Engineering, symbolism, or art?

What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic… and then interpreted.

Stone Celtic high cross at Iona. Own photo.
At Mesa Verde National Park, a line of shallow circular holes marches across a flat stone patio in front of an ancient pueblo. I sat through a ranger’s talk about their religious significance. I asked him if they might, instead, be footers for a wooden structure, now gone. “Impossible!” he exclaimed.
We moderns see things through our own cultural biases. One of these is that we are more rational than our ancestors, who lived in a world dominated by superstition.
Iona in the Hebrides is notable for its cluster of Celtic crosses; historians debate whether they or those at Ahenny in Ireland are the oldest. The design is certainly Anglo-Irish in origin. Columba, the founder of Iona Abbey, was an Irishman.
Pictish Kirkyard stone, Aberlemno, Angus, Scotland, UK. Here the circle is motif, not structure.
Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles by the Romans. By 200 AD the British Christian church was flourishing. However, with the end of Roman influences, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others overran England, driving out the Celts. Christianity survived (with them) in the wild outposts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. By the time Augustinelanded at Canterbury to found the English church, there was a well-established tradition of stone high crosses in the areas converted by the Hiberno-Scottish mission.
They may reflect the lack of trees in the northern islands, or that stone lasts longer than wood. Or, the stones may have been a fusion of wooden crosses and the earlier pagan tradition of standing stones.
Cloncha cross and church near Culdaff, County Donegal, Ireland. Without the circles, the arms must be squatter and shorter. Photo courtesy Radosław Botev
Much ink has been spilled over the question of what the ring of the Celtic cross means. Ringed crosses were seen in the Byzantine Empire by the 5th century. The circle itself has represented many things worldwide, including the celestial sphere. The early Irish Christians were certainly familiar with this iconography, and with the Coptic tradition of a cross based on the Egyptian ankh.
On the other hand, the circle gave an engineering advantage. A cross with a circle can have larger arms. This is true in wood, but it’s critical in stone. The more workable the stone, the softer it is, and the more support is needed.

When these stone crosses were made, there was no deep division between engineering and art; for stone masons, the question still doesn’t exist. Therein lies a problem with leaving art analysis in the hands of people whose education is overwhelmingly one-sided. They may know myth, but they have no idea what holds up a building.
“What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic…” muttered my companion as we stood at the foot of an ancient Celtic cross. She then added, “and then interpreted.” The circle of the Celtic cross was intended to give strength, but became a symbol in its own right, a product of the mid-19th century Celtic revival. It’s beautiful and potent to modern man, but it means something different than it did to the person who carved it. His primary goal was to cut the Gospel into rock.
Liam Emmery’s Celtic cross in the Irish hills. Photo courtesy Ken Finlay.
Forester Liam Emmery passed away in 2010 after suffering a traumatic brain injury. A few years later, a Celtic cross appeared in his former patch. It’s made of a patchwork of larches among evergreens, meaning that as autumn approaches, the cross turns gold.  It won’t last as long as those stone crosses—maybe a century if all goes well—but the impulse was the same.
“He just loved things to be perfect, and I think the Celtic cross is perfect for him,” said his widow.