Arts: Early and Medieval Arts and Architecture

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Early and Medieval Arts and Architecture

The century that saw Saint Patrick's mission in Ireland is as dark from the artistic point of view as it is from the contemporary native documentation. Yet the fifth century acts as an interesting transition from the age of prehistory to the achievements of early medieval Irish artists and craftsmen. Ireland cannot have been as isolated from the dying Roman Empire as many think, and the knowledge of writing that it received from the neighboring island of Britain led not only to the use of the Ogham script on standing stones (some carved with Christian symbols), but also to a first "lost generation" of manuscripts that would have accompanied the flowering of Christianity in the country.

Iron Age Ireland had a vigorous metal industry that produced objects with La Tène decoration, and what survived of it in the fifth century got new impetus from late Roman Britain, as can be seen by the adoption of new clothing fashions that required the use of a bronze penannular brooch with pin to keep cloaks fastened. Over time, this brooch-type was to be adapted to Irish tastes, with the closure of the opening for the ring making the brooch more ornamental than functional and leading to heights of perfection such as the Tara Brooch, which, like so many of the metal objects mentioned below, is preserved in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. It is still unclear how far the enamel techniques used in decorating earlier brooches in the series were descended from prehistoric Irish workshop practice, or were influenced by a British metal industry at the time, or a combination of both. For all we know, decorative wood—and leather—work, too ephemeral to have survived, may have been carried on traditionally from the prehistoric period, using motifs and patterns that were to be given new life by Christian craftsmen.

A number of early manuscripts associated with Saint Columba and his monastic foundations show the influence of metalwork. The shape of a cross in one of the initial letters of the Cathach (c. 600) suggests Mediterranean metal prototypes, and the decoration on the figure of the Evangelist Matthew in the Book of Durrowreflects designs that must have come from metal-enamellers.

The three major manuscripts with Columban affiliations—the Cathach in the Royal Irish Academy, and the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, each roughly a century apart—are survivors from probably a much larger corpus. The Cathach, a copy of the Psalms traditionally ascribed to the hand of Saint Columba himself, has an already identifiable Irish script and betrays a combination of Celtic spiral ornament with a fish of Mediterranean origin. By the time that the Book of Durrow came to be illuminated, interlace was added to the treasury of Italian motifs used in Irish art, and folio 192v displays animals which can be understood as adaptations of Anglo-Saxon ornament—both of which, when combined with the revitalized La Tène spiral shapes, make up the most important compendium of motifs practiced in myriad variations in early Irish manuscripts and metalwork (though there are of course others, such as fretwork).

Early Medieval Metalwork

Probably sometime around the late seventh century, a spark was ignited by some unknown and ingenious craftsman that was to lead to the creation of metal masterpieces in the following century and more, which were to find few if any equals elsewhere in Europe at the time. One of these is the Ardagh Chalice used to administer wine, which has two handles reflecting models on sumptuous late Roman silver vessels. Silver, too, was the chalice's basic material, added to which were decorations in twisted gold and bosses of enamel, while the concentric circles surrounding the rock crystal at the center of the underside of the foot present copybook examples of the three major types of art motifs mentioned above—animals, spirals, and interlace.

A more unusual, yet equally high-quality liturgical vessel came to light in 1980 at Derrynaflan, Co. Tipperary, along with another (somewhat later) chalice and a (baptismal?) ladle. This is a silver paten (plate used to carry the Eucharist) on its own stand, the paten decorated with panels bearing human and animal motifs in gold wire, and interspersed with ornate silver-grille and enamel bosses, the stand using the same materials but often differing motifs and techniques, such as diestamping.

That the Ardagh Chalice was found with four decorative brooches of varying ages raises the question as to whether the Tara Brooch was used with some liturgical garment rather than having been created for a lay client. It shares the use of enamel bosses with the chalice and packs so much ornament into both faces (which have a diameter of only 3.5 inches) that it must be adjudged the most intricate piece of eighth-century jewelry to have survived in Europe. Ecclesiastical use can, however, be ascribed with virtual certainty to a door-handle and two discs discovered at Donore, Co. Meath, which must be among the earliest surviving pieces of church furniture in Ireland. The animal-headed handle is earlier than the lion-headed examples on Charlemagne's cathedral at Aachen, and the discs are engraved with breathtakingly ingenious spiral and trumpet pattern designs which are the superb product of an artistically labyrinthine mind, every bit as complicated as that of any of the illuminators of the Book of Kells.


The Book of Kells, limned perhaps around 800 on Iona or at Kells itself, is the culmination of the art of adornment that had been evolving for more than a century in both Ireland and Britain, and a continuation of the scriptorial triumph that is the Book of Lindisfarne. Lindisfarne's ornament is controlled and orderly, while that of Kells is characterized by a wild imagination luxuriating within the bounds of an overall design, the marvelous creation of a gifted team of artists combining successfully to adorn a gospel book for the greater glory of God. They drew on various sources of inspiration, many of them unidentified, with scholars arguing inconclusively about potential influence from great manuscripts emanating from the Court of Charlemagne, of which the Book of Kells is certainly a truly worthy but more riotously and richly ornamented insular equivalent. Its joy in coloring, variety in motif, complexity of design (as in the famous Chi-Rho page introducing Christ's name for the first time in the Gospels), depth of meaning, subtlety in multiple interpretation, sheer inventiveness, and perfection of execution at a miniature scale make it into the most decorative codex to have survived from the insular monastic schools of illumination active in the first millennium. Other Irish manuscripts of the period, such as that numbered 51 in the library at Saint Gall in Switzerland, are comparable, if not equal, yet both delight in representing the human figure in stilted or stylized form, either individually or grouped in a narrative context.

Stone Carvings

The same attractive stiffness is found in the smaller pocket gospel books created for personal use in the eighth and ninth centuries, but also on stones standing free, particularly in the western half of Ireland, whose dating is contentious. These include representations of pilgrims(?) at Killadeas, Co. Fermanagh, and Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, but also Crucifixions on the County Mayo islands of Inishkea North and Duvillaun More, and a number of different carvings in County Donegal. These include the massive, pedimented slab at Fahan Mura, which finds affinities in Pictish sculpture in Scotland, and the cross at Carndonagh—both of which are seen by many as the first tentative steps in the development of the Irish High Cross in stone, because of the comparison of their interlace ornament with that of the Book of Durrow and the presence on the Fahan slab of a Greek inscription bearing a doxology approved by the Council of Toledo in 633. But their seventh/eighth-century dating is by no means secure, and, if they were precursors of the High Crosses, their style would not suggest that they had any direct influence on the development of High Crosses farther south.

Located in a county that had close relations with Scotland since the sixth century, they may, rather, represent the reaction of a local school of talented stone-carvers to experiments they had seen being made in the northern half of Britain. The unique figures on White Island in County Fermanagh are another local product, but without any obvious parallels anywhere.

High Crosses

These Donegal monuments in particular may be reflecting a growing appreciation of the monumentality of stone that begins to become apparent in the decades around 800, as manifested artistically in the rise of High Crosses in the midlands, east, and north of Ireland. Whereas stone crosses, plain or decorated, may well have been erected in Ireland in the eighth century (for which dating evidence is lacking) the first stirrings toward free-standing stone crosses in the midlands are found around 800 in the area around Clonmacnoise, where pillars and the Bealin cross are decorated with horsemen and lions that may be paying deference to the reigning Pope Leo III (795–816). The same feeling of stylization found there is also reflected in the joyfully graphic (and probably only marginally later) carvings on the cross at Moone, Co. Kildare. Standing in strong contrast with it are the "classic" High Crosses with scriptural panels at places like Clonmacnoise and Durrow, Co. Offaly, Kells, Co. Meath, and Monasterboice, Co. Louth, where the figures—unlike much of early Irish art—are shown in a naturalistic, if somewhat squat fashion, suggesting influence coming ultimately from late antique and early medieval Rome. These Irish crosses comprise the largest corpus of biblical sculpture in Europe for the last quarter of the first millennium, and the composition of their biblical scenes is frequently comparable to those of continental frescoes, both Carolingian and earlier, suggesting that the High Crosses (which were probably painted originally, though no traces of color survive) may have served the same pious, devotional function as frescoes. Late-twentieth-century readings of fragmentary inscriptions on some crosses reveal an unexpected political dimension in that the crosses were commissioned by, or with the aid of, two high kings who were members of the Clann Cholmáin branch of the southern Uí Néill dynasty—Maelsechnaill I (846–862) and his son Flann Sinna (879–916). Lack of similar patronage may have been a cause of the discontinuation of such crosses later in the tenth century. Although Viking looting of prototype metal crosses could conceivably have been a factor in the creation of these nonremovable High Crosses in the earlier ninth century, it is open to debate as to whether Viking raids could also have been responsible for the increasing simplification of design on metalwork and in the few surviving illuminated manuscripts as the century progressed, or whether both of these media were unable to keep up with the impossibly high standards of the previous century.


However, the Viking incursions may well have contributed to one important architectural development that corresponds to the idea of an increasing realization of the monumentality of stone around 800, and that is the initial stages of changing from wood to stone in the building of ecclesiastical structures to counteract Viking (and Irish!) arsonists. As with the houses of the affluent for many centuries to come, almost all churches in the first four centuries of Christianity in Ireland were built of wood. A contemporary description exists of an important and perhaps sizeable seventh-century church in Kildare, and wooden churches continued to be built up to the twelfth century. Although a few churches may have been built in stone before 800, it is only in the ninth century that references to them begin to become more common in the Irish annals. Mortar datings suggest that some of the earliest surviving church structures are oratory shrines, such as Teampull Chiaráin at Clonmacnoise or Teampull Molaise on Inishmurray, Co. Sligo, and such buildings may have come into being because earlier wooden shrines protecting the relics of the founding saint would have become too easy a prey for Viking firebrands.

The Romanesque Style

Simple Irish stone churches, and even the tenth-century cathedral at Clonmacnoise, probably copied their wooden forebears in style and scale with, typically, the side walls projecting out beyond the gables. But they atrophied in this state until the advent of the Romanesque in Ireland early in the twelfth century as an expression of church reform in Munster, best exemplified in Cormac's Chapel on the Rock of Cashel. So startling were its innovations that details were copied in other churches, but not its overall concept. It may have been preceded by more humble churches decorated in the Romanesque style, much influenced by England, which continued in the decoration of doorways and chancel arches of small nave-and-chancel churches up to the end of the twelfth century, and even into the early thirteenth century west of the Shannon. Similar ornament was also applied to Round Towers at Timahoe, Co. Laois, and Devenish, Co. Fermanagh, though the genre had been common on Irish monastic sites since the mid-tenth century. The awakening delight in carving decoration on stone churches in Romanesque style during the twelfth century was accompanied by a revival of interest in High Crosses, but now with a very different form, where biblical scenes retreat in favor of high relief figures of Christ and an ecclesiastic. Manuscripts, too, became bearers of a rich and colorful decoration of reds and blues using new variations of animal ornament with a Scandinavian flavor, which was also found to brilliant effect on some of the metalwork shrines of the period, such as that of Saint Lachtin's arm, or Saint Manchan's reliquary in Boher, Co. Offaly.

The twelfth century proved to be a pivotal one for Ireland. The new church reform that had started the century drained the life-blood of many of the old Irish monasteries that had been the fosterers of arts and crafts for many hundreds of years, bringing about the gradual decline of their culture that had managed for so long to set Irish art apart from that of the rest of Europe. Instead, Ireland lost much (though not all) of its artistic individuality and vigor, but it came into the mainstream of European architecture through the two major new arrivals during the twelfth century—the Cistercians and the Normans. The former, followed in the thirteenth century by other monastic orders such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, brought in a new architectural style for their churches that dwarfed and differed from the simple nave-and-chancel churches built by the Irish prior to 1200. These were larger churches, taller, with nave aisles and transepts, and standing on one side of a quadrangular cloister with monastic quarters attached—a total transplant from the Cistercian motherhouses in France, which were to set the tone for two centuries of Irish church building. Most of them respected Cistercian simplicity in ornamentation, though the Irish as opposed to the Norman houses of the order could not resist decoration, and the naturalistic plant capitals at Corcomroe, Co. Clare, of about 1200, were already anticipating developments that took place later elsewhere in Europe.

The Gothic Style and The Normans

At first, the Cistercian Irish churches such as those at Mellifont, Co. Louth, and Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, were Romanesque in style, but they were responsible for introducing the Gothic arch into Irish churches before the end of the twelfth century. The new style was, however, also encouraged by the new Norman arrivals in the cathedrals they completed in Dublin, Kilkenny, and elsewhere. But being more warriors than churchmen, they are best known for their castles with which they staked a fortified claim to the lands that they had conquered speedily from the Irish. None of the Irish twelfth-century castles known from historical sources survive, so that the oldest existing castles are Norman, of which the most notable are those with central keeps at Trim, Co. Meath (begun in the 1170s), and Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, started scarcely a decade later. Some were in towns (e.g., Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, and Limerick), while others used imposing sites in the countryside (e.g., Castleroche, Co. Louth), and they display various ground plans, of which the most typically Irish is the rectangular keep with rounded turret at each corner, as exemplified in the ruined examples at Ferns, Co. Wexford, and Carlow town. By the end of the thirteenth century the Norman castles in Ireland were sometimes even ahead of their British counterparts in the development of new defensive techniques. By that stage, too, the Normans had long been ornamenting the tombs of their dead with carved effigies of knights, ladies, laymen, and ecclesiastics, which generally aped styles in England, though the Irish nobility occasionally aped themselves in turn (e.g., at Roscommon).

But all of this thriving activity came to an abrupt end with the Black Death of 1348 to 1350. It took fifty years for architecture to recover, and then it was not the Normans but the Franciscans, particularly in the western half of Ireland, who revived monastic architecture and occasionally sculpture in ways that created a new Irish contribution to the architecture of Europe, as there are few adequate parallels elsewhere to these long-halled churches with off-center towers and adjoining two-story cloisters. Carvings in Ennis friary of about 1470 show the skill of Irish stonemasons in adapting successfully to foreign models in the form of English alabasters or continental Pietàs. Irish woodcarvers were also able to reproduce competent religious statuary, usually adapting styles current elsewhere, and the O'Dea mitre and gold crozier of 1418 (now on display in the Hunt Museum in Limerick) are among the few late medieval masterworks to have survived the Reformation. They, along with the wooden misericords in the same city's cathedral, show what talent was available, of which so little is known.

The quality of carving in the west of Ireland was, however, also manifest in the eastern parts of the country, where the Plunkett family in Meath set up their tombs bearing armored knights and their ladies in the second half of the fifteenth century, but now supported by "weeper figures." The same family began erecting wayside crosses, thereby initiating a custom that was to last for centuries, though cities such as Dublin and Kilkenny had already long had their market crosses. The Butlers of Ormond were soon to emulate the Plunketts, and their own workshop—a rival one run by the O'Tunney family produced similar tomb-sculpture best seen in Saint Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny. The Butlers were also responsible for the imaginative variety of figures on the cloister of the Cistercian abbey at Jerpoint in the same county, and for some of Ireland's finest fifteenth-century stonework at Holy Cross Abbey in County Tipperary.

While the Franciscans and other orders were spreading their friaries throughout the land, the Irish and gaelicized Normans built themselves tower-houses which, though having the reputation of having been sparsely furnished, may sometimes have been decorated with festive frescoes, such as those discovered at Ardamullivan, Co. Galway. These tower-houses were the landowner's status symbol of the time, a family residence unlike the earlier Norman castles that were fortified barracks. Some of the stoutest examples, such as those at Bunratty, Co. Clare, and Blarney, Co. Cork, were built by native chieftains, while the hibernicized Butlers built themselves castles like that at Cahir, Co. Tipperary. Most of the tower-houses were angular towers, but some were round, and the tower was frequently adjoined by a tall bawn wall to protect both livestock and humans. An unusual feature is the addition of a banqueting hall at Malahide Castle and at a number of locations in County Limerick.

The Later Middle Ages

Noah's Ark in the Book of Ballymote and the Crucifixion in the Leabhar Breac, both of about 1400 and in the Royal Irish Academy, are among the rare large illustrations in later medieval Irish manuscripts. But in the realm of smaller arts and crafts, what has been handed down to us from the later Middle Ages is probably only a tiny percentage of what once existed, both Norman and Irish. From what little has survived, we can guess that much work of high quality must have perished through time or the Reformation. The visible strengths of the later medieval heritage in Ireland are the buildings—and the sculptures they contain—which are an important Irish addition to the architecture and sculpture of the time. They often remain underestimated because they stand in the shadow of the towering masterpieces of metalwork, manuscript decoration, and High Cross carving in the earlier Middle Ages, which had made Ireland into a very individualistic culture province in the corpus of European art and architecture.

SEE ALSO Architecture, Early and Medieval; Hiberno-Latin Culture; High Crosses; Literature: Early and Medieval Literature; Manuscript Writing and Illumination; Metalwork, Early and Medieval; Middle English Literature; Norman French Literature; Sculpture, Early and Medieval


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Peter Harbison

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