On a recent unscheduled trip to County Donegal, I was honoured to be shown a pair of 18th Century ‘Penal Crosses’. I had not seen anything like these ‘up close’ and was totally intrigued by these fascinating pieces of Irish folk art.
So what are ‘Penal Crosses’? The ‘Penal Laws’ referred to a series of statutes aimed at diminishing the power and influence of religions other than the established church, and were enacted in various forms from 1695 on. In England the established church was the Anglican Church, while in Ireland it was the Church of Ireland. Presbyterians for example were also subject to the Penal Laws, but in Ireland it was the Catholics who were most oppressed by the laws that covered almost every aspect of life including employment, ownership of weapons, intermarriage, education, religious practices and clergy. The practice of the Catholic religion continued during these ‘Penal Times’ with priests saying Mass in safe houses and in discreet places, with few devotional objects on display. The ‘Penal Cross’ was a carved crucifix, with short cross arms, evolved it is said, to enable a priest to hide it in his sleeve.
The crosses were often crudely carved, yet there is a remarkable similarity between all known examples with the figure of Christ always carved in high relief. The ‘head’ below the feet is often carved in high relief as well. All of the crosses have carved symbols of the Crucifixion on front and back. On the example above to the right (as we look at the photograph) of the figure, is a representation of the ladder used to take down the body of Jesus from the cross, and on the opposite side is the spear or lance.
On the reverse is carved the year 1766, with the insignia IHS (a symbol for the name of Jesus) on the transom, and a cross rising from the centre of the letter ‘H’. These two features are typical on the reverse of the majority, (if not all) penal crosses, the date being the year in which the cross was carved. Penal crosses of this type have suspension loops at the top to allow for hanging or possibly wearing.
The second cross is more sophisticated than the first, and bears much more of the iconography of the passion and crucifixion than the other. The carved figure of the crucified Christ is quite shiny (possibly from being touched?), and as is usual, is in high relief. The top of this cross has the acronym INRI, meaning Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
I have had to research the remaining symbols, and found that there are about a dozen images of medieval iconography that appear on penal crosses, some having a few, others having all the images. Some of these images date back to early Christianity, but many appeared originally on tombs and on religious artifacts such as chalices from the 15th century on.
On the cross above a number of symbols are carved on the front. 1) Above Christ’s head are three stars, indicating the sun, moon and stars,representing the total eclipse that took place at the time of the Crucifixion. 2. On the left arm of the cross(left of the photograph) is the Vinegar Jug. 3)Attached to the opposite arm of the figure are the cords which were used to tie him to the pillar 4) Below this, the pincers used to extract the nails. 5)To the right of the torso is the hammer used to drive the nails. 6)Below that is the ladder used to take down the body. 7) On the opposite side is the spear used to pierce Christ’s side. (These latter two are also depicted on the simpler penal cross above) 8) A carved head below the feet, which may be either a skull or a cherub – in this case it appears to be a skull; below the skull are crossbones; and 9) at the bottom is a cock. This cock is interesting – could it be the cock that crew three times at Christ’s betrayal? The cock that is most often depicted at the bottom of Penal crosses is a cock above a pot, known as the ‘Cock and the Pot’ and is a reference to a story in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus.
This interesting explanation of the Cock and the Pot comes from anamchara blog:
Based on an anecdote in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus or Acts of Pilate, a famous story of Judas gets tweaked in Irish folklore as related in the Irish Leabhar Breac.
In the darkened streets stumbled a weeping Judas, distraught at betraying Christ. Wracked with guilt, he had returned the 30 pieces of silver to the temple officials and now was going home. Opening the door to his house, he smelled his wife’s cooking; she was roasting a cock over the fire. Food was the furthest thing from his mind, however, and he asked her, “Wife, get me a rope so I may hang myself; my Lord, my friend, Jesus of Nazareth is betrayed by me!” The woman had no love for Jesus; she was as cynical as her husband toward the Galilean. “Do you hear me?” he shouted. “Get me the rope, for I am sure he will rise as he said in three days.”
“Nonsense,” said his wife. “There’s as much chance of Jesus rising from the dead as there is of this dead, plucked, and cooked rooster jumping out of this pot.” At this moment, the cock jumped from the pot, clapped his wings–all refeathered now– and crowed three times crying “Mac na hOighe Slan–The son of the Virgin is safe/risen!”
And that is why on the Irish crucifixes, particularly those made in penal times when the Irish were persecuted for their Catholic faith, underneath the crucified body of the Lord is a pot with a rooster standing over it, announcing the resurrection.
On the reverse, this Penal Cross is dated 1725, and again bears the IHS symbol with a cross rising from the letter ‘H’. The triangular configuration below the IHS symbol is a representation of the three nails used in the crucifixion. This triangular representation of the three nails is quite common on penal Crucifixes
Dr Tony Lewis (1911 – 1986) carried out a study of penal crosses, examining the 129 specimens recorded by the National Museum of Ireland. His conclusions are interesting:
Firstly he dismissed as ‘historically naive and factually baseless’ the romantic notion that the arms were made deliberately short in order to be concealed in a sleeve, stating that the real reason for the shortness of the arms was because each crucifix was carved from a solid piece of wood.
Secondly, he concluded that these crucifixes formed part of the ‘ritual of pilgrimage’ between the 15th and 18th centuries, and that such crosses were for sale in the locality of the Lough Derg Pilgrimage Island, County Donegal, up to the mid 19th Century. He found that the uniformity of style and technique indicated a single centre of manufacture, and that centre was Lough Derg in County Donegal.
He further found that the crucifixes were consistently dated over a period of one and a half centuries, and the date represents the year in which the crucifix was bought, used in devotional exercise and taken home as a dated souvenir of pilgrimage.
Research by P.O’Gallachair, published in 1965 adds weight to the Lewis theory by examining the 1792 O’Donnell Crucifix. On July 12 1795, 90 pilgrims out of a total of 93 on a boat crossing Lough Derg to the Penitential Island drowned when their boat sank. A Miss O’Donnell’s body was recovered with a ‘penal cross’ tightly clasped in her hand. The Cross was dated 1792, the conclusion being that she was revisiting the Penitential Site carrying a Cross that she had purchased on an earlier pilgrimage.
It was a very special experience for me to see and touch objects that were revered and treasured in my local area between 250 and 290 years ago, the like of which I had not seen before. I cannot help but wonder: Who carved them? Who owned them? What stories could they tell? What lives did they comfort? What tragedies did they witness? What homes did they protect? And of course, were they ever hidden in a sleeve?
We will never know.
I am very much indebted to Moira Hughes, Raphoe Diocesan Archive, St Eunan’s, Letterkenny for the kindness, patience and generosity shown to me on my recent visit.
”Penal” Crucifixes, A.T Lucas & H.G Tempest , Journal of County Louth Archaeological Society, Vol 13,No 2, (1954), pp. 145 – 174
Pilgrim Crucifixes of Lough Derg, P.Ó Gallachair, Clogher Record, vol 5, No 3, (1965) pp. 296 – 306 Clogher Historical Society
Penal Crosses found in Co. Carlow: the significance of 18th and 19th century devotional crucifixes in early modern Ireland. Nugent, L. 2013. Carloviana Vol 65 pp 84-88
National Museum of Ireland
National Science Museum,Maynooth