Sculpted high crosses, intricate chalices and painstakingly illustrated manuscripts. When it comes to Ireland’s Christian heritage, the devil is in the detail
Phew. You could have forgiven the religious men and women of Early Christian Ireland for just giving up. Working through times when much of Europe was being laid to waste by Vandals and Visigoths; and contending themselves with rampaging Viking raids, surely the easy thing would have been to down tools and hit the mead.
But, no. In violent times, Ireland’s monks were busy imbuing manuscripts with lambent pages of ink and gold leaf. Round towers were being built up brick by brick. And elaborate high crosses were bringing the Bible to life in panels, like an early version of PowerPoint.
The Book of Kells, created around 800AD and exhibited in Trinity College Dublin, is one of the highlights of this golden age. Academics have yet to prove conclusively where this treasured tome was produced, or indeed how it survived, but the mystery only adds to its allure. It has been in Dublin since a quick-thinking governor of Kells, County Meath, delivered it for safekeeping in 1654.
Trinity has other treasures, too, including the books of Durrow and Armagh, and the pocket-sized Book of Dimma, with its elaborate cumdach (case).
High crosses, and higher art
In Early Christian times, of course, few could read. To spread the Word of God, therefore, monks had to be inventive above and beyond these beautiful books. And Ireland’s High Crosses, with carved panels illustrating biblical stories, show just how inventive they could be.
In Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, three high crosses stand in enduring testament to the skill and artistry of Early Christian sculptors. The four-metre Cross of the Scriptures is a highlight, covered on all sides with deliciously intricate figures. Along with the others, it’s housed in an interpretive centre to protect it from the (many) vagaries of Irish weather.
In County Tyrone, the 10th-century Ardboe High Cross is Ulster’s oldest. Standing at the site of a former monastery established by St Colman, “Ard Boe” literally means “hill of the cow” – a name evoking the legend of a magic cow that apparently helped build the monastery.
As the men built and crafted, the story goes, the cow provided endless lashings of cream, milk and butter. Nice.
Despite their shallow foundations, over 70 round towers remain standing in Ireland. Built to be seen from afar, these were beacons for those seeking refuge and prayer. Think of Glendalough in its deep valley, or the needle-like round tower in Antrim Town, and you get the picture.
In many Early Christian sites, you’ll find not just one treasure, but a cluster together. At Monasterboice in County Louth, for instance, a round tower stands next to two high crosses. Here, look closely at Muiredeach’s Cross, whose elaborate Biblical scenes include that of Christ’s arrest, with the villains cast as Vikings… right down to their contemporary jewellery.
Didn’t we say the devil was in the detail?