Celtic-Inspired Christian Relic Discovered – The Mystery of the Illustrated Iron Cross

by  Mary Alice Bennett 


Celtic- Inspired Christian Relic Discovered – The Mystery of the Illustrated Iron Cross

Artists` interpretation of the Mystery Cross 

When presented with the image of the mystery cross, the first clue to be identified by researchers was the shield held by the kneeling warrior on the right and the lions behind him. This led them to suppose an African origin for this religious artifact. A Celtic scholar then posted several Celtic carved stone Christian crosses, one of them being the 8th century. cross displayed here which is strikingly similar to the iron cross and is obviously the source of its inspiration. The variations in theme on the iron relic are the clues which define its country of origin. 
On the left side musicians strum a harp and blow a trumpet. The harpist could be King David of Israel and the trumpeter may be announcing the advent of the central Messiah figure.

The carved stone cross is an illustrated Irish Celtic piece and not a typical Roman crucifix cross. The right side tells the story of Daniel in the lions` den. The iron cross version shows
a warrior with a shield on the far right which is very significant since it is not part of the scene on the Celtic model. This tall shield is very unique.
The roundel at the top was a puzzle for researchers to identify; they thought it resembled a Scottish terrier with that up-turned tail. Thanks to the stone cross, the animal above the head of Christ is seen to represent the Lamb of God.
Irish Celtic artists always included their intricate knot and intertwined vine patterns in their work as on this example, but the artist of the iron cross instead used huge serpents at the top to form the symbol of the four quarters of the earth. The halo around the cross` center may also denote the four quarters of earth and heaven. Are those moon and sunrises or moon and sunsets – the equinoxes and the solstices as seen above the surf? The iron cross could be from a country with a dramatic coastline and pounding surf as well as being home to lions and big snakes.
The Messiah bears a royal scepter as a king instead of holding the Roman crosier shepherds` staff, and the figure beside him is bowing to him. The man and woman who are standing below him are separated from him by platforms which could indicate different eras of time. If this cross is set up in the format of a genealogical Tree of Jesse with the ancestors at the bottom near the roots of the ancestral tree, then this couple could be Mary and Joseph. Since this is a sub-Saharan piece, it all begins with the underworld of the crocodile at the base of the World Tree supporting the scene above him. Since he has the couple balanced on his head, he may represent a crocodile in the Nile River who is being observed by Mary and Joseph when they were in Egypt. This is a Bible story that would have been very important in Africa. 

Metallurgy was known in Africa from the earliest times. Archaeologists have determined that the culture in Benin, West Africa jumped from the Stone Age right into the Iron Age. The artisans there were adept at casting realistic bronze portrait heads using the lost-wax process. In this technique the portraitist sculpts the original in beeswax, surrounds it with clay to make a mold, and then pours the molted metal in which melts the wax. The mold is then broken, leaving a one-of-a-kind metal casting which is then polished. The mystery iron cross was made using this process. Iron is a very unique medium for an illustrated cross, this metal was used for spear points in South Africa. The cross could have been made from a spear point that had been melted down.  

                                         The Mysterious Iron Cross in a Wooden Frame                        



The Symbolism of the Celtic Carved Stone Cross


“This magnificent 8th century Celtic cross from County Offaly, Ireland, depicts Christ in Majestyflanked by trumpeting and adoring angels and the Lamb of God, with additional Biblical scenes of Daniel and the Lion, David the Harpist, Abraham and Isaac and a scene which seems to depict the Trinity with the Word of God. In addition, there are four Celtic knots and four spiraling bosses, perhaps symbolizing the four Gospels. It is from Durrow Monastery which was founded in the 6th century by St. Columba, one of the patron saints of Ireland.” 

On the right arms of both crosses in the scene with the lions, there is a warrior who carries a shield. On the iron cross there are two men with very tall shields which look like the distinctive shields of the Zulu tribe of South Africa. The markings on them are also seen on Zulu shields. With these tall shields and their short spears, the Zulus conquered a huge territory led by their chief, Shaka Zulu. Along with the lions, there are big snakes and a crocodile on the cross – South Africa is home to all of these animals. The serpents at the top of the cross could be the feared boomslang snakes, one of the many types of big dangerous snakes found in that country. The artist depicted these creatures from memory, capturing their characters perfectly in this limited medium. 

The little lamb in the roundel above the head of Christ was a puzzle for researchers, it has an upturned tail! Had the artist ever seen a lamb or a sheep? There is not much use for wool on the savannah grasslands. If he had asked a priest what a lamb looked like, the priest would have told him that it resembles a goat kid – hence the goats` tail. This is a strong clue that the artist was a native metallurgist, but how would an African artist have been inspired by an Irish Celtic cross from the 8th century? 

                                         The Carved Stone Celtic Cross from the 8th c.

The English and the Dutch settled South Africa and fought over it. In the 19th c. the Irish were also there. These 60,000 Irish brought their church with them to Africa. Bishop Patrick Raymond Griffith was in the East Cape in 1838, he spent 25 years in South Africa. There were more Irish Catholic missionaries in South Africa than in any other country in the world. Bishop Griffith oversaw their churches and many mission schools. The Irish helped the Zulus in their fight for independence and in 2000 the Zulus praised the Irish for the anti-apartheid stance that they had taken. 

The iron cross is a brilliant and unique relic of the time of the Irish Celtic influence in South Africa and was cast in the very permanent African medium of iron. It was made to be placed in a frame which is also a quite innovative form for a cross. If the wood of this frame were to be tested, I believe it would prove that this artifact is of  19th c. South African Zulu origin.

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