A sculptural masterpiece
The Kildalton Cross is a masterpiece of 8th-century religious art, every inch the equal of the three great high crosses – St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s
– on Iona. Indeed, it is likely that the same sculptor carved more than one of these stones.
A preaching cross
The Kildalton Cross is a ring-headed high cross, erected primarily to help priests preach the Christian gospel. It stands 2.65m high, and the span of the arms is 1.32m. It is carved from grey-green chlorite schist, a hard and durable local stone that must have been difficult to work, but has preserved the crispness of its carving.
The west face of the shaft is carved with geometric designs, comprising two roundels made up of ‘snake-and-boss’ decoration. At the centre of the cross-head is a prominent boss set in a ring of smaller bosses and paired snakes.
Four inward-facing lions symbolise Christ as the Lion of Judah – a feature prominent also on the 8th-century Pictish ‘sarcophagus’ found at St Andrews, on display in St Andrews Cathedral
The east face of the shaft contains rich spiral-work woven around five open roundels. It includes what appear to be peacocks feasting on grapes, a detail paralleled in the Book of Kells
, an illuminated (highly illustrated) gospel produced on Iona.
The cross-head depicts the Virgin and Child, and at the centre is an open boss remarkably like the boss on the shrine found at Steeple Bumpstead in Essex (now in the British Museum).
The left arm of the cross depicts Cain slaying Abel, and the right arm the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Within the top arm two angels stand above a figure gripping the jaws of a rearing beast. Above is a horned animal, perhaps a sheep – possibly the scene depicts David killing the lion.
Still standing after all these years
Remarkably, the cross still stands where it was erected over 1,200 years ago, the only early Christian cross still standing in its original position. Excavation in 1882 showed that there was an even earlier Christian cross-slab on the site, as well as burials.
A fine collection of early Christian carved stones have been found in the graveyard, some of which are on display at the Museum of Islay Life, in Port Charlotte. The adjacent church dates from after 1200 and was redundant by 1700.
- The biblical images – which still tell a story after many centuries.