Representations of the Virgin Mary on Irish High Crosses: Icons, Narratives and Symbols of Power
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Representations of the Virgin Mary on the Irish high crosses form two distinct categories: iconic Virgin and Child panels, and narrative Infancy of Christ scenes. This study begins with an iconographic analysis of the extant Marian scenes, providing new identifications for previously unidentified panels, and determining the relationship between the Iona-group and the Irish icons. This study synthesizes the visual and historical evidence to determine the motivations behind the typological shift that occurs from iconic to narrative Marian scenes, and to determine whether the presence or absence of the Virgin symbol is representative of the political and ideological beliefs of a particular monastic paruchia. This methodological framework allows for the development of Marian symbolism in Ireland to be linked with similar developments in continental Marian imagery, particularly in Rome, where the symbol was rife with political subtext and was used as a direct response to Byzantine iconoclasm. While the papacy responded to the first phase of iconoclasm with the iconic Maria Regina-type, during the period of Second Iconoclasm, the Virgin was placed into narrative Infancy panels; this typological shift mirrors the shift that occurred in Ireland. In addition to political and ideological influences from the continent, the effects of contemporary political developments within Ireland are analysed. The appearance of narrative Infancy scenes on crosses associated with the paruchia of Patrick, and the absence of the symbol on crosses associated with the paruchia of Columba, suggests that the typological shift may have been caused by a political shift, as the favourable position enjoyed by the Columbans began to decline in the early decades of the ninth century, and the Patricians reasserted their bid for primacy. Rather than a strictly theological message, the Patrician takeover of the Marian symbol suggests that images of the Virgin Mary on the high crosses were representative of political power and authority.