Metalwork, Early and Medieval

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Metalwork, Early and Medieval

The study of metalwork in Ireland in the period from c. 450 c.e. to c. 1600 c.e. reveals much more than changing fashions in art styles. One can observe changes in the supply of raw materials, the adoption of new techniques, alternations to patterns of patronage and craft organization, and the appearance of new military tactics. Careful reading of the evidence brings to light periods of rapid development under exotic influences as well as those of conservatism and relative isolation.

Early Medieval Period, c. 450 to c. 800 c.e.

Archaeological evidence shows that almost every farmstead in early medieval Ireland was a site of subsistencerelated ironworking for the repair of tools and farm implements. High-quality iron objects (for example, the collar and chain from Lagore, Co. Meath) were also fabricated. Sword blades were at first relatively small and made of fairly soft iron, but by the Viking period, imported blades provided models for better weapons. Decorative work in gold, bronze, and enamel was manufactured on important secular sites (for example, Lagore and Moynagh Lough crannogs, Co. Meath; Garranes, Co. Cork; and Clogher, Co. Tyrone) and on church sites such as Armagh and Clonmacnoise.

During the fifth and sixth centuries fine metalwork was predominantly in bronze, with engraved ornament of spirals, trumpets, and peltae, occasionally enamelled in red. Most bronze pieces were personal ornaments—pins, penannular (gapped-ring) brooches, and latchets (disc-shaped cloak fasteners with sinuous tails) were the principal types. Most derive from late and early post-Roman Britain, where there was a resurgence of Iron Age La Tène style, modified by provincial Roman military taste. Debate in Ireland has centered on how much the ornament of spiral scrollwork owes to the native Irish Iron Age tradition and how much was imported. The repertoire of smiths in southern Britain before the Anglo-Saxon conquest and in Pictland was wider than that of Irish craftsmen, but the variety and sophistication of Irish work has been underestimated. By about the year 600 experiments in silver had occurred, and new embellishments in millefiore glass and new colors of enamel were adopted. Sophisticated products include the tinned bronze brooch from Ballinderry Crannog, Co. Westmeath, the decoration of which is close to that of the great enamelled hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo burial around 630 c.e.

Irish missions in northern Britain and mainland Europe provide the context for the flowering of Irish art in the late seventh century. Sophisticated casting in silver, fire gilding, polychrome glasswork used as a substitute for gemstones, and consummate gold filigree work appeared. The range of motifs was enriched by the addition of animal ornament of Germanic (especially Anglo-Saxon) and late Roman origin. Interlace from the Mediterranean world and a number of geometric patterns were added to the surviving traditions of spiral scrollwork. This new art was almost certainly first synthesized in monastic scriptoria and royal workshops. From simple beginnings such as the engraved curvilinear decoration of seventh-century shrines in Bobbio (Italy) and Clonmore, Co. Armagh, by 700 c.e. craftsmen were producing distinctive, yet cosmopolitan objects. The Tara Brooch—which has, like many lavish brooches of eighth- and ninth-century date, a closed ring—bears ornament similar to that of the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Donore door-furniture that harks back to classical prototypes. By the end of the eighth century surviving pieces like the Ardagh Chalice and Derrynaflan Paten had taken the symbolic filigree motifs and polychrome glasswork to the highest standards of elegance. These remarkable altar vessels copied the communion services of the great churches of Christianity. Reliquaries (containers in which sacred relics were kept) shaped like little churches were common. The practice of enshrining books developed, and other reliquaries (for example, the Moylough belt-shrine, a major work of about 800 c.e. designed to preserve the belt of an unknown saint) show how the church challenged craftsmen to extend their range.

The Viking Period, c. 795–1020 c.e.

The Viking raids on Ireland began in the 790s and increased in ferocity in the following century. Nevertheless, fine metalworking continued; the Derrynaflan Chalice, with its numerous gold filigree and amber ornaments, seems to have been commissioned during the ninth century. Splendid brooches were also produced, though they were less colorful and more dependent on silver for effect. By the late ninth century the increased supply of silver through Viking trade gave rise to a new series of penannular brooches, international in style but of strong Irish influence, made entirely of solid silver—the "bossed" and "thistle" brooches. These are found widely in Britain and Ireland. A few brooches with long pins and hinged heads ("kite-brooches") emerged in Ireland under Viking influence; they remained in vogue into the eleventh century. A few examples are decorated with gold filigree ornament (e.g., a brooch from Waterford).

The Renaissance of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

During the eleventh century large personal ornaments went out of style and effort turned to repairing some of the losses of the Viking age. Some ancient shrines were restored—for example, a silver cross embracing evangelists' symbols was applied to the restored front of the bookshrine known as the Soiscél Molaise in County Fermanagh. The later eleventh century saw the enshrinement of the Cathach of Saint Columba at Kells in County Meath. It carries on its sides animal ornament of Scandinavian inspiration. The badly preserved Inishfallen Crosier, decorated with fine panels of gold filigree of later Viking style, was also made at this time.

The final flowering of native metalworking took place in the first third of the twelfth century with the creation of the magnificent crosiers of Clonmacnoise and Lismore, the shrines of Saint Patrick's Bell and Saint Lachtin's Arm, and Saint Manchan's shrine in Boher, Co. Offaly. The summa of the style is the Cross of Cong (about 1120 c.e.), which was made to enshrine a relic of the True Cross. Inscriptions on most of these great pieces link prominent kings with leading churchmen in their commissioning and name the craftsmen who made them. Although all show the strong, if anachronistic, Scandinavian influence, especially in the animal ornament in the so-called Urnes style, they combine this with unmistakable efforts to revive ancient glories and elements of Romanesque influence.

Changes in church governance and dynastic warfare began to change the pattern of patronage that supported the native craftsmen in the twelfth century. Ecclesiastical metalwork from continental workshops (e.g., the crosier from Cashel, Co. Tipperary, made at Limoges) undercut native production. and the traditional workshops seem to have died out with astonishing speed.

Later Medieval Metalwork

With the Anglo-Norman invasion came organized guilds of metalworkers based in towns. We know very little of their production because of the confiscations of the sixteenth century following the dissolution of the monasteries and the transfer of major churches from the Catholic to the Reformed Church. A few personal ornaments, such as a gold ring-brooch from Waterford in a continental style, have come to light. Some repairs to ancient shrines were made. The Domhnach Airgid (ninth century) was remodelled about 1350, adding a crucifixion scene and other religious and heraldic devices. Intact original pieces are rare. A silver-gilt crosier in gothic taste was made by a native craftsman for the bishop of Limerick in 1418 c.e. A processional cross, found at Lislaghtin, Co. Kerry, was made for John O'Connor, lord of Kerry, in 1479. International in style, its workmanship is markedly provincial. To a large extent the history of Irish fine metalworking in the High Middle Ages is mirrored in what we know of weapons and armor in the period. As late as the sixteenth century Irish warriors were appearing on the battlefield in mail shirts and fluted helmets—armor that had changed little since the fourteenth century.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early and Medieval Arts and Architecture; Sculpture, Early and Medieval


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Michael Ryan