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Art and Society

The carved motifs found on the great passage tombs of the Boyne valley in The carved motifs found on the great passage tombs of the Boyne valley in Co. Meath are the most well known Irish examples of architecture and art combined. The circles, spirals, lozenges and zig zag designs created on the surface of the stones of these megalithic tombs around 2,500 BC are not easily understood today but would have had great significance for the ancient society that commissioned them. Although megalithic tombs were re-used, the art of carving motifs on stone had, by the Early Bronze Age shifted from these burial sites to be incised on large erratic boulders. The decoration is largely of cup and ring motifs. Again the reason for such work is unclear, but perhaps they were territorial markers associated with a particular group or indeed a particular precious metal. They well may have had some distinct ritual purpose linked to the veneration of some god or indeed they may have been used for all of these reasons and more.


Boheh Rock Carvings

Indeed, it is to the Bronze Age c.2000BC to c.500BC, that we must look for the most resplendent period of artistic elegance and sophisticated craftsmanship. In what has been described by some as the 'Irish El Dorado', most of the gold ornaments now on display in the National Museum of Ireland were made. Some of the most prestigious pieces of jewellery held at the Museum were created using gold. Crescent- shaped gold lunalae, probably worn around the neck, and gold torcs of the La Tène style showed sophistication in an art form that would be very difficult to replicate today.

Toward the end of the Bronze Age we see the emergence of the hill-fort. Although rare in Ireland, it has been suggested that these were ritual enclosures built following the rise of a class of warrior- priests who may have been gaining the upper hand in society. The hillfort on the summit of Croagh Patrick would have been an ideal location for this upper class of society to hold sway over a landscape that had an extremely valuable resource, gold. Interestingly, it is not only ornate pieces that make their appearance at this time but expensive weapons of elaborate design, swords, shields, spears and chariots perhaps reflecting the need to protect the wealth the new elite had gathered.

This early art was ostentatious, intended to enhance the status and prestige of its owner, and perhaps to give him special powers which the art itself represented. The artist was not only giving vent to personal expression, but was a craftsman following the tradition he had inherited, and working to the orders of his patron.

From around 500 BC iron, and particularly iron weapons, took over as the strategic material from the bronze of the earlier period. At this time we see the erection of large fortifications probably reflecting unrest in communities as they vied for usable land or perhaps contested with small bands of newcomers from Britain. Protecting the manufacture of prestigious and valuable goods was a constant concern in an age of persistent raiding. In that regard the construction and location of homesteads played a vital role in securing not only the products but also the safety of the artisan.

The importance that society bestowed upon the artist or craftsperson is illustrated by the fact that these producers of high status art belonged to a class of their own: the Áes Dána or 'people of art'. This group was positioned only slightly below the warrior nobility in the hierarchy of Irish society. Indeed, pennanular brooches, which were superbly crafted in the early medieval period, give us an insight into this hierarchical society. The Irish law tract Críth Gablach tells us that the lowest orders of nobility were allowed to posses a precious brooch worth an ounce of silver. It could be argued then that the more precious metal, either silver or gold, used in the creation of these goods the greater the power and status of the individual owner. Equally the more decorative and embellished the item was, the more it would display a high status. The highest echelons of society controlled the resources and manufacturing processes for these high-status symbols, thereby having a tangible indication of their control over the whole of society and the landscape.

tara brooch
Tara Brooch

The Christian period which becomes historically visible in Ireland in the mid-fifth century, saw a new growth in Irish art. Just as generations of kings and well off farmers had supported artistic endeavours, so too would the rapidly spreading ecclesiastical settlements. The range of material from this period is vast, but even from the few discussed below it is clear that the influences are widespread and the quality unmatched.

Illuminated manuscripts, metalwork and sculpture were all produced by monks or laymen employed by the monastery. It has to be remembered that the process of change that was taking place at this time did not interrupt the culture of the Iron Age society and presumably the artists and craftsmen continued with their work, absorbing and spreading new methods and ideas. The Romano-British influence for example found in the metalwork technique and design of the pennanular brooch could perhaps trace its ancestry back to the Tara Brooch. The Irish craftsperson had added stylised animal ornament and enlivened the background of the brooch with small pieces of red enamel, a technique favoured by Celtic artisans in pre-Roman times.

The inspiration for decorating manuscripts may have come partly from Italy, partly perhaps from exposure to Coptic or other Mediterranean influences, apparent in the dots and interlace decoration which emerges in some early Irish manuscripts. The earliest manuscripts confine their decoration to the first letters of the paragraphs. The letters terminate in an animal head with no body. This beast has its origins from late Roman patterns in the Germanic and Nordic provinces. The relatively modest artistic expression in earlier manuscripts gives way to astonishing creative energy in later works, the best known of which is the Book of Kells where interlaced bands, full-bodied animals, and ornamental dots combine in a profusion of colour. The Viking raids on Iona forced the monks to bring this masterpiece to Ireland where no doubt the designs and techniques would influence local artists.

Art pieces occasionally provide information about the patrons and the artists who produced the work. Some high crosses carry an inscription that names the patron. The most famous of these is the Cross of Muiredach. The inscription on the base of the shaft of this cross tells us that one Muiredach, a name that is shared by a ninth and a tenth century abbot, erected it.

The style, according to experts, suggests that it was the ninth-century Muirdeach who erected it. Whatever the origins of these masterpieces it is clear that they were influenced by the craft of the metalworker. The use of the Celtic spiral ornament is one obvious indicator, and raised bosses another.


Cross of Muirdeach

Cross of Cong

There is only one single example of a processional cross belonging to the Celtic Church now in existence, namely the Cross of Cong. The cross is of oak covered with copper plates, and has a boss of rock crystal in the centre reminiscent of that used on the underside of the Ardagh Chalice, beneath which a portion of the true cross is enshrined. Enamelled bosses similar again to those found on the Ardagh Chalice appear on the cross suggesting a continuity with the great metalwork of the eighth- century.

cross of cong

The annals of Innisfallen tell us that in 1123 AD a piece of the true cross was enshrined by Turlough O'Connor, king of Ireland, for whom the Cross of Cong was made. An inscription on the cross asks that we pray for the shrine's maker, Maeljesu MacBratdan O'Echan. No doubt then that the status of the artist is such that they are remembered on this most precious cross in the same way as the king.

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