SCULPTURE (Medieval Ireland)

Apart from cross-inscribed stones that may have started as early as the seventh century in Ireland, sculpture should be seen to begin with High Crosses and related monuments. With the exception of the crosses in the Barrow Valley, including the tall cross at Moone, which has wonderfully graphic stylized figures in flat false relief, the ninth- and tenth-century High Crosses often have squat figures carved in high false relief which are more naturalistically represented than in Celtic art, suggesting that they copy sculpture in a classical tradition, probably influenced by the Carolingian empire, with stucco having been suggested as a possible medium of transmission. A gap in the eleventh century is followed by a style of cross with Christ triumphant standing out in high relief (partially in the style of the Volto Santo in Lucca), often accompanied by an Episcopal figure also in high relief.

At the same time, architectural sculpture emerged on Romanesque churches, particularly on doorways and chancel arches, though occasionally also on windows. Often of a high quality, inspired probably by English and French models, the sculpture includes bearded masks and capitals, well modeled in relief, sometimes semi-naturalistic, at other times (e.g., Tuam) wonderfully stylized. Often the carved ornament is geometric, more a superficial veneer than an integral part of the architecture it ornaments. Through the so-called School of the West, the style continued confidently in Connacht until about 1230. By that time, the rest of the country had adopted a Gothic style, with the early-thirteenth century plant ornament on the capitals at Corcomroe being prematurely naturalistic before stiff-leaf foliage becomes the norm by the middle of the century. The spread of Anglo-Norman hegemony through much of the country between 1169 and 1235 introduced a new trend, particularly noticeable in tomb-sculpture.

O'Brien/Butler tomb (1626) from St. Mary's Church, Inisceal-tra, Co. Clare.

O’Brien/Butler tomb (1626) from St. Mary’s Church, Inisceal-tra, Co. Clare.

Starting around 1200, we find effigies of ecclesiastics, knights, and civilians, carved in high relief, and dependent on inspiration from England, from whence many masons must have come to create them and ornament Gothic churches such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. The carving of such effigies continued into the seventeenth century, but those of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries rested on tomb chests ornamented with Weepers under arcades—at first in Meath, and later practiced by the Ormond and O’Tunney schools in the Kilkenny area. North Leinster also had well-carved baptismal fonts and wayside crosses in the later medieval period. But the West, too, had a strong tradition of later Gothic sculpture (e.g., Strade) and, in Clare, panels in Ennis imitate English alabasters, and stone figures of the Pieta copied wooden models imported into Ireland at the time. But, even in the thirteenth century local sculptors had been carving their own versions of Romanesque Madonnas, and continued to carve statues of varying quality for ornamenting churches. These are doubtless rare survivals of impressive woodcarving schools, whose quality can be measured on the only Irish wooden misericords that fortunately survive in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Limerick.

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