Carran and Constantine

Clare Association Year Book, 2007

By John Rattigan

Located in a quiet corner of the Riches of Clare exhibition is what is thought to be a medieval stone processional cross base from the Burren. This unremarkable looking artefact deserves closer examination, as it is a surprising link between Carran and a mighty Roman Emperor who could never count any part of the island as part of his realm.

Hewn from local stone, the processional cross base is displayed at a sideways angle, with the lower half inset into the base of a plinth showcase.

Despite this partial obscurity, it is still possible to see how a stone mason cut the stone roughly, but left a smooth flat surface on top with a hole cut in the centre for the insertion of a wooden cross. Along the edge of the cross base is a deeply carved Latin inscription which reads “IN HOG SIGNO VINCES”.

Processional crosses are well known in the Christian Church and most Roman Catholic parishes will have its own cross, behind which, as a sort of standard, the parishioners would be marshalled during a religious procession.

These days processional crosses may be carried by a priest or alter server, but how this particular stone processional cross holder was transported in medieval times is open to conjecture. It has been speculated that it was conveyed on a type of trolley. Perhaps it was carried in some fashion?

Found in 1979 by Bill McInerney in his garden in Carran, the find place of this artefact is close to the interesting early-Christian church of Tempall Cronan, to which it may be linked.

Tempall Cronan, or St. Cronan’s Church, is a protected National Monument. It is a small building located in the townland of Termon, a placename which signifies that it was once considered to be ecclesiatical property. The ruined building measures about 7 metres ? 4 metres, and was too small to have been a parish church, and most probably served as an oratory.

The church is well known for its stone-carved Romanesque heads on its walls, which have been well described by scholars such as Dr. Peter Harbison in the past. These Romanesque features give the oratory a 12th century date, though a lintelled doorway in the west gable is of a style that suggests the building may be older.

But what is the link with the Roman Empire? The Latin inscription on the cross base translates as “in this sign, you shall conquer”. This inscription is significant as it identifies the cross base as a religious artefact, and indeed reminds us of one of the most important historical figures in the early Christian church, responsible for promoting Christianity.

The origin of this inscription can be traced back to 312 AD, when a battle took place between the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and Maxentius, at Milvian Bridge near Rome.

At that time the Roman Empire was ruled by two emperors: one controlled the western part of the empire and was based in Rome, while the other ruled the east from the city of Byzantium.

The underlying cause of the battle was a five year-long dispute between Constantine and Maxentius over control of the Western half of the Roman Empire, to which both had claims. A conference in 308 AD organised to settle the dispute led to Maxentius being named as senior emperor, while Constantine, allowed to maintain rule of the provinces of Britain and Gaul, became a junior emperor.

Maxentius was not happy with his arrangement and continued provoking his rival, and by 312 AD, conflict had broken out between the two men. Constantine overran northern Italy, and was nearing Rome when Maxentius chose to make his stand at Milvian Bridge. At just 10 miles from Rome, the bridge was a strategically important crossing of the River Tiber.

By the time Constantine arrived at the bridge on the eve of the battle, he realised his army was outnumbered 4 to 1.

As both sides prepared for the decisive battle the following day, Constantine reputedly had a vision as he looked toward the setting sun.

The Greek letters “Chi-Ro” (Christ) intertwined with a cross appeared on the sun, along with the inscription “by this sign, you shall conquer”. Although Constantine was a pagan, he put the Chi-Ro symbol on his soldier’s shields and the next day his army won a decisive victory.

Upon entering Rome, Constantine credited his victory at Milvian Bridge to the God of the Christians, and ordered the end of any religious persecution within the realm.

With the emperor as patron, Christianity, which was already quite common in the empire, exploded in popularity and led in time to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Constantine returned to Byzantium, where he changed the name of the city to Constantinople in his honour. Now located in European Turkey, the city is today known as Istanbul.

Thus the link between Carran and Constantine.

Processional Cross Holder

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