Downpatrick High Cross rises at dawning of Easter
A one-tonne replica of the historic 1,000-year-old Downpatrick High Cross is to be installed in front of Down Cathedral today in time for the town's Easter celebrations.
It replaces the original granite cross, which had become so weathered in the more than a millennium since it was carved that it has had to be moved to a less punishing environment.
The original cross, carved as a prayer in stone by local craftsmen around 900 AD, was moved late last year for preservation to the nearby Down County Museum.
It will become the centrepiece of a major extension to house an internationally important collection marking the region's Christian heritage.
The replica was made by Co Down stonemasons S McConnell & Sons, using state-of-the-art computer technology to shape granite blasted from a quarry at Thomas Mountain in the Mournes.
The unique commission created a perfect copy of the original piece, faithful in every detail, and forged a unique link between craftsmen separated by many hundreds of years.
Work to position the new cross will start around 8am today, with a concluding ceremony and blessing scheduled for 2.30pm.
The pre-Easter timing is significant for an artefact that depicts much of the Easter story, including the arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday of Jesus riding on an ass, with his arm raised in blessing.
The head of the cross shows the Crucifixion of Christ, flanked by the spear-bearer, sponge-bearer and the two thieves, who were given their own names in Irish in the 8th century.
The interlace on the side is made up of intertwined snakes – symbols of resurrection as they shed their skin and are reborn – as a snake's head has been identified on the surviving carving on the south side.
At the top of the east side of the cross is a small panel depicting two figures with large heads, who appear to be seated facing each other, with a round object between them and a triangular feature carved in relief above their heads, which may be interpreted as the outstretched wings of a descending bird.
It's thought this could depict St Anthony and St Paul breaking a loaf of bread that was brought to them by a raven in St Paul's cave hermitage during their famous meeting in AD347 shortly before the death of Paul.
The first location of the High Cross is believed to have been the early medieval monastery that was built on the Hill of Down.
Following the Reformation, the High Cross was taken down and was used as Downpatrick's market cross.
It was damaged in a busy town centre location before being dismantled and its parts were dispersed around the town.
In the 1890s the parts were gathered together by Francis Joseph Bigger and reconstructed outside Down Cathedral, with the help of subscriptions from donors.
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency has given consent for the cross to be moved and has funded its removal to the museum and its conservation, as well as the replica cross being unveiled today.
The Church of Ireland has given its permission for the long-term loan and key funders are Down District Council, the East Border Region and the European Union's INTERREG IVA Cross Border Programme managed by the Special EU Programmes Body.background
The High Cross will be cleaned, drawn and photographed by a team of experts at Down County Museum. New photographs and scans of the cross done in preparation for the move show details of the carvings which have not been apparent in recent years, leading to revised interpretations of the biblical scenes from the Old and New Testaments depicted on its front and rear faces. It's thought that some of the carvings may depict a meeting between St Paul and St Anthony, emphasising the importance of the first hermits to the monastic community that was founded in the spot where St Patrick laid the foundations of Irish Christianity.