Celtic Cross – Ancient & Christian

How the Celtic Cross Form Came to Be

The Celtic cross, as represented by the few remaining standing crosses in Ireland, flourished as a religious and art form during the early Middle Ages. During this time, Ireland slowly converted from druidism and other so-called “pagan” religions to Christianity, though the conversion was never complete. In fighting for the souls of the Irish, Christian authorities used a tried-and-true tactic: rather than forcing the locals to discard their religion, they assimilated it.
The Celtic cross is a cross superimposed on a circle (not, significantly, the other way around). The circle is thought to represent the sun, the object of many ancient religions; a representation such as is seen on the Celtic cross is called a nimbus. Though no writings survive that explicitly say it, it is thought that the cross-with-nimbus symbolized the acceptance of the old druidic religion (by showing the nimbus) but also its being eclipsed by the new Christian religion (since the nimbus is clearly behind the cross).
Of course, there was a simple practical advantage to this design as well: the circle served to buttress the cross’s horizontal arms. In fact, Celtic crosses without the nimbus usually did not survive long; weathering and age caused such crosses to lose their arms or heads.

The Art of the Celtic Cross

The intricate filigree-like carvings on the surface of Celtic crosses are of a style known as “insular art,” which literally means “art of the islands.” This style combined motifs from earlier runic art with intricate swirls and patterns to form a visually striking mosaic. This made the standing crosses very visually impressive, particularly in a hardscrabble medieval world where very few things were ornate, decorative, or beautiful for their own sake.
You can also see insular art in manuscripts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. If you study it closely, you might be struck by how abstract the art is; even when people are clearly depicted, they are not drawn in a factual style. The more important element is that such depictions be visually arresting.

The Viking Influence

The flourishing of insular art is thought to have been stifled by the Viking raids and invasions of the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries. At first, the invaders looted, killed, and took slaves, but later, they came back to stay; Dublin and Waterford, Ireland’s first two cities, were founded by the Vikings. They brought their own decorative styles and versions of Christianity with them, and the old Celtic/Druidic form of Christianity was supplanted.
Ireland during the early medieval period was not a unified country by any means; it was a collection of small, often mutually hostile kingdoms and chiefdoms. Thus, when the Viking raids came, first to the west coast and then to the rest of the island, there was no way to organize a unified force to resist them. The Vikings took home as loot many examples of insular art, such as manuscripts, metalwork, and wall hangings; very few such artifacts have survived, as the Vikings also usually destroyed what they could not carry back with them.
The development, both cultural and economic, of Ireland was retarded for centuries by the Vikings; many coastal settlements were abandoned after Viking raids. It was simply too much to painfully build up a small measure of wealth and prosperity and then see the fierce Viking warriors swoop in from the sea and take or destroy it all. Many Irish moved inland, out of the reach of the raiders.

The Stone Celtic Cross as the Symbol of Resurrection

Imagine that you are a poor farmer in a village on the east coast of Ireland. You have heard terrible stories about the Vikings but so far, they have never come to your village—until one fateful morning, a lookout screams “Longboats!” You gather up whatever you can carry and flee to the hills with your family—no one has the weapons to repel dozens of axe-wielding Viking raiders!

 

You watch from a safe distance as they methodically pillage your village, killing those who were unable to flee in time.
After the raiders are gone, you return to the smoking ruins of your house, which has been burned along with all the other homes in the village. All the livestock are gone, and the bodies of many of your neighbors are lying in the fields. The only thing intact is the stone church, which has been stripped of everything—but the Celtic cross still stands! You and the other survivors gather around it to pray, taking reassurance from its permanence and endurance.

 

You will rebuild.

 

By Kevin M. Lewis

I Heart St Valentine

A bit of Valentine history

Valentine’s Day is possibly the most worldwide of celebrations: heart-shaped candies and flowers are exchanged on February 14th in the U.S., China, Brazil, Iran, and almost everywhere else on the planet. But originally, the observance had nothing to do with romantic love, and virtually nothing is known about the man—or men—after whom the day is named.

Multiple Saint Valentines?

There were several—perhaps dozens—of “Valentines” in early Christian history; it was a fairly common name in Imperial Rome. Many Valentines were Christians persecuted and martyred by Roman authorities, and the Church conflated their deeds, both real and imagined, in creating a composite “Saint Valentine.”

 

The two most likely actual candidates are Valentine of Interamna, who was consecrated a bishop in AD 197 and persecuted by Emperor Aurelian (this was before the Empire became officially Christian) and Valentine of Rome, who was murdered in AD 496.

 

Both saints were buried on the Via Flaminia, though in different places. Therefore, the proper way to state the Christian observance day was actually “Saint Valentines’ Day.” Many church frescoes and stained glasses depicted both saints. Almost nothing is known of their lives or deeds, however.

Sacrifice not love

Chaucer_Hoccleve

Since both of the most prominent Valentines (and many of the others as well) had been martyred, the Feast of Saint Valentine was originally associated with sacrifice, not with romantic love. It first became associated with romance due to Chaucer, who mentioned it in Parliament of Fowles in 1382: “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”

 

Other poets and storytellers gradually followed Chaucer’s lead and spoke of the day as the beginning of spring and the time when the birds came out and romantic love would flourish.

But it’s still winter

However, if you’re shoveling snow from your driveway after a blizzard on February 14th, you might be wondering just what the heck Chaucer was thinking.

 

The answer is that the Julian calendar was off—way off—by Chaucer’s time.
The Romans recognized that the year is not 365, but rather, 365 ¼ days long, and so invented the leap year—the signature feature of the Julian calendar. However…the year is actually twenty minutes shorter than 365.25 days—the Julian calendar made the year too long.

 

The result was that the start of spring (and all other fixed events) sneaked “backward” about three days every four centuries, so that thirteen centuries after the Julian calendar was introduced, in Chaucer’s time, spring was indeed coming—and the birds were mating—in mid-February.

Re-branding a saint

This brings us back to the Christian Saint Valentines. The Christian Church and religion spread rapidly worldwide in large part due to history’s first successful mass marketing campaigns, many of which involved what we call today “re-branding.” Recognizing that resistance to their new religion would be less if pagan cultural practices were incorporated into Christianity rather than having it replace them, Church authorities installed new, modern versions of Pagan holidays such as the winter solstice celebration (Christmas), “day of the dead” festivals (All Saint’s Day), and so forth.

 

Valentine’s Day evolved in part because another extremely common celebration in almost every society, then and now, is the “coming of spring.” The Romans had Lupercal, a several-days-long festival of drinking, dancing, and “making whoopee,” which was a perfect time to install a more Christian celebration.

From sacrificial mourning to celebrations of love

The thing is, when early Christian authorities decreed February 14th to be the day to revere Saint Valentine(s), the date was in winter—ideal for mourning and remembrance. It was only due to the creeping inaccuracy of the Julian calendar that by Chaucer’s time, the date was when the snow started melting and the birdies started singing. People began to regard the day as a marker of the coming of spring. (In 1582 Pope Gregory fixed the problem, but the British didn’t adopt the Gregorian Calendar until 1752.)

 

The Church, still skilled in re-branding, decided to respond to this (unstoppable) trend by making up some legends to associate one Valentine or the other with romantic love. The earlier Valentine, of Interamna, was now said to have performed secret marriages for Roman soldiers who had converted to Christianity (still highly illegal at the time). He was also purported to have cut out paper hearts as a token of affection for his friends, and he supposedly wore an amethyst ring (the February birthstone). He also cured a young girl, the daughter of his jailer, of blindness. All these legends, and more, were piled on well after the fact, however, by chroniclers ranging from the 8th-century Bede to 18th-century ecumenical councils.

St-valentine-baptizing-st-lucilla-jacopo-bassano
Valentine-and-disciples

Paper hearts

valentine_card_Google_Art_Project

Valentine, or Valentines, proved to be a highly reusable and malleable symbol. When the Christian Church realized that they didn’t have a coming of spring celebration, they changed St. Valentine from a bishop who had had his head chopped off to a hopeless romantic who married people in secret and handed out paper hearts (a much happier celebration). Love was (officially) in the air!

 

Add to all that the remarkable greeting card industry that sprang up during the Victorian era and you have our modern version of Valentine’s Day.

 

By guest contributor:  Kevin M. Lewis

 

Images from Wikipedia