History in Stone

History in Stone

Today Colmcille’s monastic island of Iona is dominated physically by the towering presence of the restored Benedictine Abbey which was begun in the early thirteenth century. That building probably stands on the site of the original sixth century monastery which in layout and appearance would have looked very different. Much of the original monastery, as was the case at other similar sites, would have been built from organic materials such as wood and earth which have long since disappeared, only to reappear in ghost form when excavated by archaeologists. Among the more enduring memorials at the sites associated with the saint however are the various stone objects and structures either made by or re-used by his followers down the centuries. The museum on Iona for instance contains a stone which is said to have been Colum Cille’s penitential ‘pillow’, as decribed in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae written a hundred years or so after the saint’s death.

We also know from Adomnán that crosses were set up at sites connected with special events in the saint’s life such as the two erected to commemorate the death of his uncle Ernán, a monk: one outside the shed where the old man fell and the other close-by where the saint himself was standing at the time. We do not know what material those crosses were made of but they were probably wooden. In another case on Iona however, a disused millstone was used subsequently as the base for a cross but again we do not know what the cross itself was made of.

The surviving finely sculpted, stone high crosses that do survive on Iona date to much later times - from the middle of the eighth century onwards. Those crosses seem to have been the end of an evolutionary process that started with wooden crosses, went on to include crosses made of stone pillars with wooden cross-arms (for example St Martin’s Cross on Iona, possibly made about 800), and ended with the full stone cross. The distinctive ring of the so-called ‘Celtic Cross’ may have originated from the need to provide support struts when the monks began to make the cross arms from stone too. The Scottish archaeologist Ian Fisher, who is an expert on these matters, has suggested that St John’s Cross on Iona (probably made about 770) may have been the very first ringed stone cross ever erected in either Britain or Ireland.

St John’s Cross is a composite work made up from several pieces of carved stone. The four pieces that form the distinctive ring at the centre are made from a local stone, whereas the main elements of the cross were formed from a stone specially brought to Iona from the mainland. Fisher considers that the ring pieces may have been added later, possibly as a repair to an original ring-less cross. As further evidence that St John’s Cross may not, originally, have had a ring, Fisher points out that a close visual parallel for the layout of the ornamental features on that hypothetical ring-less cross would be the metal-plated wooden example known as the Rupertus Cross, from Bischofshofen in Austria, which was probably made by an Anglo-Saxon craftsman in the third quarter of the eighth century. There are other connections between the Bischofshofen cross and Iona.

We know that by the middle of the eighth century at the latest, Iona was the centre of a school of master artists who could work in a variety of media. The large crosses, as well as the near certainty that the magnificent Book of Kells was made there around 800, is the best evidence for that creativity. In addition, there is evidence from archaeological excavations on the island of metalworking in copper and tin – bronze – and of glassworking, such as has been found on other contemporary high status sites in both Scotland and Ireland.

Parallels are often drawn between some of the illustrations in the Book of Kells and the designs on the three eighth-century high crosses on Iona: Saint Oran’s Cross, Saint John’s Cross and Saint Martin’s Cross. These are usually said to have been completed in the order listed here, from the middle to the end of the eighth century. The parallel would have been even greater in the past as the decorative features on the crosses would, almost certainly, have been painted in bright colours. Two of the crosses, Saint Oran’s and Saint Martin’s, have depictions of the relatively rare subject of the Virgin and Child, as does the Book of Kells. The same theme is also alluded to in the eighth-century poem Cantemus in omni die - ‘let us sing every day’ - allegedly composed by the Iona monk Cú Chuimne. It is hardly a coincidence, therefore, that one of the very few early medieval sculptural depictions of that subject in Ireland is on a later cross at another Columban monastery, Drumcliff in County Sligo.

Other stone memorials associated with, at least, the cult of the saint are abundant in both Ireland and Scotland. These include many other finely- and crudely carved crosses of various kinds. In some cases various pre-Christian monuments have been incorporated into these traditions, for example the many Columban holy wells. Perhaps one of the most unusual of these is the Neolithic (c. 3,500BC) court-tomb in Glencolumbkille ,which functions as one of the ‘stations’ on the saints turas – ‘pilgrimage route’. The saint’s baby foot-prints are said in tradition to be fossilized in carvings on a section of rock outcrop near Gartan in Donegal. These carvings were known in Irish as the Cédimtheacht, or ‘the place where he took his first ever walking steps’. They were probably ‘stations’ on another of the saint’s pilgrimage routes.

Another unusual stone monument associated with the saint is a boat-shaped boulder on the shore of Galway Bay in Connemara. This is said in tradition to be the fossilized remains of the ship he used to visit St Enda in the Aran islands.

Dr Brian Lacey, The Discovery Project, Dublin