Look up and left: an example – from Vermilyea Road, just north of Belleville, Ont., where I work – of the mysterious diamond crosses carved into some barns in our area. Why, people, why?
You know, I love solving mysteries, or at least seeing mysteries solved. As a rule the most mysterious mysteries in my day-to-day life are where I might have left my reading glasses, or my phone, or my keys – not super-exciting stuff, but one does get a nice surge of satisfaction when the mystery is solved and the missing object located. (My reading glasses, by the way, are quite frequently discovered perched atop my head.)
The most recent mystery I shared here at Meanwhile, at the Manse was one brought to my attention by reader Greg Polan. As you may recall, the mystery in question – which you can read all about here – is the phenomenon of diamond-cross cutouts on the upper levels of quite a few barns in Hastings County and some other parts of Ontario (as well as some places in the United States). As Greg put it, these barn crosses are “enigmatic in terms of original purpose and meaning.” People, enigma = mystery!
As was explained (more or less) in that earlier post, cutouts on barn walls are not uncommon, and probably have something to do with a combination of letting birds (owls, swallows) in or out of the barn, and providing ventilation and light inside the barn. But the diamond crosses that Greg drew to my attention are unusual, in that the pattern is a complex one to make, and has no apparent practical advantage over a plain old four-sided square or diamond. Whoever built the barns that have these unusual features went to a lot of trouble over them. Why?
Well, that’s the mystery.
I was pleased that when I uploaded that post and then shared it on Facebook, several readers indicated that they are now intrigued by the mystery too, and have already started looking closer at barns they pass in their travels to see if they bear the mysterious diamond crosses. Personally, I always look for them now, having been alerted to their existence by Greg, and I’ve spotted several.
The comments that came in (some from people having consulted their parents or other elders) also contained some suggestions about the purpose of the diamond-cross cutouts: ventilation, again (though why so decorative?); a tradition carried over from early Dutch builders in the U.S.; a symbol of Freemasonry or other such organizations; a church symbol of some sort; a Celtic cross; a Mennonite connection; a symbol to ward off witches – or the taxman! All god suggestions, in my view.
But something that two different readers dug up really intrigued me, and I think it might hold a clue to the mystery. Because many readers don’t see all the comments on my posts (whether here or on Facebook – the link showed up in both places), I thought I would share it here. It’s definitely food for thought.
The clue comes in an article published online in 2013 and (according to the online posting), written in 2008 as part of college project on research writing. The author is M. Custer, and I’m afraid I don’t know any more about M. Custer (including his or her first name, or geographical location) than that.
The full article is here, and I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the whole thing; it’s fascinating! (Though the type is awfully small. Where are my reading glasses?)
But here’s the main gist of M. Custer’s piece: it’s possible that the crosses are a symbol intended to invoke protection against fire, whether caused by lightning strike or something else. The writer cites a couple of saints who are supposed to be able to intervene against the threat of fire, and who also happen to have interesting-looking crosses connected with them.
One of these is St. Florian, whose cross resembles a Maltese cross and is used as a symbol by fire departments pretty much everywhere; it looks like this:
And here’s what it looks like when worked into a fire-department logo:
The other saint that M. Custer dug up is St. Brigid of Kildare, one of Ireland’s patron saints, who is sometimes thought to protect against fire. Her cross is quite an unusual one and, with a bit of imagination, one might be able to see it as a model for our Ontario barn crosses. Here are a couple of variations:
But after all this business about saints who are supposed to offer protection from fire, Custer also sensibly notes that Lutherans (associated with these barn cutouts in the U.S.) and many other Protestants do not adhere to a belief in protection by saints – so maybe this theory too flies out the window.
However: to quote M. Custer once again (and as someone who grew up in a rural area, I absolutely know this to be true): “Barns were the largest building and investment on a farmstead. It was considered normal and sensible to pay more for the barn than the farmhouse since a barn protected a farm family’s grain, tools, livestock, machinery, food and means for survival through winter.”
Back when these old barns were built, and in fact still today, a barn fire can be, and often is, a disaster, the destruction taking a farm family’s livestock and machinery and thus posing a very serious and immediate threat to the family’s livelihood.
Custer goes on: “Because barns represented success and survival, a cross-shaped [cutout] may have been a traditional symbol of protection and good luck.” And, I might add, if this diamond cross was seen as a good-luck symbol to ward off fires, I suspect the owners of the barn, Lutheran or whatever form of Protestant though they might have been, wouldn’t have cared a whit that the symbol had its origins in traditions surrounding Roman Catholic saints. Hey, if it protects your barn and thus your family from a disastrous fire – or even if it might protect them – who’s to question it? Whatever it takes…
Can you imagine a barn-builder carving that diamond cross as superstitious protection against fire? I believe I can.
Anyway, I think it’s an intriguing, and credible, theory, and I thank M. Custer for the research and for sharing the article, and my readers for finding it.
And now I shall sit back and await more clues and theories. Please feel free to share them, and let’s try to solve this mystery!