WALL PAINTINGS (Medieval Ireland)

Medieval interiors were far more ornate than one might envisage from what survives of them today. One aspect of this decoration, wall painting, was used to ornament not just the walls and ceilings but also the carved details of the interior, such as capitals and tomb surrounds.

Approximately sixty-five medieval sites both ecclesiastical and secular, principally abbeys and castles, have extant and/or recorded wall paintings. Most of these buildings retain just a few small traces of the original decoration surviving in sheltered positions, as in the transept niches at Muckross Friary, County Kerry, and the double sedilia in the chancel at Fore Abbey, County Westmeath. Fragments from archaeological excavation also contribute to the number of surviving examples. A few wall paintings are known only from earlier records. Nothing survives today of the Trinity recorded in 1886-1887 by drawings and photographs at St. Audeon’s, Dublin.

Lime-wash or plaster layers, accidental accretions, and microbial growth often conceal wall paintings. In addition to stabilization, conservation at a number of sites has revealed details of the imagery and subject matter, and aspects of materials and technology and dating. Information on patronage and ecclesiastical matters and details of weaponry and dress are gleaned, contributing greatly to the multidisciplinary study of the medieval period.

Most wall paintings are applied to one or more lime-plaster layers. This is tapered to a thin lime-wash preparation for painting of finely carved features such as tomb surrounds or window details. A guide or preliminary drawing was often mapped out into the still-damp plaster with a sharp implement. The pigments were applied onto either wet plaster (fresco) or a lime-wash layer overlying the plaster. Further colors could be added using a binding medium to the dry surface (secco additions). Yellow, red, and brown ochres, lime white, and bone or charcoal black colors have been identified visually. More costly pigments of cinnabar, lapis lazuli, and gold have been identified by analysis at a few sites.

The imagery includes imitation masonry patterns, consecration crosses, boats, and at a number of sites quite extensive figurative narratives. Associated with the O’Kelly burial monument (c. 1401-1403) at Abbeyknockmoy, County Galway, is the popular morality theme of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings. With the message "we have been as you are, you shall be as we are," the skeletons admonish the kings for their vanity and encourage them to consider their own end. Below is a damaged Trinity alongside the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. St. Sebastian (also found at Ballyportry Castle, Co. Clare, with an archbishop) is one of the patron saints of the plague, and here he reaffirms the theme of death and is in keeping with the commemorative role of the O’Kelly tomb.

St. Michael Weighing the Souls is found at Arda-mullivan Castle with a bishop and scenes from the Passion cycle, and at Clare Island Abbey (Phase Two paintings) with diverse imagery. Set between painted imitation ribs, apparently secular and some aristocratic activities of musicians, fishing, hunting, and cattle raiding occur with fabulous beasts, dragons, and serpents alongside scenes of obvious religious meaning. Stag hunting, occurring with a Gaelic horseman, is also found on the earlier painting at Clare Island Abbey, and is recorded on the paintings at Urlan More Castle, County Clare (now collapsed) and Holycross Abbey, County Tipperary.

Karena Morton

Wall painting from Knockmoy Abbey.

Wall painting from Knockmoy Abbey.

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