The Celtic cross is a symbol used today in many contexts, both religious and secular. The Celtic cross is like a traditional cross but with a ring around the intersection of the stem and arms. The whole cross is often decorated with ornate Gaelic patterns. Sometimes the Celtic cross is set on a tall base to resemble more closely the traditional Christian cross, and at other times the symbol stands alone. The Celtic cross is sometimes nothing more than a simple “stick” drawing on a gravestone or at a religious site; other times it is sculpted and quite ornate. The Celtic cross is also called the “sun cross” by some who interpret the ring to represent the sun.
Celtic crosses are decorated with Insular art, characterized by elaborately interlacing bands. This style of art, also known as Hiberno-Saxon art, is closely associated with Celtic Christianity and Irish monasticism. The fabulously ornate Book of Kells, an illustrated copy of the four Gospels, contains wonderful examples of Insular art, and the same type of patterns visible in the Book of Kells can also be seen on the Celtic cross. Many Celtic crosses also depict scenes from the Bible.
Irish legend says that the Celtic cross was first introduced by Saint Patrick, who was attempting to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. Some of these pagans worshiped the sun, so it is said that Patrick combined the Christian cross with the circular pattern of the sun as a way to associate light and life with the Christian cross in the minds of his converts. Another story has Patrick marking the pagan symbol of the moon goddess (a circle) with a cross, and blessing the stone, making the first Celtic cross. Another theory suggests that, by laying the symbol of the cross over the symbol of the sun, Christians were illustrating the supremacy of Christ over the sun god or moon goddess. Other explanations of the origin of the Celtic cross abound. Some will swear it was a phallic symbol that was turned into a cross to hide its true meaning; others will say that the cross in the circle is a Druid symbol appropriated by Christians. Still another theory is that the ring was added to the cross for practical reasons—the circle connects the arms of the cross to the stem, thus making the whole design sturdier and preventing stone crosses from breaking as easily.
In medieval times, the Celtic cross symbol was used as a public monument—just as present-day Christians often place a cross atop a church—and, if the Celtic cross had engravings of Bible scenes, as a teaching tool. When these crosses marked a religious holy site, they usually had a longer stem and are called Irish high crosses. Today, the Celtic cross is used most often on gravestones and in funerary monuments, but it has also become a symbol of national pride. Those who identify with the Celtic tradition may wear the Celtic cross design on clothing, in jewelry, or as tattoos. Sports teams and other organizations have also been known to use the Celtic cross as a way to show their Irish heritage.