The medieval stone crosses of Kells, in County Meath in Ireland, are among the finest examples of the Irish high crosses with a history of seeking to replicate them, as explored in an online exhibition that I have curated.
These large carved stone monuments, often with panels of figural decoration and a large ring surrounding the upper section of the cross, are seen as some of the most significant artworks remaining from the medieval period in Ireland. There are at least four surviving medieval high crosses in Kells: three in the Church of Ireland churchyard (known as the Cross of St Patrick and St Columba (or South Cross); the Unfinished Cross (or East Cross) and the Broken Cross (or West Cross)), and one that currently stands in front of the Kells Courthouse Tourism and Cultural Hub (generally referred to as the Market Cross). There is also a probable cross base located in the churchyard.
While undoubtedly important in their own time, the crosses have also borne witness to hundreds of years of history beyond their initial life in the middle ages, and became objects of fascination and intense scrutiny by Irish antiquarians in the nineteenth century. Since then, the crosses have been replicated in various media, in both 2D (such as through drawings and photography) and 3D (including plaster casts and 3D prints).
Fig 1a: Cross of St Patrick and St Columba (© Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland).
Fig. 1b: Unfinished Cross; Broken Cross (© Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland).
Fig. 1c: Broken Cross (© Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland).
Fig. 1d: Market Cross (© Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland).
An online exhibition entitled Replicating the Crosses of Kells, first produced in 2021, seeks to explore the modern history of replication of these most impressive monuments. The exhibition is divided into three sections: Past, Present and Future, each of which is contained within a virtual room. It includes many different media formats, including illustrated panels, 3D models, two-dimensional images, videos and audio recordings. The platform used, Kunstmatrix, allows users to navigate the space in different ways, including zooming in on panels and viewing pop-ups with more information.
Fig. 2: Screengrab of entrance into the virtual exhibition space, with 3D model of the Kells Market Cross at centre.
Figs 3a and 3b: examples of individual exhibition panels (design by Ian McCarthy).
The first section of the exhibition is focused on pre-digital replication of the Kells high crosses. These monuments featured in the work of multiple antiquarians in the nineteenth century, including George Victor du Noyer and Henry O’Neill.
Fig. 4: George Victor du Noyer, ‘Market Cross in Kells’ (pencil on paper), 1865 (image courtesy of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland).
Fig. 5: Henry O’Neill, ‘Cross in the Street of Kells County Meath’, in his Illustrations of the Most Interesting of the Sculptured Crosses of Ancient Ireland, 1857 (image courtesy of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland).
By the turn of the twentieth century, the crosses had come into the orbit of the director of the Dublin Museum of Science and Art (later the National Museum of Ireland (NMI)), Lt Colonel G.T. Plunkett. Plunkett had a particular interest in replicating Irish works of art, and coordinated a campaign to create plaster casts of many medieval Irish monuments, including the crosses of Kells.
Fig. 6: The Dublin Museum of Science & Art in the early nineteenth century. Casts of Irish high crosses can be seen in the central court of the museum alongside casts of European objects from different eras (image © National Museum of Ireland).
Fig. 7: Col. Plunkett’s formatori in Kells, 1905, erecting scaffolding around the Market Cross (image © National Museum of Ireland).
Fig. 8: A list of expenses incurred by the formatori during their time in Kells. They would often travel to the sites on rented bicycles (image © National Museum of Ireland)!
This nineteenth century story of replication is documented in the Past section of the exhibition, as is an interesting debate that took place in Kells in the late 1990s over the location of, and the lack of protection for, the original Market Cross. This debate resulted in the creation of another replica of the Market Cross, this time using cast concrete. This replica is now on display inside the Kells Courthouse Tourism and Cultural Hub, while the original rests outside the centre!
In the centre of this virtual room stands a 3D model of the Kells Market Cross that was produced for the 3D-Icons project, which served as a basis for much of the scientific testing showcased in the Present section of the exhibition.
The second room of the exhibition looks at current replication techniques being used in cultural heritage, especially methods such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and 3D modelling. It focuses on a case study that asked the question: ‘how accurate are the historic replicas made by the formatori?’
Fig. 9: A screengrab from the exhibition, showing a freeze-frame of the rotating 3D model of one of the Kells plaster moulds, as well as a detailed view with more information (image © National Museum of Ireland).
Fig. 10: A panel from the Present section, detailing the case study that investigated the potential of comparing laser scan data from plaster moulds to the original sculptures (image © National Museum of Ireland).
Using laser scans captured for the 3D-Icons Project and casts and moulds from the NMI and the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, this study measured minute deviations between the originals, the moulds and the final casts. While the deviations are numerous, and many visible to the naked eye, using the laser scans allowed the differences to be quantified at a micro level. The analysis also helped give an insight into the craft and artistry of the formatori, as well as calling into question our modern notions of authenticity. In the centre of the room stand two 3D models of moulds from the NMI collection. As moulds are often considered a disposable element of the casting process, they rarely survive, and this presented an opportunity to showcase some of the NMI’s remarkable collection of historic plaster moulds.
The final room of the exhibition is dedicated to different ways in which we can engage with the high crosses, and replicate them, in the future. The emphasis in this room is on local and community participation and how people can interact with these monuments. There is a section on colour, and the debate over whether or not these crosses were originally painted. There are two opportunities for the viewer to interact directly with this question, through downloadable colouring pages.
Fig. 11: A panel from the Future section discussing conservation concerns related to the Kells Market Cross.
Fig. 12: The downloadable colouring page that encouraged people to experiment with their own polychromy on the high crosses (drawing by Sara Nylund).
Fig. 13: Round Tower Kells, an artwork by local artist Anita Reynolds, showing the Kells Unfinished Cross (batik techniques on cotton, finished by quilting with free machine embroidery and hand stitching).
Panels in the room also address issues in conservation and highlight possible methods for protecting the crosses, most of which still stand outside. Finally, this section looks at how the crosses are used as inspiration, particularly by local artists, with the work of two local artists being highlighted. While not ‘replicas’ in a literal sense, these new artworks that use the crosses as inspiration should be seen as part of the long chronology of replicating the crosses of Kells.
Access the exhibition
The exhibition will be freely available at https://artspaces.kunstmatrix.com/en/exhibition/5213818/replicating-the-crosses-of-kells# until 31 August 2023.
Bevivino, M.A. and Shaw, R., 2016. Embracing Historical Replicas through a Digital Medium: the Irish Context. In: C. Haak and M. Helfrich (eds), Casting: a Way to Embrace the Digital Age in Analogue Fashion? A Symposium on the Gipsformerei of the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.Available: https://doi.org/10.11588/arthistoricum.536. Heidelberg: arthistoricum.net, pp. 199–211.
Bevivino, M.A., 2014. Two Recently Restored High Cross Replicas in the Collection of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 142/143 (2012), pp. 214–17.
Sketchfab: The Discovery Programme, 2023. Available: https://sketchfab.com/discoveryprogramme [15/5/2023]