A Medieval High Cross – Out of Place

I was intrigued by this advertisement in the current edition of the Irish Arts Review (March – May 2020). Morgan O’Driscoll is based in Skibbereen, West Cork and specialises in Irish art. Paul Henry (1876 – 1958) fought an uphill battle in his own lifetime to get his work recognised. In 1911 Paul Henry and his wife Grace exhibited in Leinster Hall, Dublin. One critic commented that the Henrys: ‘ . . . seldom rise above the dead level of mediocrity and too often fall below it . . . ‘  In that exhibition was a work, The Potato Diggers: it didn’t sell until the 1930s. In 2013 it was included in a sale by James Adams & Sons, Dublin – and fetched €400,000! Just a decade ago, a Paul Henry might have been expected to sell for a few thousand – now, 40 years after his death, he’s a star!

Paul Henry painted by his wife Grace in 1899

So why am I intrigued by the O’Driscoll advertisement? Take another look – the title of the painting is given as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg. I have taken an interest in Irish medieval High Crosses, and published a few articles on them in this Journal. In particular, this one – The Wonders of Monasterboice. Here’s a couple of photos from that post: the left one is an image of the west face of Muiredach’s Cross taken in the early years of the twentieth century – when the carving appears to be more clearly defined than it is today – and on the right is Finola, giving scale to the same cross just a couple of years ago. This cross – named after Abbot Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923AD – is one of the finest in the country, standing 5.5 metres tall.

Looking at a detail from the Paul Henry painting (above), there is a remarkable similarity between the ‘Lough Derg’ cross and Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice. So – I hear you suggest – are they twins? Not exactly: in fact, through the medium of painting, one cross can be in two places at once! There is no ‘Celtic Cross’ at Lough Derg, so our artist has taken Muiredach’s Cross and placed it in his picture. Why?

At this point I can’t resist showing you this antiquarian drawing of Muiredach’s Cross (above), probably dating from the eighteenth century, although I haven’t been able to find the author of it. It’s fascinating that all the elements of the cross are portrayed: the central figure in the roundel – presumably Christ – the various figures on the  panels above and below and on either side, and the two cats on the base looking very much like comfortable fireside moggies. But look how all the images have become stylised: medieval has been transported to Georgian neo-classical!

Baccanale – an example of a 1782 copperplate engraving by Marco Carloni, Rome

Before we explain Paul Henry’s stretching of the truth, let’s consider something else: there are a few Lough Dergs in the country, but the most famous – and the one most likely to be depicted by an artist who is showing off Ireland might be Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which I covered in this post, also from two years ago.

Lough Derg, showing the pilgrimage site of Station island, and the surrounding landscape

It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to see the setting of Lough Derg, with its fairly low-lying hills, in the background of Paul Henry’s painting. And where is that little tower house on the spit of land behind the ‘Celtic Cross’? Well – maybe it’s here:

This painting by Paul Henry is known as Grace O’Malley’s Castle: it is picturesquely situated at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, County Mayo, which Paul and Grace first visited in 1910. So inspired were they by the landscape and the apparently idyllic simple way of life that they remained on Achill for a decade. Here’s another view of the O’Malley castle by Paul Henry:

So the ‘Celtic Cross at Lough Derg’ is, in fact, a medieval high cross from Monasterboice, County Louth, and it is set against the stunning scenery of Achill, County Mayo. We can’t blame Morgan O’Driscoll (or anyone else who can be identified) for giving the painting a misleading name. It seems that originally the work was just titled ‘Celtic Cross’: here are some insights from Paul Henry’s biographer, Brian Kennedy, in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1989 / 1990 –

. . . Henry was egocentric and occasionally used artistic licence with historical facts in the same way he might have done in a painted composition . . .

. . . In 1917 the Irish Times thought he was developing a decorative treatment of the landscape whereby his imagery was not realistic but was symbolically Irish . . .

And the following is from Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, by S B Kennedy, Paul HenryYale University Press, 2007: it tells us that the painting was clearly known as ‘Celtic Cross’ in 1924, and was in the collection of Seán T O’Kelly, Ireland’s second President (between  June 1945 and June 1959). When sold by Adams in 1984 the painting had acquired the additional wording . . . at Lough Derg . . .

. . . 611 Celtic Cross 1924. Oil on board 24 x 22 (61 x 56). Signed ‘PAUL HENRY’ . . .

Private collection. Prov: Sean T O’Kelly; sale, Adams, Dublin 19 July 1984. Lot 86, as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg, repr. Irish Travel, vol 7, no 10, June 1937 repr. on front cover. Almost certainly a composite composition . . .

As with most artists – who need to earn a living – Paul Henry willingly accepted commissions. He was successful in selling ‘popular’ work to railway companies and the Irish Tourist Association (above – 1920s and 30s).

A “Lough Derg” design is mentioned in the Railway Company’s letter (above). Below is another – for British Railways: this is more likely to be the Lough Derg on the Shannon.

Has this helped to unravel the enigma of Paul Henry’s Celtic Cross at Lough Derg? Whether or not you are convinced, I’m sure you would like to have the painting hanging on your wall – me too! Although it would be so much better if it could go permanently into a public collection The sale is coming up in April . . .

 

A Visit to Knock

Our travels have taken us to quite a few Christian pilgrimage sites in Ireland: they are all fascinating, and range from St Patrick’s holy mountain  – Croagh Patrick (where snakes were cast out of this country forever) – through the rather daunting Station Island on Lough Derg (where a medieval pilgrim entered, and returned from, Purgatory) to the more ‘unofficial’ shrine at Ballinspittle, here in West Cork, where a statue of the Virgin was seen to move (by hundreds of onlookers) in 1985. Recently we found ourselves in Mayo, so a trip to Ireland’s most impressive shrine – at Knock – was essential.

These illustrations show the evolution of the shrine. At the header is the updated interior of the Parish Church of Knock-Aghamore today, showing the beautiful high altar which was made by P J Scannell of Cork and which was presented as a gift during a pilgrimage in 1880. Behind this east wall is the gable where, on 1st August 1879, fifteen local people witnessed an apparition of Mary, Joseph, St John the Evangelist, and a lamb on an altar which seemed to float, stationary and silent, in front of the wall. It was 8pm and the rain was pouring down, yet the gable wall and the ground in front of it remained dry. The vision – which was also seen by others – seemed to last for about two hours. The upper picture above, which probably dates from around 1880, shows the gable and in front of it a rack of crutches and other paraphernalia apparently left by those cured at the shrine. The very first recorded cure, which happened soon after the vision, was of Delia Gordon, a young girl from nearby Claremorris, who was instantly cured of an acute ear infection and deafness after her mother scraped a little of the plaster off the gable wall and placed it into her ear. You can see in the upper picture where considerable amounts of the plaster appear to have been removed (presumably, following that first cure); by the 1930s (second picture) an iron fence had been erected to protect the wall. In 1963 (third picture), a dedicated chapel had been built in front of the gable, and today (fourth picture) a modern Apparition Chapel is in place to contain the large number of pilgrims who attend mass there on a daily basis. You can also see the elegant sculptures which have been installed on the wall to represent the figures of the apparition.

The vision is superbly depicted in this enormous mosaic which has recently been installed in the Basilica at Knock. P J Lynch, the artist who designed the mosaic, said he . . . tried hard to capture the sense of the wonder that the witnesses must have felt on that wet August evening back in 1879 . . . The mosaic measures 14 metres square and is one of the largest single flat pieces of religious mosaic of its kind in Europe: it is made predominantly from Venetian glass smalti and there are approximately 1.5 million individual pieces of mosaic in the complete work.

This is original stonework from the gable wall to the Parish Church: the lower picture is a panel built in to the modern Apparition Chapel wall. The statements made by the 15 witnesses who saw the vision at the wall in 1879 are fully documented here – an official Commission of Enquiry was held by the Catholic Church in that same year and concluded . . . the words of the witnesses were trustworthy and satisfactory . . . a further investigation in 1936 interviewed the then surviving witnesses, who corroborated what they had seen. Mary Byrne, who was 29 at the time of the apparition and 86 during the second enquiry said . . . I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God . . . She died shortly afterwards. John Curry, the youngest witness, was 5 in 1879. The child said . . . he saw images, beautiful images, the Blessed Virgin and St Joseph. He could state no more than that he saw the fine images and the light, and heard the people talk of them, and stood upon the wall to see them . . . He confirmed his memories when interviewed in new York for the 1936 enquiry.

Over a million people a year come to Knock, in search of faith, enlightenment, cures perhaps: or just out of curiosity. It is a place with a great sense of purpose – and long may it continue. As a (now retired) church architect I was distinctly struck by the enormous Basilica which was constructed initially in the 1970s and which has been refurbished very recently. It is spectacular in its size and scale and is fittingly  furnished with powerful works of art. In particular I was impressed by the large, harrowing, painted Stations of the Cross: unfortunately – and strangely – I can find no record anywhere of the artist.

If you have a spare couple of hours it’s worth finding and watching this entertaining and fair-minded documentary about Knock, made by RTÉ in 2016:

I make no judgments as to the veracity or otherwise of what was witnessed on that day in 1879. There have been many theories put forward, ranging from magic lanterns to unrest provoked by the Land Acts! But why should we doubt the faith of anyone, whatever their religion? The Christian story is all about miracles, so surely miracles are just as possible in the 19th century as they were in the 1st… The village of Knock carries on its normal life around all the trappings of the shrine: shops selling statues and Holy Water bottles abound, and add to the colour. On the site you can look out the well-curated museum, and treat yourself to good refreshments. It’s all worth visiting, even if your interest is purely anthropological. The Pope himself will be there this August and all the 45,000 (free) tickets have been booked. If the sun keeps on shining – and perhaps it will – it’ll be a grand day for all!