Seeing the middle ages

An artwork that proves the astounding mastery of
craftsmanship and skill of the masonry artist that carved this
monolith. A Celtic symbol stone with almost totem like
imagery and complex patterns. Absolutely impossible to miss
is the Christian cross that is the main part of this composition
of an ancient heritage and a devotion to an alien religion. The
transition of a land, once said to be an inhospitable barbarian
waste, to one that played a very important role in the
Christianisation of western Europe, is one that is certainly a
very interesting process. Questions as to how the Celtic
culture changed with the coming of Christian missionaries like
the fabled “Saint Patrick” arise…

Transformation of the old
Although there have been recordings of understandable conflict between the old Celtic culture
and the coming of the new religion, like the clash between Saint Patrick and the Pagan Druid.
The reaction to Christianisation was not just a confrontation and conflict of different ways of
life. A great example of this transformation of the old to the new is the suggestion that the Saint
Brigit of Kildare is a Christianised version of the pagan Goddess Brighid, whose character
resembles Brigit.3 We can consider the possibility that Irish Christians fitted Brigit of Kildare the
traits and characteristics of the old goddess, whom they were used to pray to.4
1

Dumville, Saint Patrick. AD 493-1993 (Suffolk-UK,1993) 1-5
Nagy, Conversing with angels and ancients. Literary myths of medieval Ireland (Dublin-IR, 1997) 1- 88
3
Herren, Brown,Christ in Celtic Christianity. (Suffolk-UK 2002) 168. &
4
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigit_of_Kildare 4 maart 2014
2

1

Chris van Wageningen- NHL GS1D – Groningen-NL 2014

The written word
Saint Patrick, the famed missionary sent from Rome around the
start of the fifth century is a figure subject to legends and
speculations.1 Yet we can assume that he was one of the most
important contributors to the Christianisation of the Celtic world.
Even if it would appear that details about the patron saint of
Ireland where not completely correct, an observation of the effect
the arrival and works of the Saint on the Celtic way of life and
religion can be made. The ‘confessio’, a literary work made by
himself and by chroniclers of his life, is a book of religious and
theological teachings. The usage of different media to do the work
of god is an exemplary subject. It clashes with the Pagan religions of the Celts, literally and
figuratively speaking. There are recordings of a trial of faith and truthfulness of scriptures that
went on between Saint Patrick’s, and that of a pagan druid. One going as far describing how
Saint Patrick called upon the christian god to literally smash his opponent’s head in and
gruesomely succeeding, inspiring awe in pagan believers. The pagan beliefs of the native
population were mainly spread through oral teachings, while the new catholic religion was one
that was primarily based on literary works and scriptures, like the epistles and gospels send by
Saint Paul to the Corinthians or other Christian churches.2

An alien religion
Another example of the old Celtic culture undergoing a process
of Christening is the tale of ‘Leanaí Lir’ (Irish Gaelic: The Children of Lir) in
which the descendants of a lord gifted with magic and Lir –a
figure in Celtic mythology who is also a personification of the
sea- become enchanted by a jealous aunt and transformed into
swans.5 The original story is one that tragically ends in the
children after three-hundred years finally shifting back in their
human form as heavily aged and mangled elderly. However,
another ending arose with the Christian religion. In which the
children return to their original form as they passed a ringing
church bell, baptised and buried.6 It is clear that even in the
Celtic mythology a greater heavenly power is recognised when
Christianity arose.

The Symbol Stone slab near Aberlemno Kirk(Scottish: Church) is a
prime example of the duality of the Celtic culture described
above. Crafted by the Picts, a people residing in what we now call Scotland. Symbol stones
functioned primarily as landmarks, monuments and expression of Celtic culture. The masons
often used complex patterns inspired by Celtic metalwork and contained totems to
mythology, religion and aspects of nature. But with the rise of Christianity we see also the
beginning of use of the Celtic cross. 7 The 2.3 meter high-Aberlemno slab is typically covered in
the Celtic ‘weave’ pattern and totems of zoomorphic figures like dragons and horses. The back is
a monument to a battle between Riders and infantry, believed to be ‘Blàr Dhùn Neachdain’
(Scottish Gaelic: The Battle of Nechtansmere)8. But the beautiful cross tells us about the mason’s love for his
new found religion, one he happily applied to his art.
Having barely scratched the surface of a complex collection of Legends,Myths, archaeological
and historical findings within the Celtic and Christian world; we’ve noticed the various ways of
how a native culture or religion can react to the arrival of a new religion. While the cultures may
have clashed because of differences, it is evident that not only the former culture is affected by
the meeting of a new religion, but the latter as well.

5

Houtzager, De mooiste Keltische mythen en sagen. (Hoevelaken-NL 2000) 183-192. &
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children_of_Lir 4 maart 2014
6
Grunke, The effect of Christianity upon the British Celts. (London-UK,2008) 5-6
7
Driscoll,Christian monumental sculpture & ethnic expression in early Scotland.(Glasgow-UK 2000) 243-247
8

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dun_Nechtain 4 maart 2014

2

Chris van Wageningen- NHL GS1D – Groningen-NL 2014

The merge of worlds
Not only do we see a cultural clash in theology and the means of
religious practice, and a process of re-writing old stories to
conform to a new alien religion and culture. Disputably, the
most interesting reaction of the Celtic culture to the
Christianization of north-Britain is the coexistence of two
cultures. Two worlds portrayed in one piece of historic art
depicted in the Celtic monolith.