In the tranquil village of Kilfenora, County Clare, Ireland, stand some of the country’s most distinguished early Christian relics: The Kilfenora High Crosses. These ancient stone crosses, dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries, are magnificent examples of Celtic art and iconography, blending Pagan symbols with Christian narratives.
Characterized by their intricate ringed designs, interlacing patterns, and biblical depictions, the Kilfenora High Crosses serve as silent witnesses to Ireland’s profound religious evolution and the synthesis of its indigenous art forms with Christian teachings.
Kilfenora, often referred to as the “City of the Crosses,” is a village steeped in religious and historical significance, located in County Clare, Ireland. The Kilfenora High Crosses were primarily erected during the 9th and 10th centuries and whilst there were originally thought to be seven crosses not all remain.
The early medieval period in Ireland, from which these crosses hail, was marked by a fervent expansion of Christianity. Monastic settlements played a pivotal role in this expansion, becoming centers of learning, artistry, and religious devotion. It was within this backdrop that the tradition of crafting high crosses—large free-standing stone crosses—flourished.
The Kilfenora High Crosses are a subset of these, distinct for their detailed craftsmanship. They seamlessly blend traditional Celtic designs, such as intricate spirals and interlace patterns, with Christian iconography, portraying scenes from the Bible. Their presence indicates Kilfenora’s importance as a religious center during this period.
Furthermore, these crosses also provide insights into the transition from pagan to Christian beliefs. Some theories suggest that the circular design, or ring, common to Celtic crosses, may represent the pagan symbol of the sun, hinting at a fusion of old and new beliefs.
The Kilfenora High Crosses
At first glance, the most noticeable feature of these crosses is the iconic ringed design. This circular pattern, typical of Celtic crosses, encircles the intersection of the cross’s arms, adding both structural support and symbolic depth. Some interpret this ring as a halo or a representation of eternity, while others see traces of pagan sun-worship, showcasing the blending of Ireland’s religious histories.
The body of the crosses is adorned with intricate carvings. These carvings often depict biblical scenes, such as the Crucifixion or the Last Judgment, rendered in a style that marries the linear intricacy of Celtic patterns with the narrative depth of Christian iconography. The figures, though sometimes worn by time, are etched in dynamic postures, telling vivid stories of faith and redemption.
The base of these crosses, often called the plinth, may also feature decorative motifs or inscriptions, providing further context or dedication.
The Doorty Cross
Dating back to the 12th century, the Doorty Cross is prominently showcased under the glass-roofed chapel at Kilfenora. Esteemed high cross expert, Brian Mooney, classifies it as a 12th-century post-Norse cross, distinguishing it by its design. One of the notable carvings on the cross depicts Saint Fachtnan, Kilfenora’s inaugural bishop. Initially, this cross was fragmented into two parts. Archaeologists, in 1910, described the lower slab and a cross head in the sacristy.
A significant discovery in 1946 revealed that the two pieces were parts of the same monument. They were unified in the 1950s, and the cross was stationed near the Doorty family grave, hence the name “Doorty Cross.” To protect it from further weathering, the cross was relocated under the cathedral’s glass roof in 2003.
The North Cross is situated close to the northwestern edge of the cathedral graveyard. Jack Flanagan’s article mentions that until around 1955, the cross was deeply entrenched at the headstone of the Quinn family’s grave.
When it was later elevated, it stood approximately two meters tall. This cross, which distinctly lacks a ring, appears early in design, suggesting its role as a territorial marker for the surrounding Abbey lands.
The South Cross
Nestled near the cathedral’s southern wall within the graveyard, the South Cross remains, albeit incomplete. Only a fragment of its shaft is present, situated near the entryway to the Cathedral’s nave. While its top section is missing, based on its shaft size, it’s deduced that the cross was originally around four meters in height.
The High Cross (also known as the West Cross)
Positioned in the field to the cathedral’s west, this cross stands as the most towering and well-conserved of the Kilfenora setas it bears a crucified Christ. Despite its pronounced weathering, especially on its western facade, its grandeur is evident.
It measures 4.5 meters in height, gradually narrowing by about 25 centimeters from its base to the summit. With its intricate carvings, some believe this cross may have been an integral component of a tomb or shrine. This theory is further substantiated by an uncarved stone section at its base.
Kilfenora Cathedral started off as the parish church, built between 1189 and 1200 on the site where St. Fachtna founded a monastry in the sixth century.
The Cathedral consists of a chancel and a nave, each with distinct architectural features. The chancel, located at the eastern end, serves as the sanctuary space where religious ceremonies are performed. It is characterized by its pointed arches and beautiful stained glass windows.
The nave, on the other hand, is the central area of the Cathedral where the congregation gathers. It boasts impressive stone vaulting and elaborate carvings on the columns, showcasing the skill and craftsmanship of the medieval builders.
One of the standout features of Kilfenora Cathedral is the Romanesque three-light east window. This window, with its three arched openings, adds an element of elegance and grandeur to the Cathedral’s design.
The intricate stonework surrounding the window is a testament to the skill of the medieval craftsmen who created it. The Romanesque style of the window is characterized by its rounded arches, providing a visual contrast to the pointed arches found throughout the rest of the Cathedral.
Within the Cathedral, the bishop’s throne holds great significance. Positioned near the high altar, the bishop’s throne is a symbol of authority and leadership within the diocese. This ornately carved seat is a testament to the Cathedral’s historical connections with the Bishop of Kilfenora.
Sculptures and Carvings in The Cathedral
At the entrance of Kilfenora Cathedral, visitors are greeted by the striking sight of a mitered head of a bishop carved into the stonework above the door. This intricate carving serves as a reminder of the Cathedral’s historical connection with the Bishop of Kilfenora.
The miter, a ceremonial headdress worn by bishops, symbolizes the ecclesiastical authority and spiritual leadership held by those who have occupied this important position within the diocese.
The fine stone carvings are a testament to the artistic skill of medieval craftsmen and serves as an inviting introduction to the rich history that awaits inside.
As visitors explore the interior of Kilfenora Cathedral, they may encounter the carved head of a man or an angel mounted on the wall. These carved heads are believed to have served as corbels, providing structural support for the arches and vaults of the Cathedral.
The inclusion of these intricate carvings adds an element of artistic beauty to the architectural features of the Cathedral. These heads also serve as a reminder of the skilled craftsmanship and attention to detail that went into the construction of the Cathedral.
Throughout Kilfenora Cathedral, figure carvings can be found supporting the carved columns. These carvings depict a variety of religious figures, including saints, biblical characters, and mythical creatures.
These figure carvings not only provide structural support but also serve as artistic embellishments. Each carving tells a unique story and adds to the overall decorative beauty of the Cathedral. The figure carvings exemplify the influence of religious iconography in medieval art and the significance of storytelling through visual representations.
The Lady Chapel
The Lady Chapel in Kilfenora Cathedral underwent a significant renovation in 2005 with the addition of a glass roof. This renovation aimed to protect the chapel’s interior while allowing for ample natural light to illuminate the space.
The glass roof adds a modern touch to the historical architecture of the chapel and enhances the overall aesthetic appeal. It creates a tranquil and serene atmosphere, providing visitors with a unique experience of the chapel’s sacred atmosphere.
The Lady Chapel serves as a dedicated space for devotions to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, within Kilfenora Cathedral. This intimate chapel provides a serene and peaceful setting for private prayer, meditation, and reflection.
Adorned with intricate carvings and beautiful stained glass windows, the chapel creates a spiritual oasis within the Cathedral. The Lady Chapel has served as a place of pilgrimage and veneration for centuries, attracting visitors seeking solace and connection with their faith.
Within the Lady Chapel, visitors can also marvel at high cross fragments that are on display. These fragments, believed to have once belonged to larger high crosses, showcase the intricate carvings and symbolism associated with the Kilfenora High Crosses.
These fragments of monumental stone serve as a reminder of the historical significance of the crosses and the importance of their preservation. Displaying the fragments in the Lady Chapel allows visitors to further appreciate the craftsmanship and artistic beauty of the Kilfenora High Crosses.
The Unique Status of Kilfenora Diocese
The Kilfenora diocese, mirroring the boundaries of the ancient barony of Corcomroe, holds a unique distinction in Irish ecclesiastical history. With a modest compass of 13 parishes and once boasting as many as 23 churches, it was the smallest diocese in the country. This petite size posed financial challenges which initially prompted a union with the neighboring monastic site of Kilmacduagh, located near the juncture of Clare and Galway.
Further fiscal strains sparked a proposal by the Catholic Church to assimilate Kilfenora into the larger Galway diocese. This proposition, however, was met with local disapproval, leading to an intriguing compromise. The arrangement entailed that the Bishop of Galway would also serve as the Pope’s delegate in Kilfenora. As a result, a unique tradition emerged wherein the Pope is symbolically recognized as the Bishop of Kilfenora for all eternity.