In 1970 a concrete replica of the St John’s Cross arrived in Iona sitting incongruously on the deck of a puffer delivering the island’s annual supply of coal. What is the story behind this intriguing replica? How does it relate to the world’s first ringed ‘Celtic cross’, an artistic and technical masterpiece, which has been at the heart of the Iona experience since the eighth century? What does it tell us about the authenticity and value of replicas? This is what I have been researching with my University of Stirling colleague, Professor Siân Jones.

Full replica of St John’s Cross, Iona.

Replicas of historic objects are widely used in heritage sites and at museums, often in response to challenges, including damage, destruction and restitution. However, they are usually considered insignificant in their own right. Iona’s extensively-copied, iconic St John’s Cross made an excellent case study. In 2017 and 2018 we undertook ethnographic fieldwork, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Historic Environment Scotland. You can read all about the results and implications of that research in free-to-download articles in International Journal of Heritage Studies and Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites. We are now putting the final touches to a highly visual book – My Life as a Replica: St John’s Cross, Iona (order your copies, with pre-publication discount here! Supported by further grants from Historic Environment Scotland, Iona Cathedral Trustees and the Strathmartine Trust, this interdisciplinary study is to be published by Wingather in Spring 2020. It is one of the first qualitative studies of historic replicas at heritage sites, and the first in-depth cultural biography to give primacy to the life of a replica.

Our research shows how replicas can acquire authenticity. It unravels the part that social relations, craft practices, creativity, place and materiality play in the production and negotiation of their authenticity. Yet, underlying stories of human creativity, skill and craftsmanship are rendered invisible when replicas are treated as mere surrogates for a missing ‘original’. Challenging the traditional precepts that seek authenticity in qualities intrinsic to original historic objects, we will show how replicas are important objects in their own right; they acquire value, authenticity and aura. The life of a replica generates networks of relationships between people, places and things, including the original historic object, and authenticity is founded on what these relationships embody. Authenticity is also founded on the dynamic material qualities of the objects. The cultural biographies of replicas, and the ‘felt’ relationships associated with them, play a key role in the generation and negotiation of authenticity while, at the same time, informing the authenticity and value of their historic counterparts through the ‘composite biographies’ that are produced. We argue that replicas can ‘work’ for us if we let them, particularly if clues are available about their makers’ passion, creativity and craft. They have their own creative, human histories, biographies that people can connect with.

The book – which we hope you will read! – will also tell important new stories about the much-loved, world-renowned island of Iona, and its internationally significant carved stones. In 1970 a concrete replica was erected in situ to replace the original St John’s Cross. This had fallen for at least the fourth time in its life in 1957. We expose and explore, for the first time, the in-depth life of this replica, in relation to the life of the original and lives of its many other copies.  The St John’s Cross is a composite monument thought to be the progenitor of the ringed ‘Celtic’ cross. Erected in the mid-eighth century AD, it stands like a sentinel outside the entrance to an intimate stone building enclosing St Columba’s place of burial. The cross and shrine-chapel were probably erected as part of a highly innovative programme of architectural and artistic works to enhance the religious experience of pilgrims to St Columba’s grave. With St Columba the best known of the early medieval saints who introduced Christianity to Scotland, St John’s Cross has always been at the heart of the Iona experience, of pilgrimage to and around Scotland, indeed around western Europe. The St John’s Cross is arguably best known through its copies, not least the 1970 replica. But, the story of the concrete replica is scarcely known and largely untold. Turning half a century in age in June 2020, it is therefore timely to investigate the authenticity, value and significance of this historic replica, and to consider the wider implications of our findings for little understood historic replicas at heritage places.

Our book has three sections. In Crafting lives, we will seek to convey a sense of how and why we have written such a book, one in which we think it is important that a replica ‘speaks’. Chapter 1 discusses how lives of objects can be constructed. We justify our approach, methodologies and choice of subject in terms of the latest thinking on replicas in heritage and museum contexts. Chapter 2 reveals the ways in which Iona is a particularly complex and special place, in material and social terms. Famously described as a ’thin’ place, we show that it is ‘thick’ from an ethnographic and temporal perspective. Chapter 3 offers a temporal perspective on the values of Iona’s multiple communities, illustrating the agency and symbolism of the island’s carved stones in this regard.

Creating and cultivating the cross will explore the 1200-year-plus cultural biography of the St John’s Cross, drawing on extensive primary research, including previously unpublished antiquarian sources. Chapter 4 covers the life of the cross from its creation to 1957, when the cross fell for the last time. Chapter 5 is about the long gestation of the concrete replica and how it came to be born, while Chapter 6 spans the period from the 1980s to 2016. Chapter 7 presents the findings of our ethnographic research, with an emphasis on what they tell us about contemporary authenticity and value.

Celebration in concrete, celebration of concrete invites new thinking about replicas. Having examined the role of the St John’s Cross replica in the production and negotiation of authenticity and value, we will explore the implications for those who look after historic replicas, or who continue to create them.

While you wait for the book to appear, you might like to look at Murdo MacKenzie’s 1970 homemade cinefilm about the arrival and erection of the replica on Iona, and the snapshot it offers of Iona life at that time.

Dr Sally Foster, Senior Lecturer in Heritage and Conservation, University of Stirling.


One thought on “Letting the St John’s Cross Speak

  1. Whereas Sally Foster is probably correct in alluding to the role of pilgrimage in relation to the motivation of the creation of the Cross & Shrine Chapel complex, it is important to qualify this. There is little evidence of popular pilgrimage to Iona Abbey or to other early Christian shrines in early medieval Scotland, although that is not to say that it didn’t exist. I would suggest instead that the primary driver was the construction of what Thomas O’ Loughlin and Tomas O’ Carragain have described as Iona’s analogous ritual landscape of the Holy Places, which successive abbots and monks sought to create at their Hebridean monastery – they couldn’t go to Palestine themselves but they they could build their own version, using this as a means to achieve complex exegetical and theological exploration. These scholars have developed the persuasive interpretation of key elements of the (still surviving) historic landscape of the site, in which the saint’s tomb can be equated with the Holy Sepulchre, and St John’s cross representing Christ’s Cross/Constantine’s crux gemmata . In this case, Adomanan’s De locis sanctis in reality served as a guide enabling his monks to make mystical connections with the places of the Passion, across centuries and great distance, while walking through the landmarks of their own creation. And this gives us a framework for connecting with early medieval Iona when we visit today.

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