as well as a relic of the early medieval past. Yet it is also a monument for the future, with the future-date of January 2100 prompting us to consider its enduring presence beyond the space of most folks’ lifetimes.
The Market Cross of Kells is truly a cross in time, evoking Old Testament to New Testament stories, legends, scenes from early medieval aristocratic and martial life. The monument is broken at the top, bears patina and damage from successive interventions and weathering. One original scene has been obliterated and replaced with a 17th-century memorial inscription. It has been subject to translation and re-installation. Its contemporary heritage interpretation and canopy bring it to our present. Meanwhile, its time-capsule evokes prospective memories of a future-time when the cross will witness the re-opening of the Millennium deposit. The Market Cross exists in many temporalities revealed through its form, art and context.
Stalley, R. 2020. Early Irish Sculpture and the Art of the High Crosses. Yale: Yale University Press.