With the forthcoming opening of the extension to Down Museum to house the Downpatrick High Cross in a new interpretative centre I thought it might be appropriate to say something about the old cross.

The view from behind the old cross looking along the Mall
The view from behind the old cross looking along the Mall

If you have been to Down Cathedral then you will have walked past the High Cross that sits just outside the Cathedral. This is very old – or to be exact it is a copy of something that is very old, because in December 2013 it was taken down and replaced with an exact copy. The original cross is about 1,100 years old and was put up in about 900 AD. This has now been taken down to be conserved and protected from the elements and has been replaced with a new one, an exact replica in Mourne granite weighing in at one tonne. Using modern technology the weathered design of the old cross was exactly replicated on the new cross.

The view of the new cross in front of the cathedral
The view of the new cross in front of the cathedral

Through the kindness of the Dean of Down, the Very Rev Henry Hull, who is always so inclusive in all the special and civic events in the Cathedral, I was privileged, along with all the local clergy, both to be present at the removal of the old cross and to take part in the blessing of the new cross that was put in its place before Easter last year.

Politicans, museum staff and clergy, just prior to the removal of the old cross
Politicans, museum staff and clergy, just prior to the removal of the old cross

The original cross stood outside the ancient monastery established in Downpatrick in the centuries following the death of St Patrick. It stayed there until the Reformation when it was taken down and used as the town’s Market Cross, located outside the Market House. Over time it was damaged and its pieces dispersed around the town until the 1890s when Francis Joseph Bigger, the famous antiquarian, reconstructed the cross and had it placed outside the Cathedral.
These ancient high crosses carried a lot of information. Although now difficult to make out in any detail they tell the Christian story. The Downpatrick Cross carries an image of the crucifixion as well as Jesus entering Jerusalem on donkey on Palm Sunday. The Cross is also believed to show the heads of Adam and Eve and Cain about to slay Abel. To me though the most interesting images on the cross are those of St Anthony and St Paul. It is very hard to make out but at the top of the shaft on one side of the cross there are two figures sat facing each other. Between them is a circle and above them something else that may be a bird. These two saints (who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries) were important in the spread of monasticism and scholars suggest that the image represented is that of their meeting at the hermitage at Mount Colzim in Egypt, a meeting that reputedly took place in AD 347. According to the story a raven flew down and deposited a loaf of bread between them, paralleling the story of Elijah being fed by ravens in the Old Testament. The two holy men then disputed over who should have the responsibility of breaking the bread, each of them deferring to the other, until eventually they both picked up the loaf and pulled together, neatly representing the sharing of the Eucharist.

Local clergy in front of the old cross
Local clergy in front of the old cross

All the detail is very worn now, and it is very hard to make out. But it is good to know that the same ancient cross that has been in the town since before the end of the first millennium is now being preserved.

After the blessing of the new cross
After the blessing of the new cross
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