Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 1)

Cormac’s Chapel on the hill of Cashel is the jewel in the crown of Irish Romanesque architecture. It also allows us to trace the influences and development of the Irish Romanesque style both to other examples inside Ireland and to models outside of Ireland. Now that the church has been cured of its chronic leakage problems and the scaffolding has been taken down, we can finally look at this wonderful building in its entirety. In doing so I rely heavily on the work of Prof Tadhg O’Keefe.*

On a walking tour of Bavaria a couple of years ago we visited this church, which turns out to have been connected with Cormac’s Chapel in a surprising way. This incredible portal is completely enclosed by a glass frame to protect it from the weather

We know from historical records exactly when Cormac’s Chapel was started (1127) and when it was consecrated (1134). This means that it was not the high point (that is, the latest and most elaborate development) of Irish Romanesque, but in fact quite early in the sequence of buildings that constitute the corpus of Irish Romanesque architecture. We can look back to the early churches we examined in Irish Romanesque – an Introduction for antecedents, but in many ways this is not a ‘typical’ Irish Romanesque structure. It is, in fact, more reliant for its influences on Anglo-Norman churches in England and Wales, and on the important ecclesiastical links between Cashel and modern-day Germany. O’Keefe puts it this way:

This is the one building of that era in Ireland which must surely belong in the European canon of great Romanesque architectural essays; with a floor area less than the size of a tennis court it is also one of the smallest.

With the scaffolding finally removed, we can see the full extent of the chapel

Who was Cormac? Cormac Mac Cárrthaig (McCarthy) was King of Munster from 1123 to 1127, when he was deposed and retired to be a monk in Lismore with St Malachy (the man credited with reforming Irish monasticism and inviting in the Cistercians). His throne was restored to him within a few months and in gratitude he commissioned a new chapel to be built on the Rock. While the Rock of Cashel had been gifted to the church previously, the chapel was probably intended to serve the purpose of a royal inauguration site, thus enhancing and securing Cormac’s power. It took some time to build – it was consecrated seven years later.

In this photograph, note particularly the high pitched roof and the tiny windows that are the only means of letting light in to the rooms above the chancel and above the nave. Note also how the later gothic cathedral impinges on the much smaller chapel

Let’s start on the outside. This is a nave and chancel church, with opposing doors on the north and south sides, twin square towers, steeply pitched stone roof, projecting altar bay, and extensive string coursing and blind arcading on the exterior walls. The pitched stone roof appears to be a typically Irish feature – similar examples have survived intact in St Kevin’s Kitchen in Glendalough, St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, and in St Colmcille’s House in Kells (see Robert’s post A Medieval Feast), while we saw vestiges in Kilmalkedar a few months ago. In fact, the roof accommodates a second story, accessed via a stairway within the church. You can see the tiny round-headed windows that give light to this space on the wall above the chancel, and there are also rectangular windows right at the bottom on the roof where it meets the wall of the nave. It must have been an uncomfortable room, dark and damp, and it is hard to imagine it being used for daily activities (such as a Scriptorium, as the Kells room was traditionally thought to have been) so it has been suggested that it was a sacristy.

St Flannan’s Oratory in Killaloe, Co Clare. As in Cormac’s Chapel, the steeply pitched gable accommodated a room above the chancel, in this case lit by a single window in the end wall

But that pitched roof is where the older Irish influences stop – for the rest of the building we must look elsewhere.

Intriguing carvings on the portal of the Regensburg church

The two square towers are particularly interesting and have few parallels in Ireland. In fact, they are based on a church we happen to have visited two years ago in Regensburg (previously called Ratisbon) in Bavaria. Upon his restoration as King of Munster, Cormac received a visit from two Ratisbon monks, Isaac and Gervasius, accompanied by a carpenter (Conrad) and one other man.

Detail from the St Albert of Cashel window by Harry Clarke in the Honan Chapel, at University College, Cork: Albert preaching to the (red-haired) people of Ratisbon

The first evangelising monk from Cashel to establish links with Ratisbon had been St Albert, way back in the 700s and there had been strong connections ever since. The church, St James, in Regensburg, is called the Scots Church or Schottenkirche (Schotte was the term used for Irish) and while it has been altered over the centuries, the Romanesque core remains, along with the two flanking towers and a magnificent doorway in the north wall.

Conrad the Carpenter and his sidekick may well have put to use the knowledge they acquired building the Schottenkirche St Jakob in designing the two square towers at Cormac’s Chapel.

This photograph illustrates the altar projection on the east end of the chancel, as well as the two towers. Note the conical cap on the north tower, as in the Regensburg example

Opposing doors in the north and south walls are almost  unknown from older Irish contexts, as it  was customary to enter through the west end (opposite end to the altar). We saw opposing doors in Liathmore but O’Keefe feels they may be a bi-product of later reconstruction. There are reports of a  two-door church of St Brigid in Kildare, and such designs…

were presumably designed to accommodate different types of procession, sometimes simultaneously: royal and episcopal parties certainly entered through the large portal on the north side, while clerical concelebrants and choristers presumably entered through the smaller portal in the south wall.

And wonderful doors they are! (Look back at Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways for more about doors in general.) The south door is now the main entrance for visitors but in fact is relatively modest with only two orders and a timpanum depicting a animal, probably a lion. The archivolts are chevroned but weathering has damaged much of the other carvings.

The cathedral wall cuts off part of this doorway, damaging the door and making photography difficult. This is a small open triangular space between the cathedral wall and the north door

The north door is larger and more elaborate, although it is incomplete, as the later gothic cathedral was built up against this section of the chapel. Above the door is a triangular pediment, decorated with vertical and horizontal chevroned lines and with rosettes.

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, Richard Lovett 1888

The tympanum has a curious decoration – it’s a centaur, of all things, shown hunting a large lion with a bow and arrow. This is not unknown in Romanesque carvings, which often feature animals from the medieval bestiary, but unusual enough.

As for the rest of the chapel, Prof O’Keefe points to the most likely influence being the Anglo-Norman churches of England and Wales, which provide exact parallels for many of the features, external and internal, that can be observed at Cormac’s Chapel. One feature he points to, for example, is the shallow projection, lit by lateral windows, at the far east end of the church – functioning as an extension of the chancel to contain the altar. Indeed, muses O’Keefe, as he ponders the particular mixture of Irish and non-Irish features visible in this building;

Walking around Cormac’s Chapel, outside and inside, one instantly recognizes that it has affinities in Britain. The blind arcading and the chevrons can be paralleled effortlessly in literally hundreds of English Romanesque contexts, from south Wales to East Anglia, and from Exeter to Dundee (Fig. 78). Moreover, their execution speaks not of Gaelic-Irish craftsmen who have learned these forms and how to carve them but of actual English Romanesque craftsmen in Cashel in the late 1120s and early 1130s. We cannot prove this, of course, but later Romanesque work in Ireland looks sufficiently different for us to be very confident that Anglo-Norman hands recreating an English Romanesque repertoire shaped large parts of Cormac’s Chapel.

Blind arcading, string courses, and carved roof corbels (see below) enliven the outside of the chapel. The two small windows in the roof allow light to the room above the nave

Next week we will go inside Cormac’s Chapel and discover yet more treasures from the 12th century. See you back here then.

*Prof O’Keefe’s book  is now out of print although second-hand copies can be found. I relied heavily on his manuscript, Romanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

Edifying and Eccentric – The Earl Bishop

Finola had always wanted to visit Mussenden Temple and the ruins of the nearby great house on the Downhill Demense: it’s only a few stones’ throws from Nead an Iolair, so off we went on a stormy Sunday – the first day of October.

The house was built by the eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803). Being the third son of the even more eccentric Lord John Hervey, he did not expect an inheritance and tried law (unsuccessfully) before entering the church. His eldest brother George was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766 and, although he never set foot in the country, he managed to engineer Frederick’s appointment as Bishop of Cloyne then, shortly afterwards, Bishop of Derry, one of the wealthiest Irish sees. While in this post Frederick had the notion to establish a huge estate (apparently with the help of Diocesan funds) on a windswept clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Dunbo, County Londonderry – now Northern Ireland.  Dunbo derives from the Irish Dún Bó, meaning ‘fort of the cows’.

It looks bleak today, and must have been in the Bishop’s time, although his plans for the new demense included classical landscaping and the planting of 300,000 trees: there’s not much sign of them now on that windswept terrain.

Both of Frederick’s older brothers died without leaving heirs and, in 1779, he found himself the Earl of Bristol and in control of a considerable fortune which helped greatly in the realisation of his plans for the Dunbo project, which he named Downhill Demense.

Everything about the Earl Bishop and Downhill Demense is ‘over the top’. Even though it is now a ruin, cared for by the National Trust, its former splendour is obvious. The residence was huge and grand, and Frederick went through a number of architects (beginning with Michael Shanahan of Cork) and including Placido Columbani from Milan, who was supervising plumbing and the installation of water closets – a considerable innovation at the time.

One of the most striking surviving buildings at Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome. It was built close to the cliff edge, but with enough land to enable a horse and carriage to be driven around it. When we looked out of the windows facing the sea we were shocked to see that the building is now teetering right on the cliff edge! Also, a railway line runs right underneath it near sea level, over 100 feet below – you can see the tunnel entrance in the header picture above.

The Temple was an ‘overflow library’ to the house, some distance away. It was constantly heated by a fire always burning in the basement room below, so the books didn’t get damp. The Earl Bishop was a great traveller and collector, and in its heyday the house was full of paintings, statuary and furniture. Students of the Northern Regional College together with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the University of the Third Age and the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group have put together a wealth of information and some reconstructions of the house, included here. Their website is a mine of good information.

Reconstruction by the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group of the Temple dome (upper picture) and (lower) the ‘raw’ brick dome visible today

It’s sobering to stand in the driving rain – as we did today – on this deserted site and imagine the treasures that were once on display in this great edifice. On the Earl Bishop’s death the Demense passed to his cousin. It stayed in the family and survived a devastating fire in 1851, although restoration was not completed until 1876.

Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the main gallery in the house and (lower) poignant piles of rubble on the site today

The family left the house in the 1920s and in the 1930s the house was empty and had been stripped of furniture. During World War 2, Downhill was requisitioned and occupied by the Royal Air Force. In 1946 a request was made for permission to demolish the building, thus avoiding a large rates bill. Consent was refused because …the castle is of general local interest… A tenant was found – Mrs Belgrave – who was the last person to live in the house – but briefly; by October 1949 the entire property had been gutted and the windows and roof removed. The building was listed in 1977, and was acquired by the National Trust in 1980 which has been engaged in continual efforts to preserve the remaining fabric ever since.

Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the Temple interior and (lower) today the Temple is a significant landmark on Northern Ireland’s main tourist route

Wherever you are on the island of Ireland it’s just a hop and a step up to the North: the coastline is stunning, and a journey there will be punctuated, as always, with fascinating history. Well worth a visit!

An excellent detailed article by The Irish Aesthete on the Earl Bishop and his Downhill Demense can be found here

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

In April I introduced you to the form of architecture known as Irish Romanesque – the dominant form of church architecture in Ireland in the 12th century. If you haven’t read that post already a quick glance over it will get you ready for this one. To continue the series, I’m going to look at one of the glories of the form – the elaborate doorways, often highly decorated, such as the one at Clonfert, above.

Our friends Brendan and Kathie are visiting at the moment and I pressed Brendan, an artist, into service, drawing the Killeshin doorway for me, so I could use his drawing to illustrate the main features of these doorways, and cover some basic vocabulary. (Thank you, Brendan!) Take a look at our joint effort – it will help as I talk about the doorways.*

This simple door is at Ardfert in Co Kerry. It only has one order and no decoration apart from a string of bosses above the arch. The romanesque elements at Ardfert are mixed with later gothic elements – fragments only of the 12th century buildings that once occupied the site. The doorway below is yet another example, built into the wall of the later cathedral building. The stone is soft and much weathered but the columns were once carved, and the door is flanked by blind arcading.

This doorway (below) at Ardmore in Waterford is no longer complete – while the jambs are there, the columns have disappeared, leaving only their capitals behind.

Killeshin in Co Laois, our model for the drawing, is a beautiful site. The early church retains antae on one side, and there are windows and vestiges of a stone roof reminiscent of the early medieval site we described at Kilmalkedar in Kerry.

The doorways has three orders and a pediment above. Many of the voussoirs are carved with intricate designs and the keystone features a carved head.

Not only do the Killeshin carvings include intricate geometric patterns and heads on the capitals, but there is writing memorialising the builder and the donor.

Not far from Killeshin is Freshford (Co Kilkenny) where a church still in use has incorporated a romanesque doorway from a 12th century church into a later building. Much modification has taken place – the round widow in the neo-romanesque style is an 18th century addition and the cross at the top of the pediment is also recent.

Note the inclined jambs – meaning the doorway tapers towards the top. The stone is soft and badly weathered, but some carvings are still discernible on the capitals. Interestingly, the jambs originally had niches for statuary, one example of which, two figures, remains,

Two of my personal favourites come now. The first in in Clare, at Dysert O’Dea, a fascinating multi-period site. The romanesque doorway is distinguished by its multiple carved heads on the voussoirs of the outermost archivolt of the arch.

The columns, capitals and inner archivolts are also highly decorated, but it’s those carved heads that never fail to capture the imagination. Not all are human, but of the ones that are I can’t help wondering who the models were – bishops? warriors? saints? kings? Or perhaps the carvers themselves?

Finally, the greatest doorway of all, widely considerered to be the masterpiece of romanesque architecture on Ireland – the great door of Clonfert cathedral in Co Galway. It’s the photograph I led off with, showing the whole doorway. Let’s take a look at some of the details.

The pediment is unusual in that it is filled with triangular reliefs, each having a carved head. Below that are blind arcades with yet more heads. Although weathered, each head has its own distinct character.

All seven orders of columns and capitals are decorated, as are the archivolts. In fact, it’s hard to find an inch on this doorway that isn’t intricately carved. There are fantastical creatures, animals, geometric and interlaced designs, and on the innermost jamb, two carved figures that are mostly likely 15th century additions, but no less compelling for that.

Romanesque carvings deserve a post to themselves one of these days, as does the iconic building of the period – and this time not just doorways but a complete building – Cormac’s Chapel at the Rock of Cashel. Look out for those posts in the future. Meanwhile, one last glimpse of some of columns and capitals from Clonfert…

*For a truly erudite treatment of Irish Romanesque, see the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland – its the Romanesque Encyclopaedia!

The Treasures of Castledermot

Last week we explored the medieval wonders at Moone, in County Kildare. We couldn’t leave the area without going on to Castledermot to visit the monastic site of Díseart Diarmada, (the hermitage of Dermot) – a few minutes’ drive down the road. Stone carving artists were active here, too, as we can see from the many artefacts mainly centred today around St James’ Church, built on the site of the former monastery. These include a decorated Romanesque doorway: Finola is writing about Romanesque architecture today.

Díseart Diarmada as it might have appeared in the 800s. This reconstructed view is taken from the excellent Dúchas interpretation panels on the site, and shows the earliest church, the 20m high round tower (which still stands today) and the two ornate high crosses, which also remain intact

The settlement itself was highly important. There were Viking raids during the 9th century, probably indicating that there was wealth to be plundered there. A royal grant was given for a fair in 1199, and the very first Irish parliament was convened in the town on 18th June 1264. In 1393 Castledermot was granted permission to mint its own coins.

The two high crosses at Castledermot: south cross (left) and north cross (right – round tower beyond). The header picture shows the geometric work on the east face of the south cross

There are certainly figurative carvings on the two crosses to almost rival those found at Moone. I was particularly interested to see other versions of the stories of the loaves and fishes and Daniel in the lions’ den. But the real glory of Castledermot lies in the panels of knotwork. If these were coloured (as suggested at Moone) they must have been spectacular.

Note the loaves and fishes, bottom left

It’s interesting to speculate who might have been responsible for this ancient carving. Could it have been the monks themselves, who considered that part of their dedicated life was to build and decorate the great monastic buildings? Or were they constructed by travelling masons, much as the later cathedrals were? And who directed and designed the work? These are such important monuments – a legacy which we must be sure to look after: they have been here for more than a thousand years and – in spite of being in the open and subject to constant weathering – are still clear to see. At Moone the great cross there has been placed under a modern protective canopy, which is not intrusive. Perhaps such actions should be considered for all these Irish medieval works of art.

The site at Castledermot reveals many other remains which appear to be weathering quite badly. These include the Hogback Stone, which has been linked to Viking activity in the area: it was discovered just below the ground in its present location in 1967. It is said to represent a House for the Dead, and other examples have been found in Scotland and England: this is the only one found so far in Ireland.

The Hogback Stone (top – Dúchas – and bottom left) and an unusual type of cross-slab close by (right). This is known as the Swearing Stone, and it is said that it may have been used during wedding ceremonies or for swearing oaths or allegiances in early times

Although residents in Castledermot are keen that their historic artefacts are well looked after and are seen by an interested public, the site remains rather obscure and perhaps deserves to be better known. There is a wealth of heritage in Ireland – do we take it too much for granted? The Office of Public Works (formally Dúchas) do their best to maintain and advertise the monuments under their care but it’s an uphill job with a budget which is far too small.

We have by no means exhausted the treasures of this remarkable Irish town. There are other intriguing carved stones and crosses on the monastic site, and, at the southern end of the town are impressive remains of a Franciscan Friary, founded around 1247. This site has a guardian and a key holder, but we didn’t have time to visit. Inside it is a rare cadaver grave stone dating to about 1520. In 1275, the town was given a royal murage grant. This allowed the collection of tolls from people entering Castledermot to pay for the construction and maintenance of town walls. The wall, with three gates, was completed around 1300.

Ancient Irish Art – Moone High Cross

Wherever we travel in Ireland, we look for the routes which will take us past sites rich in history and archaeology. Finola wrote a while ago about places to visit close to the M8, which links Cork to Dublin. Last week we discovered a real gem, in County Kildare, about 40 kilometres east of the motorway – well worth the diversion.

Just outside the village of Moone is the finest medieval high cross that we have seen in Ireland. It is on the site of Moone Abbey (above right – a sketch from 1784 by antiquarian Austin Cooper), where a church is believed to have been founded by St Palladius, who came to Ireland in 431. It was later dedicated to St Columcille. The abbey ruins date from the 13th century, but the site must have been an important religious foundation long before this as the high crosses (there were once four here) are very much older. Historical sources differ on their age – I have found them variously attributed to the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th centuries! It’s safe to say they are at least 1100 years old.

Early views of the High Cross at Moone: left – an engraving from 1857 and right – a photograph from the Lawrence Collection dating from the 1890s. Both images show the earlier reconstruction, before the centre pillar was discovered and added

The Abbey was ransacked and burned along with the nearby Castle by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century and the high crosses were probably buried at that time. Two sections of the one we can see today were rediscovered in the Abbey grounds in 1835 and re-erected in the Abbey by the Duke Of Leinster. In 1893 a further section was uncovered and added to bring the full height of this cross to 5.3 metres. This is not quite the highest high cross in Ireland – Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice is 5.5 metres – but Moone is visually more impressive because it is so slender, and beautifully decorated.

The west face of the Moone High Cross seen in its present context in the ruined Abbey. The site has been well laid out and presented with the fragments of other carved stones discovered during excavations. A protective roof has also been constructed in a non-intrusive simple style

The carvings on the granite Moone cross are in relatively good condition and all the panels can be clearly seen. They are fine examples of medieval Irish art: stories from the Bible  are mingled with Celtic knotwork and some enigmatic bestiary. The figurative work is simple and stylised – yet somehow very modern in its execution.

Stories told in stone: Adam and Eve, Daniel in the Lion’s Den and the Flight into Egypt. The header image is a wonderful representation of the Loaves and Fishes
The Crucifixion, SS Paul and Anthony breaking bread in the desert and The Fiery Furnace
Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac and the Temptation of St Anthony the Hermit

A six-headed monster? Probably not a Bible story…

The site is very well interpreted by the Heritage Service: there are comprehensive information boards describing every carved panel.

Interpretation boards include full annotation for the panels on the High Cross, together with projected reconstructions of the other findings on the site

Top picture – looking towards the east face of the High Cross; below – the east and west faces of the cross wheel
Left – an interesting conjecture showing that the panels may have been coloured in; right – the friendly Keeper of the Cross!

Be sure to visit this site – and don’t forget to purchase your guide book at Wall’s Mini Mart in the village!

The House that Danny Built

We lost our friend Danny this week and we are all heartbroken.

Robert designed his house but Danny built it in his own unique style. Going there was a delight because you couldn’t come away in a bad humour after an hour of stories and laughter, tea and reminiscences. Gill’s lively sense of the absurd mingled with snippets of poetry, stories of Danny’s time in English theatre companies, and classical music always playing in the background. He built himself a tiny sunny workshop and it was here we always found him when we arrived, sawing and drilling and painting. Tables, trays, boxes, chests, mirrors, frames, shelves and shoe racks – even a harp emerged from that cramped space, all painted his signature green and finished in Mondrian-inspired designs. And in between the tools were dotted the eclectic and quirky finds that captured his, or Gill’s, fancy, or works by one of their daughters or grandchildren.

What follows is a photo-essay, an attempt to capture the bundle of creativity and idiosyncrasy, colour, humour and intelligence that was Danny, from images taken mainly in his workshop but also outside the house.

Rest in peace, old friend.