History in Structure

Replica of St John's Cross, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona

A Category A Listed Building in Oban South and the Isles, Argyll and Bute

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Latitude: 56.335 / 56°20'6"N

Longitude: -6.392 / 6°23'31"W

OS Eastings: 128650

OS Northings: 724515

OS Grid: NM286245

Mapcode National: GBR BCLZ.C0C

Mapcode Global: WGYD7.S1DB

Plus Code: 9C8M8JP5+26

Entry Name: Replica of St John's Cross, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona

Listing Name: Mac-samhail Crois Naoimh Eòin, Abaid Ì, Eilean Ì / Replica of St John’s Cross, Iona Abbey, Isle of Iona

Listing Date: 10 March 2020

Category: A

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 407304

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB52541

Building Class: Cultural

ID on this website: 200407304

Location: Kilfinichen and Kilvickeon

County: Argyll and Bute

Electoral Ward: Oban South and the Isles

Parish: Kilfinichen And Kilvickeon

Traditional County: Argyllshire

Tagged with: Architectural structure


Erected in 1970, St John's Cross replica is a reinforced concrete copy of an iconic early medieval freestanding cross dating to around AD800. The ringed cross is decorated with intricate ornament of largely non-figural nature that includes prominent bosses, snake-and-boss ornaments, interlace, diagonal fret, key pattern, spirals, zoomorphic designs, possible Virgin-and-Child motifs, and what is interpreted as Jacob wrestling with the angel.

The replica has been erected in a concrete foundation around which the surviving stones from the base of the original mid-8th century cross have been reinstated. The cross stands immediately in front of the west gable of the small reconstructed shrine-chapel known as St Columba's Shrine.

Historical development

This concrete replica of St John's Cross was erected in 1970, to replace the original cross. It is believed that the original cross was originally ringless but the ring quadrants were introduced early, probably after the cross fell, to support the cross arms. Given its location and inherent structural weaknesses in its tenon joints, the St John's Cross collapsed at least four times in its life, with several attempted reconstructions in situ (1927 and 1954) before it fell for the last time in 1957. This cycle of collapse and repairs damaged the components of the original cross and in 1957 it was no longer possible to re-erect it outside.

The Iona Cathedral Trustees, who owned Iona Abbey, and the Ancient Monument Board for Scotland committed to a more permanent solution and commissioned, what they described as an authentic replica. The design brief was for the replica cross to accurately resemble the original in colour, texture and detail and be durable enough to withstand the extreme weather of this Hebridean island. The latter requirement ruled out the option of creating a replica matching the original material of the cross.

From 1968, George Mancini (an artistic bronze founder) worked with Norman Robertson (researcher at the Ministry of Works), to create a plaster model of the cross, based on plaster casts of the original pieces. The model omitted the prominent boss on the east face of the original cross, then only recently discovered.

In 1970, Exposagg Limited cast, transported and erected the replica. John R. Scott (consulting engineer) designed how the replica could be created in concrete, reinforced with 5mm nickel steel bars, to resist strong winds and the corrosive effect of the maritime environment. John Lawrie (Edinburgh College of Art) undertook the casting of Mancini's model in large gelatine moulds, to recreate the finish and texture of the original. Colour samples were taken from where the original stone cross had been quarried and matched with a natural green Dolorite aggregate that was used for the coarse and fine aggregrates. Black iron oxide pigment gave an ageing effect.

The cross was made in five parts and assembled into three (head, shaft and base) for transportation. It was post-tensioned vertically by high-tensile wires and the junction between the head and the shaft was pre-stressed to avoid failure in the joint, which had been a recurring failure in the original cross. The two faces of the cross were joined by bars with epoxy resin mortar at the edges. The surviving above-ground elements of the 8th-century base were then reinstated around the cross

1970 excavations by Stewart Cruden (Inspector of Ancient Monuments) in advance of the erection of the replica had led to the discovery that the unusual composite base was contemporary with the high cross. The excavation revealed two massive, integral socket stones, which were removed to the grounds of the Nunnery when the replica was erected, so that it could sit in its concrete foundations.

The surviving parts of the original cross were re-erected in 1990 in the museum within the reconstructed infirmary of Iona Abbey. The cross is the focal point of the exhibition.

Statement of Interest

The Mac-samhail Crois Naoimh Eòin / replica of St John's Cross meets the criteria of special architectural or historic interest for the following reasons:

Architectural interest


This replica cross has significant design interest because it accurately resembles (as was known at the time) the exceptional quality of the original cross.

The 8th-century St John's Cross is argued to be the world's first ringed high cross. Immediately influential on Iona, its form spread quickly throughout the early medieval Irish world in the 9th and 10th centuries, and beyond. The design, form and execution of the cross was influenced by ideas and craftspeople from Northumbria, Pictland, and the wider Irish Gaelic world to which early medieval Iona belonged. It has very fine sculpted carvings that are predominantly abstract or zoomorphic, including intricate and interlaced geometric designs such as diagonal fret, key pattern and spirals. The shaft features a deeply carved snake-and-boss design found elsewhere in early historic insular art and is likely to be symbolic of healing, rebirth and the Resurrection. Snakes shown attacking lizard-like creatures on the lower part of the shaft probably represent Christ triumphing over the Devil.

The intricacy of these very finely sculpted carvings, much of which was undercut, as well as the finish and texture has been accurately and carefully recreated in the replica. The parts of the original cross that no longer survive were filled in the replica by duplicating the casts and informed speculation of the largely symmetrical design. The replica does not include a central boss on its east face, which was identified as part of the design in a 1982 publication. The lack of this boss in the design of the concrete replica does not adversely affect its special interest.

The replica has been carefully engineered, using prestressed post-tensioned concrete, to withstand winds of 120 mph. This challenging and ground-breaking work included using gelatine to create moulds on an exceedingly ambitious scale. The technological achievement of this replica has been recognised by the awards this replica has won, including the Concrete Society Award (Mature Structures Category) in 2000/2001.


This replica cross has been erected in the composite box-like base of the original cross. It sits immediately in front of the west gable of St Columba's shrine-chapel. The shrine was and remains the most important building on Iona because it was built over Columba's burial. As in the past, the physical setting of the replica continues to affect how people encounter and experience it, generating diverse social, communal, sacred and spiritual values.

The positioning of Iona's high crosses within the symbolic and physical setting of the abbey is critical to understanding their significance. A feature of contemporary special interest is that the St John's Cross replica casts a shadow on the shrine in the late afternoon and evening as the original cross was designed to do. The interplay with natural phenomena such as sunlight and the casting of shadows onto other structures or locations is understood to be a deliberate design feature of these high crosses. The shadow positions of the crosses would have figured prominently in the daily lives of the monks, as a constant reminder of the canonical hours of worship.

Iona has the largest and most important collection of sacred sculpture of any early British monastery, long recognised as among the most significant collections of early medieval art in Europe. The St John's Cross is part of a group of historic high crosses on Iona, along with St Martin's Cross and St Oran's Cross. St John's Cross is the most ambitious and has become a symbol of Iona.

Historic interest

Age and rarity

The St John's Cross replica is unique as the only full-scale and accurate (as was known at the time) replica in the primary location of the original high cross.

Iona abbey and its surrounding monastic settlement has a complex history. Founded by St Columba in AD 563, it is one of the most significant early Christian monastic sites in Britain and Ireland. From 1203 the Benedictine order established a new monastery on the site. An Augustinian nunnery was founded soon after. The abbey was rebuilt in the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. This reconstruction includes Columba's shrine-chapel, the most important building on Iona, which was probably constructed in the mid-700s and likely to be the earliest surviving fragment of a stone church in Scotland. During the mid-1400s it was incorporated into the fabric of the cloister; the chapel was rebuilt to the present pattern in 1954/5. The archaeological interest of the monastic settlement is recognised by its designation as a scheduled monument (SM12968) and the abbey buildings are listed at category A (LB12310).

The replica of St John's Cross is an integral part of the long history of the abbey and the restoration of its buildings.

Social historical interest

The replica of St John's Cross has great social historical interest because of its contribution to Iona and its abbey. The historical value of Iona Abbey is its connection to Columba and in its role as a key religious and cultural power centre in the British Isles. Since Columba's time, Iona has been a significant place of pilgrimage and burial, including of some early kings. Even after the post-Reformation abandonment and gradual ruination of the Abbey, it retained a strong religious and emotional pull and pilgrimage is an important continuing tradition in the life of the island.

St John's Cross is one of at least four monumental high crosses that were part of the landscape that directed pilgrims to the shrine of St Columba. As the last cross encountered before the shrine, the replica cross is a critical part of this pilgrimage and a special place for prayer. It continues to have sacred and spiritual value for many people.

The replica has further social interest because it is a product of the circumstances that led to its creation. When the original cross fell for the last time in 1957, this seriously concerned repeat visitors to Iona and some of Scotland's leading scholars, museum and heritage professionals. They variously felt the loss from a social and religious as well as cultural perspective. Ultimately the replica project happened because of the efforts of the Iona Cathedral Trust, with the support of others working with the Iona Community to reconstruct the abbey, who also worked to support the Iona Cathedral Trust.

Association with people or events of national importance

Iona and its abbey are internationally renowned because of St Columba and his founding of a monastery there in AD 563. This became one of the most important centres of religious worship and mission, scholarship and artistry in early medieval Europe and played a crucial role in the conversion to Christianity of the peoples of Scotland and northern England. The St John's Cross replica is a crucial part of the history of Iona, its abbey and its pilgrimage particularly the 20th-century recreation and reinvention of Iona Abbey as the home of the influential Iona Community.

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