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Reconstruction of World’s First Celtic High Cross

7 March 2013

The world’s first Celtic High Cross, St Oran’s Cross, pictured, dating back to the 8th century, is being reassembled in Selkirk before it is returned to Iona for the celebration of the 1450th anniversary of the arrival of St Columba on the island.  

This was the springboard for the spread of Christianity in Scotland, St Columba and his followers arrived from Ireland and established a monastery on Iona in AD 563.

St Oran’s Cross will be re-erected for the first time in centuries in a new display as part of the 1450th anniversary celebrations.

Peter Yeoman, Historic Scotland’s Head of Cultural Heritage said: “The complete cross originally weighed in excess of 1 tonne and was 4.4 metres high.  We believe it was commissioned by a King around the mid 700s.

“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.

This anniversary will be officially marked in May 2013 in partnership with the Iona Community who are celebrating their 75th anniversary.

Further information:

  • St Oran’s Cross is chiselled out of schist stone blocks quarried from the Ross of Mull, close to Iona, which is difficult to carve and susceptible to lamination. It has a unique experimental construction in three parts comprising of a shaft, cross arm and upper arm, thereby attempting to reduce the stresses.

  • The cross 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 cost of producing this cross was enormous and so it must have been commissioned by a King, possibly Oengus 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.

  • 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.

  • The cross features exuberant Celtic spiral ornamentation, closely matching that on the Book of Kells manuscript which was produced at the Iona monastery not long after this cross was carved.

  • Iona Abbey is cared for by Historic Scotland on behalf of Scottish Ministers. Each year it is visited by more than 50,000 people from around the world.

Notes for editors:

  • Historic Scotland is an executive agency of the Scottish Government charged with safeguarding the nation’s historic environment. The agency is fully accountable to Scottish Ministers and through them to the Scottish Parliament.

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For further information

Jennifer Johnston-Watt
Communications and Media Officer
Communications and Media
0131 668 8070 or 07827 956 866