Place, space and time: Iona’s early medieval high crosses in the natural and liturgical landscape
Gefreh, Tasha Michelle
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The island of Iona had the primacy of the Columban familia from the foundation of the monastery by St Columba in the sixth century until Viking invasions led to a transfer of primacy to Kells in the ninth century. Though located off the coast of western Scotland, it was not isolated from the Insular and Christian world. Surviving documents demonstrate the learning and outlook of the monks on Iona. The Abbot Adomnán, who died in 704, in particular was known for his travels and varied writings. The titles of theologian, lawmaker and peacemaker can be applied to him. Not only was Iona a religious centre for the community and pilgrims, it was also politically associated with the ruling families of Dál Riata (Scotland) and Ireland. Iona is credited with the production of such seminal artworks as the Book of Durrow and Book of Kells. The high crosses of Iona were either the first or among the first of the Insular stone tradition. The crosses are monumental, free-standing crosses carved in relief with ornament and figural imagery. The Insular monumental stone tradition has created enduring symbols—the Irish high crosses, Pictish cross-slabs and Anglo-Saxon stone sculpture. This dissertation offers an innovative interpretation of the iconographic programme of the high crosses of Iona by emphasizing their natural and liturgical landscape and environment. Previous studies have looked at individual panels and motifs such as the Virgin and Child panels and the snake-boss motif: the whole programme across the four crosses has not been attempted. The ritualised usage of the crosses can be gleaned through analysing the crosses as a whole project meant to complement each other in the environment of Iona the island and monastic settlement, over the eighth and ninth centuries. Close scrutiny of the crosses in a variety of contexts, both on Iona and when they were removed for conservation, has allowed for the analysis of the individual crosses. The crosses were erected in the physical landscape where the sun directs how and when the programme is to be accessed. The sun elucidates some of the iconographic conundrums. Additionally, the placement of the crosses was in a liturgical landscape, where the crosses were approached in complement to certain devotions. The programme of light enhances the liturgical day, particularly assisting in devotion to the Divine Office. The four crosses were erected as a spiritual tool, part of the ritualised, virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Iona as a pilgrimage destination was more accessible than Rome and Jerusalem. Whereas the Lindisfarne Gospels were commissioned for the translation of the relics of St Cuthbert, the translation of the corporeal relics of St Columba, founder of Iona’s monastery, led to the commission of a cross that acts as a crux gemmata and cross-reliquary.