Demons, Druids and Brigands on the Irish High Crosses: Rethinking the Images Identified as The Temptation of Saint Anthony Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 22, 2019
  • Tomlinson, Sally
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Art and Art History
  • Five crosses erected at ninth- and tenth-centuries monasteries in Ireland are decorated with carvings of biblical and saints’ narratives, but these also include one in which two zoomorphic-headed figures in contemporary clothing confront a centrally placed man. Arthur Kingsley Porter identified the subject as temptation by demons, suggesting Saint Anthony as the probable protagonist, but the iconography bears no apparent relationship to the facts of Anthony’s story, as related by his biographer, Athanasius. The asceticism practiced by some early medieval Irish monks has long fascinated scholars, bleeding into assumptions about motivations behind the entire body of Irish monastic art work. During the era in question, the monasteries erecting these crosses were not retreats for solitary living, nor were they necessarily peopled by ascetic men in orders, leaving open the contextual basis supporting the “temptation” interpretation. This essay considers alternate explanations for scenes, beginning with the animals pictured, seeking precedents in pre-Christian art forms. In addition to a visual survey, I explore Irish vernacular literature to explain some of the beliefs surrounding the creatures pictured. iv I explore the history of, and other uses for, the heraldic compositional type used for the images, beginning with ancient Near Eastern art and applications in Irish art as drawn from the Merovingian culture. From there, I investigate the topics of demons and animal-related magic, seeking information about the culture of druids and their poet-successors in Ireland. I look for related visual images of demons and devils within contemporary Western European art and elsewhere on the Irish crosses, comparing these with the zoomorphic-headed figures. In the next chapter I illustrate and highlight details of the figures’ costume, connecting visual evidence to scholarship on medieval dress and references in early medieval Irish Christian and non-Christian literature, to identify the social station and professional standing of the various figures, as suggested by their clothes and accoutrements. Finally, I define the circumscribed geographic area in which the five crosses stand, providing an overview of its history and the contemporary political situation, to provide context for the creation of these unusual images on public monuments.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Verkerk, Dorothy
  • Open access

This work has no parents.