By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Taking its roots in the time before Christ, the Celtic cross was a tool for early sailors to explore water ways between Ireland and other parts of Europe. The stone structures stood about six feet into the air and were detailed with symbols for geographical landmarks.
With each passing voyage came another map - or design.
Clans from the various settlements within medieval Ireland and Scotland started to associate themselves with particular maps.
That was then.
Now - the nowhere near defunct Celtic cross comprises its fair share of American art and fashion. Recognized by its minute swirls and intricate edge work, the Celtic cross can be spotted at jewelry stores, tattoo parlors and art galleries.
Perry Monroe, owner of the Ceramic Tree Gallery and Studio in Belton, said people will see the Celtic crosses hanging on his wall, come in and ask if they're on sale.
'And those are people who were just driving. They weren't out shopping for art,' Monroe said. 'It's something about the Celtic cross that attracts us, mesmerizes us.'
The self-employed artist's best guess about that 'something' is the unique identity of each Celtic cross.
'Everybody knows a Celtic cross when they see it,' Monroe said. 'But when you study the design, you'll be hard pressed to find two that are exactly identical.'
Chris McLaughin said uniqueness is why he got his Celtic cross tattoo.
'The little cross on the right shoulder is so over done. Nobody wants that,' McLaughin said. 'But with a Celtic cross, you get something different, something that is you and just you.'
The 31-year-old Austin man sports a baseball-sized Celtic cross tattoo on the inside of his right bicep. A four-leaf clover lies in the cross's background as a tribute to his deceased Irish aunt.
Back at the Ceramic Tree, Monroe, said he alone can make at least 6,000 variations within the Celtic cross art design. He's a professional artist with an art degree from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
'I've got 22 molds and 150 different paint glazes,' Monroe said. 'When you mix and match them up and then see what heating it up does, you have more designs than you know what to do with.'
The glaze changes color once it goes through the kiln, an oven-like machine that hardens ceramics - items molded from wet clay.
'Red can end up blue, and yellow can turn into a bright magenta,' Monroe said, explaining that the intensity of the kiln's heat determines the end product. 'Which is why working with colors in ceramics always ends up a surprise.'
Of his 22 Celtic cross molds, Monroe said he created some of them himself. But the three that sell the most are tattoo designs.
'I'm not sure why the tattoo designs are 'the coolest,'' Monroe said. 'But I would suspect it's because of the brighter colors and more intricate line work.'
Travis Bedwell, an apprentice tattoo designer from a Belton tattoo parlor, agreed that bright colors are popular when it comes to tattoos.
'But when it comes to the Celtic cross, people say the want all kinds of them,' Bedwell said. 'There's really no rhyme or reason to it. They want it because it's cool.'
The tattoo artist said Celtic imagery has been in demand since the early 1990s when 'the demand for tribal art went way up.'
There's not a week that goes by when someone doesn't ask for a Celtic cross tattoo, Bedwell said.
The Celtic cross is popular also because of its symbolism and imagery, Monroe said.
'The lines in a true Celtic cross have no end. They circle back on to each other without stopping, Monroe said, remembering a definition learned in art class during his college days. 'It is eternity.'
The Web site for the National Museum of Ireland confirms Monroe's assessment. It describes Celtic art as a carrier for continuous beauty.
'It is ornamental, avoiding straight lines and only occasionally using symmetry,' said Lee Boltin, editor of the article on Celtic art. 'As far as we can understand, it often involves complex symbolism. Each piece of knot-work, each line and each loop align to create a sense of going on forever.'
The article continues to explain that some Celtic crosses incorporate Christian symbolism in their designs.
Images of the nails that pierced Christ's hands, His crown of thorns, His heart of love, the four gospels and the ichthys fish symbol are visible in several of the more modern designs, ones created in and after 1100 A.D.
To Monroe, the crown represents loyalty, and there are a pair of hands that symbolize friendship.
But to someone else, the loopy images can mean something else.
To Sandra Rychlik of Moffat, the heart on the Celtic cross that hangs on her necklace represents a dream that died two years ago with her husband.
'Women will wear the heart-sides to their chest if they're engaged or married to show that they're taken,' said Ms. Rychlik, a collector of antique jewels. 'But for me, I hold the heart to my chest to keep it close to me - like I'm holding my husband's heart to mine, not wanting any of his love to escape.'
She said the Celtic cross is one of her favorite designs.
'They're simple, yet full of passion,' Ms. Rychlik said.
Lorin McGee, saleswoman at a Temple jewelry store, said Celtic cross jewelry is popular but rarely comes in bulk stock.
'Everybody always wants them,' Ms. McGee said. 'But we usually end up having to order them individually to accommodate specific design requests.'
From navigational tool to Irish clan marker to tattoo and necklace, the Celtic cross knows no limit.