Mary May Hoffman died at the age of nine in 1884. Her parents erected to her memory a monument (figure 1) with an astounding conceit, a cross with nimb executed as though in knotted cable. I’ve rendered it in grayscale in figure 1 to give due emphasis to the style and texture; I’ve put the color image at the end (figure 10).
The cross is a Celtic one (see figure 2), of course, and the interlacing pattern peculiar to such crosses has been rendered here in the form of a cable or rope, making of the interlacings notional knots. The transposition of the Irish style into a knautical one is an act of genius.
The Monumental News of 1897 ran a brief article on the Celtic interlace pattern on pages 228-229. It’s worth reproducing the valuable illustrations from that article here, and unfortunately, the only credit given in the journal is to “The Architect and Contract Reporter.” The figures (figures 3-6) illustrate the process by which a simple weave is artfully altered, one bit at a time, to create the unending ribbon pattern that appears on the Tuam Cross.
Start designing the pattern with a simple drawn basketweave mesh (figure 3).
Close the ends, erasing as necessary (figure 4).
Carry the erasing and subsequent closing of loops through the interior of the weave (figure 5).
The finished product (figure 6). As a “Mr. Trench” cited by the author of the Monumental News article states, “anyone can join the ends, anyone can obliterate crossings, but the excellence of the pattern consists in the skill with which these processes are carried out, and herein lies the art.”
The interlacing on the Hoffman cross defies realism in that the rope must be imagined to be of zero thickness where it passes underneath; of course, because the style starts from the assumption that it is a thin ribbon that is interlacing.
On the other hand, the artist has played with textures in this soft limestone to generate great visual interest and excitement. Not only do we see the three-dimensional quality of the rope, we also see the spiraled bundles of fibres out of which the rope has been twisted, and beyond that the individual fibres that were twisted into those!
The artist has carried through the illusion of a rope cross and nimb to the extent that the ropes are imagined to be held in place at intervals by clamps (figures 7, 8).
The monument falls broadly into the rustic style, as witness the rough-hewn surfaces of the base and under the alpha and omega. The tactile roughness of the rope is a good stylistic match for the rough rock. The smoothness of the inscription plaque, alpha and omega, the clamps, and the bevels where the width of the monument is reduced offer pleasing contrast. I particularly like the way the rope magically emerges from the bevel below.
The Celtic Cross underwent a revival in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and they have been common features of cemeteries ever since. The font in the inscription with its uncial-inspired E and H also breathes in the air of revival. The interpuncts that separate the words (or numbers) are wonderful, and they make the otherwise awkward word split KING/DOM thinkable.
My hat is off to the quite well educated and skilled designer and cutter of this monument (and I’m sorry for Mary May). The color image of the monument follows (figure 10).