Cormac’s Chapel: The Jewel in the Crown (Part 2)

I said I’d be back in a week and it’s been a year! I’ve been working my way through a series of posts on Irish Romanesque architecture (see the bottom of this post for the list so far) and last October I wrote the first of a two part post on Cormac’s Chapel, the Romanesque jewel on the Hill of Cashel in Co Tipperary. Since this is part 2 (unless you’ve read it before and have an amazing memory) go back there now and read up on the Chapel and its history, as well as my detailed description of the exterior.

Illustration by W H Bartlett from The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland by Joseph Coyne and Nathaniel Willis

Right, done that? Great, then come on inside. I was fortunate to visit Cashel last year, when the Chapel was open and I could spend as long as I liked taking photographs inside. This followed many years when it was closed – a conservation measure necessary to address the dampness which plagues stone-roofed buildings. During this open period it was noted that the number of visitors, all emitting carbon dioxide, was having a detrimental effect on the interior, so now it is only accessible during a guided tour and for a limited stay inside. Hopefully, this post will help you see things that you might miss during a short visit, or even items that those excellent guides might not cover.

The interior, looking towards the chancel

This was a royal chapel, used for high ceremonies and built to enhance the prestige of King Cormac. When we think of such edifices, our mind probably pictures a cathedral, but large churches were still in the future in Ireland in the first half of the twelfth century and Cormac’s chapel, although small by European standards, was not outside the normal dimensions of Irish churches of the period. What was important was not its size, but the extraordinary attention to detail and decoration that went into its construction. Moreover, it had a second storey, under the steeply pitched roof. Although we are not completely sure what the functions were of that upper level, it effectively doubled the space available to its users.

The north wall – note the blind arcading and barrel vaulted celing with parallel ribs, and the ornate door that leads to the second storey

Inside, the chapel is a nave and chancel structure, common among Romanesque churches, the only difference being the altar projection at the end of the chancel. The upstairs is accessed through the two square towers (see Part 1) and an ornate door in the north wall opens to a spiral staircase leading up to that floor (not accessible to the public). The size of this door and its elaborately carved orders speaks to its importance in some ceremonial way – O’Keefe says it tempts us to imagine the enactment inside Cormac’s Chapel of some ritual of procession involving relics.* In contrast, the north and south doors, the main entries to the nave, which are ornate on the outside, are relatively plain on the inside.

The nave is barrel vaulted, with parallel ribs running across the ceiling. The walls have blind arcades up to half their height, topped by a string course and a series of columns to support the ribbing. The blind arcade arches are carved with chevrons (above) while the columns between the arcades have irregular checkerboards of chevrons, lozenges and petals (below). The west wall has three windows on its upper stage, although only the middle one admits light now.

Beneath those three windows is a fragment of a large stone box, often described as a sarcophagus, wonderfully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals. Tradition has it that this is the tomb of Cormac himself, and certainly this carving style, although very different from what is found in the rest of the chapel, is probably contemporaneous with it. It was moved to the chapel from the later, Gothic, cathedral, where it was found. Whatever its use, it is a magnificent artefact, the work of a master craftsman.

At the east end of the nave is the chancel arch with four orders. The archivolts of the first order mainly consist of carved heads, each individual and striking. Some are more time-worn than others, but the features can be clearly discerned in many.

The chancel is also rib-vaulted, like the nave, but this time the ribs intersect at a central point, rather than being parallel. Like the nave, the walls have blind arcading above which are further arches and window-openings. Capitals are decorated with scrolls and scallops.

A final arch spans the projection which held an altar. The arcading in this final section is quite elaborate, and two deeply splayed windows provide light to this area.

Once in the chancel area, which has been well lit, you can start to appreciate the vestiges of paintings that would have enlivened the interior of Cormac’s chapel. A conjectural reconstruction of the artwork is provided in an explanatory panel – the chapel must have looked magnificent and colourful indeed. Preserving these precious fragments has been a tremendous effort.

Finally, stand in the nave and take a careful look around – you will see that the chancel is offset to one side of the nave. While some authors have suggested this as a decision to change dimensions midway through the building process (Dermot Bannon’s nightmare) and others have ruminated about mistakes, O’Keefe demurs. It makes a lot more sense, he says, to interpret Cormac’s Chapel as built to plan, and to suggest that the nave widens on the north side to reflect and accommodate the visual spectacles of procession involving both north-side doorways.

Sketch by Richard Lovett, from his Irish Pictures. The ‘offset chancel is clearly seen in this illustration

There you have it – the glorious high point of Irish Romanesque architecture inside and out. If you haven’t been to Cashel yet, there’s a treat in store. And if you have, well, go again, and make sure to sign up for the guided tour that includes Cormac’s chapel.

The interior of Cormac’s Chapel sketched by George Victor duNoyer for George Petrie**

Previous posts on Irish Romanesque architecture

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

Irish Romanesque 2 – Doorways

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

*Once again, I relied heavily on Prof Tadhg O’Keefe’s manuscriptRomanesque Ireland: Architecture and Ideology in the Twelfth Century, which he has generously uploaded to Academia.

**George Victor Du Noyer, “Cormac’s Chapel Cashel. Original sketch for Petrie’s engraving in his book on the Round Towers. Geo V Du Noyer. Delt Nov 1840,” Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, accessed October 21, 2018, http://rsai.locloudhosting.net/items/show/22213

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!

Irish Romanesque – an Introduction

This post will introduce you to one of the most exciting aspects of our architectural heritage – the building style known as Romanesque, which in Ireland became the dominant form in the 12th Century. Characterised by flamboyant doorways and elaborate carvings, it replaced an earlier and much plainer indigenous Irish church-building form of which few unmodified traces remain.

An early church at Liathmore, Co Tipperary. Note the square doorway with a simple linteled top. The projections of the sidewalls beyond the gables, known as antae, are a feature common to many early churches

Most churches in the Early Christian (or Early Medieval) era in Ireland were probably built of wood, although some early stone examples survive, such as the one Robert wrote about in his post Molaga of the Bees. Defining characteristics of these churches were their relative plainness – one rectangular space, often quite small, with a linteled portal, one or two small windows, projecting antae, and finials atop the gables.

Leaba Molaga, or Molaga’s Bed – note the antae and small linteled doorway. The reconstruction drawing in the leading photograph above is based on this building

Besides Molaga’s Bed, we have seen several of these early churches on our travels – last year at Oughtmama when we spent a day with Susan Byron (see Susan’s Burren) in Clare, and earlier this year when we stopped off the M8 to visit the churches at Liathmore. This week we saw two more, one at Ardfert and another at Kilmalkedar, both in Kerry. (Robert also writes about Kilmalkedar this week, although concentrating on other aspects). However, in each case, the native form has been modified by the influence of the Romanesque style.

Both photographs were taken at Oughtmama in Co Clare. In the first, a simple linteled doorway leads into a large nave, which was later modified with the addition of a chancel, accessed through a Romanesque arch. In the second, the small doorway, although no bigger than the first example, is in the Romanesque, arched, style

Romanesque was the pan-European architectural style of the 11th century. More than just a construction method, it was an ideological movement. After a period known generally as the Dark Ages in Europe, the renaissance of scholarship and art in the 11th century harkened back to the idea of the antique Christian culture, with all the construction and engineering skills of the Romans. As in every era, the elite wished to associate themselves with this and Romanesque architecture gained popularity for great buildings such as cathedrals and castles.

A great Romanesque Church, Sant’ Ambrogio, in Milan. The Romanesque period of its construction dates to the 12th century – about the same time as Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel, generally reckoned to be the high point of Irish Romanesque architecture, was being built. More on Cormac’s Chapel in the next post

This was a period when people, especially clergy, from all over Europe travelled to great pilgrimage sites such as Compostela or Rome and this helped to spread ideas within the Christian world. In Europe the Romanesque style was well established by the mid 1000s and flourished until it was gradually replace by Gothic beginning in the mid-12th century. It took longer to reach Ireland, and didn’t really become the dominant church-building style until the 12th century.

This is one of two Romanesque sites at Ardfert. We are looking through the chancel arch into the nave. Note the roll-mouldings where antae would once have been, and also the small arched west doorway

In Ireland the simple rectangular stone-built early medieval churches with their antae, linteled entrances and finialed gables were gradually replaced or modified starting in the mid 1000’s. Romanesque churches become nave-and-chancel buildings rather than one rectangular room. The chancel is separated from the nave by a rounded arch, and windows have similar arched tops and are deeply splayed on the inside, often asymmetrically.

Kilmalkedar church in Kerry. While antae remain, the portal is now in the full Romanesque style  with an arch, a couple of receding ‘orders’, chevron carvings and a carved head

The doorway is in the west wall (on the opposite side to the chancel and the altar) and is now arched rather than linteled. The walls of the nave may have blind arcading. There is clear evidence that they were painted – a few vestigial examples survive in Ireland.

At Kilmalkedar, the finials still top the gables. The stone roof can be clearly seen, or at least what remains of it

The roof are sometimes stone, and may contain attic-type spaces.

Two examples of Romanesque arched windows. The first (from Kilmalkedar) is topped by a simple arch hewn from one stone. In the second example the arch is more sophisticated. It is constructed using voussoirs – precisely cut wedge-shaped stones – which are beautifully carved with geometric and foliate shapes

But the real glory of the Romanesque building style, and what makes it so attractive for visitors are the carvings – a feature that is curiously absent from the Early Medieval church forms that preceded the Romanesque. (I say ‘curiously’ because other forms of stone carving, such as our wonderful high crosses, are well known from pre-Romanesque contexts in Ireland, as well as decorative metalwork and manuscripts.) Doorways, chancel arches and window surrounds are often carved with a variety of floral and geometric motifs (especially chevrons), while heads of humans and animals are found around doorways and arches, and occasionally outside. 

The chancel arch and blind arcading at Kilmalkedar

This post is just an introduction to Irish Romanesque, intended to cover the basics of the form and get you comfortable with the terminology. I have deliberately avoided talking about the carvings and the more spectacular of the sites. But in my next post on this topic I will concentrate on the doorways. There are many fine examples, from the simple to the elaborate – they are truly one of the wonders of our Irish architectural heritage. Here’s a sneak peek…

And by the way – this post is a celebration of sorts: it’s the 400th post in Roaringwater Journal! Our first post ever was in October 2012. With a five month hiatus (in order to move countries) we’ve been blogging faithfully week after week ever since. Our practice is that we, Robert and Finola, publish one post each every Sunday (and update the Table of Contents on the Navigation Page as we go along). We love the way this lends a shape to our week; we love the research and the photography; we love your feedback, both here and on our Facebook Page. Thank you, our wonderful readers, for sticking with us. Long may it continue!