Scotland’s western Isle of Mull is home to the little island of Iona. From the beginning, it has been known as Holy Isle. Isle of the Druids was an early Gaelic name for the place. A monastic community was established there by St. Columba (Columkille) in the sixth century. Later, a medieval Benedictine abbey was built there; in the 1930s, Sir George MacLeod renovated it for the newly established Iona Community, a place of prayer, reflection, and reconciliation.
We have a lot of knowledge regarding St. Columba’s life. In 563, he traveled to Iona. The town would have been constructed in the Celtic style, with the monks living in separate cells and gathering for communal meals and prayer. The monks left Iona for mainland Scotland where they spread the gospel and established other institutions.
In 575 AD, Columba returned to Ireland and spoke out for the country’s poets in the Drumcaet Council. He continued on from there, stopping at several of his former locations, and established the Drumcliffe monastic community. Returning to Iona, his new home, he passed away there in 597.
Iona kept expanding and prospering, and in the seventh century it was home to the biggest library in all of Europe with 300 crosses, according to legend. The library was completely destroyed during the Viking raids, and only three crosses remain, the most well-known of which is the cross honoring St. Martin of Tours. Most likely, this cross was carved toward the end of the eighth century.
In the final decades of the fourth century, Martin lived in France. He served in the Roman Imperial Army as a soldier. He converted to Christianity but stayed in the army to serve out his assigned term. El Greco depicted a narrative from this time in his life in a well-known painting about sharing his cloak with a beggar. He had heard about St. Antony of Egypt, who had abandoned city life to live as a recluse in the desert, at some point in his life. Martin found this appealing, so after leaving the army, he established a hermitage in France close to Poitiers.
He collected a group of other men to surround him. Although each hermit or monk had his or her own cell, they all gathered for common meals and prayers and were obligated to submit to the settlement’s leader. Martin relocated his fellow hermits to a community less than a mile from Tours when he was appointed Bishop of Tours and continued to live among them as a monk. How a cross on Iona in Scotland, an island that had such strong and ongoing ties to the Columban monasteries in Ireland, is dedicated to this French saint is a source for speculation.
St. Ninian of Scotland is thought to have visited Tours, as evidenced by the fact that several churches in Scotland and England bear his name. The Book of Armagh, one of the major Irish manuscripts currently housed at Trinity College, Dublin, also contains a reproduction of St. Martin’s life as written by Sulpican Severus. There is no doubt that the early Irish monks were also familiar with St. Antony and St. Paul, the desert fathers, who are depicted on several of the Irish High crosses with the narrative of the raven that fed them in the desert as an analogy for the Eucharist. The history of St. Martin and his monastic community may therefore be easily understood as having appealed to them as a man to be loved and revered.
- Double-sided replica cross.
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