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One of the most important symbols of medieval Scotland, St Oran’s Cross, will be re-erected for the first time in centuries, as part of the celebrations of the 1450th anniversary of the established of a monastery on Iona in Scotland.
St Oran’s Cross dates back to the eighth century and is the world’s first Celtic High Cross. It was chiselled out of schist stone blocks quarried from the Ross of Mull, close to Iona, weighs more than a tonne and stands nearly four-and-a-half metres tall.
The cross may have been commissioned by a King, possibly Óengus son of Fergus king of the Picts, following his conquest of the area around AD 741. It was created by the finest carvers in Scotland. Historians speculate that it could be an imitation in stone of the Golgotha jewelled cross, erected at Jerusalem by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in AD 417. It may have been coloured in red and gold to replicate jewels, in imitation of timber or metal prototypes.
The shaft is covered in dense patterns of spiral- and snake-and- boss ornament – the snake being a symbol of Christ’s resurrection in the way it shed its skin. The bosses, derived from precious metalwork forms, are grouped in various cross shaped arrangements, as other symbols of Christ and of the five wounds which he suffered on the Cross. To the left on the cross-arm is an Old Testament Biblical image of Daniel in the Lion’s Den – a scene which reminded believers that God will save the faithful. Just above the centre are a pair of rampant lions, backwards biting each others tails. Above this are a group of four roundels, with a snake with gaping jaws coming out of each.
Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland’s Head of Cultural Heritage explains, “It is beautifully carved with Biblical scenes and Celtic interlace patterns. Just below the centre of the cross arm is an extremely rare and early image of the Virgin and Child sheltered by the wings of angels.
“This monumental, powerful, and decorative use of the Christian cross had never been seen before anywhere in Western Europe. It’s one of the largest and finest in the collection of early medieval carved stone grave slabs and crosses to be found at Iona Abbey.”
The cross, which was in five pieces, will be re-erected within a specially constructed steel structure designed by Borders based museum mountmaker Richard West.
Historic Scotland’s experts are cleaning, studying and conserving the carved stones before they go back on display in a new exhibition in time for the anniversary in 2013. The agency is also investing in new interpretation and visitor facilities to help visitors fully appreciate Iona Abbey’s fascinating history and the significance of the spectacular carved stone collection.
Iona Abbey is cared for by Historic Scotland. Each year it is visited by more than 50,000 people from around the world.
Source: Historic Scotland