Sculpture, Early and Medieval

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Sculpture, Early and Medieval

The eighth-century Kilnasaggart pillar in County Armagh is probably the earliest stone sculpture in Ireland datable by inscription, though the country, of course, preserves much older decorated stones from as far back as the Neolithic period around 3000 b.c.e. But the crosses inscribed on the Kilnasaggart stone were presumably preceded by other similar Christian symbols on slightly earlier slabs (many doubtless grave markers), which continued to be produced with multiple variations until at least the twelfth century at sites like Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly. Human figures in relief on upright monuments may not have appeared until the eighth century at the earliest, as on the pedimented stele with Pictish affinities at Fahan, Co. Donegal, while illustrations of the Crucifixion on island slabs at Inishkea North and Duvillaun More off the west coast of Mayo, and representations of pilgrims(?) at Killadeas, Co. Fermanagh, and Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, may well be somewhat later. Pilgrimage, indeed, could have been indirectly responsible in some way for the creation of two pillars carved in stylized fashion on all four sides at Carndonagh, Co. Donegal, and the unique high-relief figures with a variety of attributes on White Island, Fermanagh (not far from the twin-headed Boa Island statue, which may well be a Christian rather than a pagan monument).

The dawn of the ninth century saw a further heightening appreciation of a sense of monumentality in sculptured stonework with the appearance of free-standing pillars carved in relief, with horsemen, lions, and interlace, at Clonmacnoise and Banagher, Co. Offaly. From there it was but a short step to the development of the great scripture crosses (High Crosses), which represent the greatest corpus of religious sculpture to survive anywhere in Europe from the Carolingian period. In contrast to the stylized figures common in early Irish art, and as seen on the wonderfully graphic panels of the cross at Moone, Co. Kildare, many of the major scripture crosses have unusually naturalistic relief figures, often squat and grouped in threes, which may have been inspired by late classical and Carolingian models. The phasing-out of these crosses during the tenth century was followed by a hiatus lasting into most of the eleventh.

However, the sculpting of religious imagery picks up again in the twelfth century with the later group of High Crosses, portraying Christ and ecclesiastical figures on a large scale and in high relief, and the appearance—rare in Europe—of crowded Crucifixion scenes on church lintels, as at Maghera, Co. Derry, and Raphoe, Co. Donegal. Other attractive manifestations of religious subjects in twelfth-century architectural sculpture include those in the chancel arch at Kilteel, Co. Kildare, and the wrongly reassembled stones on the exterior east gable of the cathedral at Ardmore, Co. Waterford.

As elsewhere in Europe, the twelfth century marks a high point in carved figures and strange beasts inhabiting a world of mysterious symbolism, encountered in Ireland largely on the portals and chancel arches of Romanesque churches—and even on Round Towers, as instanced by the doorway at Timahoe, Co. Laois. Munster first introduced the fashion in structures such as Cormac's Chapel on the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary, consecrated in 1134, which is richly decorated with human heads, both single and on capitals, as well as having a centaur in relief firing an arrow at a large animal. Roughly contemporary are the fine voussoir heads preserved in Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork, but the most bizarre collection of heads, mandarin and western—some with beards and typically high ears—appears on the disjointed doorway at Dysert O'Dea, Co. Clare, close to one of the finest examples of the later group of High Crosses. Chevrons (of Norman derivation) and floral ornament are frequently also included in the integrated program of designs on the Irish Romanesque doors and chancel arches, as at Killeshin, Co. Laois (where a fragmentary inscription suggests the patronage of Dermot Mac Murrough); Monaincha, Co. Tipperary; and in the two County Galway cathedrals of Tuam and Clonfert. The high quality of these later twelfth-century carvings continued west of the Shannon into the first quarter of the thirteenth century at locations such as Cong and Ballintober in County Mayo and Boyle in County Roscommon. Romanesque carving also included the stone sarcophagus at Clones, Co. Monaghan (copying a wooden and metal shrine), and probably also items such as the sundial at Kilmalkedar, Co. Kerry.

By the early thirteenth century stylized Gothic foliage capitals were being used by the recently arrived Normans in styles that they introduced from their west of England homelands, while at the same time the Cistercians were incorporating very early naturalistic plant capitals with recognizable species into their abbey church at Corcomroe, Co. Clare. It was the Normans, too, who introduced the practice of placing effigies above tombs, and these can represent knights clad in armor of the period, ecclesiastics, or male and female civilians wearing long-draped garments. They were largely modeled on fashions current at the time in England, and some examples may even have been imported already carved, including a layman at New Ross, Co. Wexford, and possibly also the superb knight at Kilfane, Co. Kilkenny.

This flowering of Anglo-Norman sculpture was brought to a sudden end by the Black Death of 1347 to 1350. It was the Franciscan friaries of the west of Ireland that helped to revive the craft early in the fifteenth century, and the friary at Ennis shows how Irish master sculptors successfully adapted English alabaster panels to the much harder Irish limestone. The Dominicans responded with delicate and lively tomb- and altar-frontals at Strade, Co. Mayo.

Yet it was in the eastern counties dominated by the hibernicized Anglo-Norman lords that sculpture was most widely practiced in the fifteenth century. The Plunketts in Meath set up fine box-tombs with apostles as "weepers" supporting the effigy of lord and lady, and the crosses with religious figures in ogee-headed niches which they erected were a custom also practiced in towns such as Dublin, Kilkenny, and Athenry. The Plunketts' example was followed in the Ossory lands to the south, where the Butlers—who had probably provided employment for the "Gowran master," sculptor and architect in the thirteenth century—were to act as patrons for the cloister at Jerpoint, Co. Kilkenny, with its gallery of figures from varied walks of life. They also set up their own effigial tombs in Kilkenny and elsewhere well into the sixteenth century, employing one anonymous workshop of masons in the area rivaled by another run by the O'Tunney family. The Butlers were also involved in commissioning high-quality architectural sculpture at Holy Cross Abbey in the fifteenth century, which is roughly contemporary with the fine Gothic doorways in Clonmacnoise Cathedral and at Clontuskert, Co. Galway, in the decades surrounding 1470.

Most of the native wooden statuary that furnished later medieval churches in Ireland must have been ignominiously confined to the flames by zealots during the Reformation period, but the few pieces that survive show craftsmen at work competently providing Irish versions of styles prevalent elsewhere.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early and Medieval Arts and Architecture; High Crosses; Metalwork, Early and Medieval


Harbison, Peter. The High Crosses of Ireland. 3 vols. 1992.

Henry, Françoise. Irish Art. 3 vols. 1966–1970.

Hunt, John. Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture, 1200–1600. 2 vols. 1974.

O'Brien, Jacqueline, and Peter Harbison. Ancient Ireland. 1996.

Rae, Edwin C. "Architecture and Sculpture, 1169–1603." In A New History of Ireland, vol. 2, Medieval Ireland, 1169–1535, edited by Art Cosgrove. 1987.

Peter Harbison