A Celtic cross symbol

The Celtic cross is a form of Christian cross featuring a nimbus or ring that emerged in Ireland, France and Great Britain in the Early Middle Ages. A type of ringed cross, it became widespread through its use in the stone high crosses erected across the islands, especially in regions evangelised by Irish missionaries, from the ninth through the 12th centuries.

A staple of Insular art, the Celtic cross is essentially a Latin cross with a nimbus surrounding the intersection of the arms and stem. Scholars have debated its exact origins, but it is related to earlier crosses featuring rings. The form gained new popularity during the Celtic Revival of the 19th century; the name "Celtic cross" is a convention dating from that time. The shape, usually decorated with interlace and other motifs from Insular art, became popular for funerary monuments and other uses, and has remained so, spreading well beyond Ireland.

Early history

Early forms: cross slab, St. Madoes, Perthshire, Scotland
Early forms: pillar stone, Gallarus Oratory, County Kerry, Ireland

Ringed crosses similar to older Continental forms appeared in Ireland and Scotland in incised stone slab artwork and artifacts like the Ardagh chalice. However, the shape achieved its greatest popularity by its use in the monumental stone high crosses, a distinctive and widespread form of Insular art.[1] These monuments, which first appeared in the ninth century, usually (though not always) take the form of a ringed cross on a stepped or pyramidal base.[2] The form has obvious structural advantages, reducing the length of unsupported side arms.[3] There are a number of theories as to its origin in Ireland and Britain. Some scholars consider the ring a holdover from earlier wooden crosses, which may have required struts to support the crossarm. Others have seen it as deriving from indigenous Bronze Age art featuring a wheel or disc around a head, or from early Coptic crosses based on the ankh. However, Michael W. Herren, Shirley Ann Brown, and others believe it originates in earlier ringed crosses in Christian art. Crosses with a ring representing the celestial sphere developed from the writings of the Church Fathers. The "cosmological cross" is an important motif in Coelius Sedulius's poem Carmen Paschale, known in Ireland by the seventh century.[4]

It is not clear where the first high crosses originated. The first examples date to about the ninth century and occur in two groups: at Ahenny in Ireland, and at Iona, an Irish monastery off the Scottish coast. The Ahenny group is generally earlier. However, it is possible that St. Johns Cross at Iona was the first high cross; Iona's influence as a center of pilgrimage may have led this cross to inspire the Ahenny group as well as other ringed crosses in Pictish stones.[3]

A variety of crosses bear inscriptions in ogham, an early medieval Irish alphabet. Standing crosses in Ireland and areas under Irish influence tend to be shorter and more massive than their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, which have mostly lost their headpieces. Irish examples with a head in cross form include the Cross of Kells, Ardboe High Cross, the crosses at Monasterboice, the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise and those in Scotland at Iona and the Kildalton Cross, which may be the earliest to survive in good condition. Surviving, free-standing crosses are in Cornwall, including St Piran's cross at Perranporth, and Wales.[5][page needed] Other stone crosses are found in the former Northumbria and Scotland, and further south in England, where they merge with the similar Anglo-Saxon cross making tradition, in the Ruthwell Cross for example. Most examples in Britain were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. By about A.D. 1200 the initial wave of cross building came to an end in Ireland.

Popular legend in Ireland says that the Christian cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan, though there are no examples from this early period. It has often been claimed that Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun cross to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the cross. By linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun, these two ideas were linked to appeal to pagans. Other interpretations claim that placing the cross on top of the circle represents Christ's supremacy over the pagan sun.

Notable high crosses with the Celtic shape in Ireland:

Notable high crosses with the Celtic shape in Scotland
Notable Celtic crosses in India

Modern times

Celtic Revival

The Celtic Revival of the mid-19th century led to an increased use and creation of Celtic crosses in Ireland. In 1853, casts of several historical high crosses were exhibited at the Dublin Industrial Exhibition. In 1857, Henry O'Neill published Illustrations of the Most Interesting of the Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland. These two events stimulated interest in the Celtic cross as a symbol for a renewed sense of heritage within Ireland.

New versions of the high cross were designed for fashionable cemetery monuments in Victorian Dublin in the 1860s. From Dublin, the revival spread to the rest of the country and beyond. Since the Celtic Revival, the ringed cross became an emblem of Celtic identity, in addition to its more traditional religious symbolism.[6]

Modern interest in the symbol increased because of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie. The two worked on the island of Iona in Scotland from 1899 to 1940 and popularised use of the Celtic cross in jewelry.[7] Using the Celtic cross in fashion is still popular today.

Since its revival in the 1850s, the Celtic cross has been used extensively as grave markers, straying from medieval usage, when the symbol was typically used for a public monument. The Celtic cross now appears in various retail items. Both the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Northern Ireland national football team have used versions of the Celtic cross in their logos and advertising. The Church in Wales since 1954 have used a flag with a Celtic cross in the centre.

Snow-covered Celtic cross in a Presbyterian memorial garden

A Celtic cross is often used to represent Presbyterianism, including by the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

White supremacist symbolism

White nationalist Celtic cross

A version of the Celtic cross is used as a symbol by white supremacists.[8] It was used by Nazis in Norway in the 1930s and 1940s, and more recently it has been used by neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other white supremacist groups. In general, white supremacists use a version of the symbol with a square cross as opposed to the traditional elongated cross. This symbol forms part of the logo of Stormfront.[9]

It is suggested that adoption of the symbol in the context of right-wing politics is linked with the activity of Jesuit priest Paul Doncœur [fr], a prominent figure of the interwar scout movement in France.[10][11] In 1924, the victory of anti-clerical Cartel des Gauches in general elections caused the mobilisation of right-wing forces, with Doncœur playing a major role in formation of Fédération Nationale Catholique[12] and Ligue DRAC [fr].[13] The same year, impressed by Quickborn [de], a Catholic organisation within the German Youth Movement, he founded its local equivalent, Cadets.[14][15] Doncœur, inspired by the G. K. Chesterton's novel The Ball and the Cross, decided that the symbol of the movement, croix cadet, should consist of a circle, representing the material world, supported by a square Christian cross intersecting it.[16][17][18]

After the Fall of France, Vichy government relied on pre-existing organisations to implement its youth policy according to the principles of the National Revolution. The field was dominated by Catholic scout movements, the leaders of which were put in charge of Secretariat-General of Youth.[10][19][20][21][22] In 1941, the symbol of Doncœur, now named croix celtique, was adopted as an emblem for Cadets of the Légion in Algeria, a youth movement within Légion Française des Combattants,[11][23] a veteran organisation which the government hoped could be transformed to function as the single party of the state.[20][24] Then it was used as insignia of Equipes nationales, a youth civilian service institution founded in 1942.[11][14][19] After the war, Pierre Sidos appropriated the symbol as an emblem of the far-right movement Jeune Nation, founded by him in 1949.[25]

White supremacist use of the long and short Celtic cross represents only a small minority of the symbol's use.[9] The symbol in both forms is used by non-extremists in contexts such as Christianity, neo-Paganism,[8] and Irish patriotism. The vast majority of uses of the Celtic cross are not associated with white supremacists.[9]


In Unicode, the Celtic cross is represented by the code point U+1F548 🕈 CELTIC CROSS.

See also


  1. ^ Herren & Brown 2002, pp. 193–195.
  2. ^ Herren & Brown 2002, p. 199.
  3. ^ a b Werner, Martin (1990). "On the Origin of the Form of the Irish High Cross". Gesta. 29 (1): 98–110. doi:10.2307/767104. JSTOR 767104. S2CID 192024681.
  4. ^ Herren & Brown 2002, pp. 199–200.
  5. ^ Langdon, Arthur G. (1896). Old Cornish Crosses. J. Pollard. OCLC 1008359745.
  6. ^ Stephen Walker, "Celtic Revival Crosses" Archived 1 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine, Celtic Arts website, accessed 22 November 2008
  7. ^ "A Brief History of the Ritchies", Alexander Ritchie website, accessed 20 Nov 208
  8. ^ a b "A Look at Racist Skinhead Symbols and Tattoos". Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  9. ^ a b c "Celtic Cross". Anti-Defamation League. Retrieved 31 May 2020.
  10. ^ a b Hellman, John (1993). Knight-Monks of Vichy France: Uriage, 1940-1945. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. ISBN 978-0-7735-0973-3.
  11. ^ a b c Bouzard, Thierry (2006). La croix celtique (in French). Pardès. ISBN 978-2-86714-380-9.
  12. ^ Long, Kathleen Perry (25 March 2006). Religious Differences in France: Past and Present. Penn State Press. ISBN 978-0-271-09083-2.
  13. ^ Colon, David (2008). "Les jésuites et la jeunesse catholique en France dans l'entre-deux-guerres". Histoire@Politique: Revue du Centre d'histoire de Sciences Po (in French). 4 (4): 7. doi:10.3917/hp.004.0007.
  14. ^ a b Laneyrie, Philippe (1985). Les Scouts de France: l'évolution du mouvement des origines aux années quatre-vingt (in French). Editions du Cerf. ISBN 978-2-204-02318-4.
  15. ^ Avon, Dominique (1997). "Le pèlerinage du Puy, 12-15 août 1942". Revue d'histoire de l'Église de France. 83 (211): 395–434. doi:10.3406/rhef.1997.1288.
  16. ^ Doncoeur, Paul (1924). Cadets. Paris: l'Art catholique.
  17. ^ Avon, Dominique (2001). Paul Doncœur, s.j. (1880-1961): un croisé dans le siècle (in French). Les Editions du Cerf. ISBN 978-2-204-06562-7.
  18. ^ Avon, Dominique (1998). "Péguy, un maître du Père Doncoeur et de ses Cadets". L'Amitié Charles Péguy. Lectures poétiques et mystiques de l'øeuvre de Péguy (84): 211–228.
  19. ^ a b Giolitto, Pierre (1991). Histoire de la jeunesse sous Vichy. Paris: Perrin. ISBN 978-2-262-00800-0.
  20. ^ a b Jackson, Julian (2001). France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198207061.
  21. ^ Raffin, Anne (2005). Youth Mobilization in Vichy Indochina and Its Legacies, 1940 to 1970. Lexington Books. ISBN 978-0-7391-1146-8.
  22. ^ Lackerstein, Debbie (2007). National regeneration in Vichy France: the appeals to renewal and sirens of decline (PhD thesis).
  23. ^ Cadet et cadettes de la Légion: mouvement de jeunesse d'action civique et sociale / Jeunesse légionnaire d'Algérie (in French). Légion française des combattants Union provinciale (Algérie).
  24. ^ Cantier, Jacques (2002). L' Algérie sous le régime de Vichy (in French). Odile Jacob. ISBN 9782738110572.
  25. ^ "Entretien: Pierre Sidos". Revue Charles (in French). 12 April 2013. Retrieved 4 September 2023.