Review Essay by Jules McCue
Saint Manchan’s Shrine is a 12th century 60-cm wide reliquary on permanent display in the Boher Catholic Church, County Offaly. Below is a review by Jules McCue of a recently published limited edition monograph.
Saint Manchan’s Shrine: Art and Devotion in twelfth-century Ireland is an elegant monograph that examines a single artifact with explicit historic reference and detailed description. Whilst essentially investigating one main item, belonging to one small parish in County Offaly, connections to broader spiritual and material cultures of the Irish-European Romanesque confirm the historical, ecclesiastical, and political knowledge gathered over many centuries.
The shrine is a masterpiece of twelfth century medieval art and has been acknowledged by scholars since the early nineteenth century. Since then, the shrine’s relevance has been recognised as a miraculous survivor of brutal Irish histories, cultural and social interventions and a continuum of invasion and immigration. The authors explain that misunderstandings about the saint and ‘fundamental aspects’ of the shrine, still exist today. This book not only brings us the shrine to investigate and booster our interpretation but also enables us to see it in light of other artifacts and objets d’art, belonging to this period.
There are sumptuous photographic images by Kevin O’Dwyer throughout the monograph. Their sentient power awakens our visual perception, titillating all senses: glistening metal surfaces carefully lit to convey the varying depths of the relief, moulded and carved forms, rendering significant nuance, so that the viewer is imbued with a sense of mystery extending the imagination retrospectively to a time of the mystics. The photographic images play out the drama embedded in the narrative, the long and precarious adventures of the shrine over approximately 900 years. O’Dwyer has also supplied us with photos of the stained-glass windows that adorn the church at Boher, where the shrine now lives, rendering images of the celebrated saint and folkloric traditions that surround his life. The photographs and other images act as interpolators to the multi-faceted story, accurate, though, enriched by a sense of myth and the numinous. The book brings to mind Tadgh O’Keefe’s suggestions for new ways of approaching historical artefacts.
In Archaeology and the Pan- European Romanesque, Tadgh O’ Keeffe outlines some ‘general trends’ apparent in the voluminous treasure of twentieth century scholarship surrounding the style, ‘Romanesque’. He proposes that buildings and some objects might be more accurately understood through archaeological methods of investigation. He concludes that we must not accept past scholarly information as being a ‘black box’ of locked-in facts and interpretations, suggesting that we take an approach of continued, open-ended scrutiny from ‘then’ till ‘now’, as knowledge grows, evolves and adapts.
In Saint Manchan’s Shrine, Griffin Murray contributes to research and text, Kevin O’Dwyer to both text and images. They have, indeed, interrogated this early twelfth century Irish-European, sacred artifact. Like sacred architecture, the shrine is emblematic, conveying its social and cultural contexts, requiring scholarly exegesis. Sadly, it is the only one extant and sufficiently complete to inform us of the aesthetic and functional characteristics of other possible, contemporary shrines, though they explain that: ‘the form of the shrine, which is somewhat unusual, may draw from both Irish and continental traditions.’
This monograph also provides deep insights into religious practices and power struggles of the time, both ecclesiastical and secular. Though St Manchan or ‘Monaghan’ lived and died in the seventh century, the shrine holding his relics points to his continued significance in his parish, Lemanaghan. It is the largest surviving reliquary from Medieval Ireland to be housed continuously in its original locale. Not only is the shrine placed in the contexts from which it derives, but in this book, a relationship with the larger parish of Clonmacnoise is considered. Also revealed, is the name of the master craftsman responsible, where his workshop was situated and why he enjoyed such rich patronage from reigning king Turlough O’Connor.
Griffin Murray lectures in the Department of Archaeology, University College, Cork, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians and specialises in medieval art. His previous intensive study: The Cross of Cong: A Masterpiece of Medieval Irish Art, was published in 2014. Collaborations in other dissertations include: The Medieval Treasures of County Kerry in 2010 and Urnes Stave Church and Its Global Romanesque Connections. All of the items examined have significant characteristics found in Saint Manchan’s Shrine, drawing lines through comparative explanations when describing the decorative, formal, cultural, social, technical and geographic aspects of the shrine, that make up the substance of the textual study.
Kevin O’Dwyer is an internationally celebrated metalsmith and sculptor, and as is conveyed in this beautiful monograph, specialist photographer of objets d’arts. The jacket notes tell us that his interest in early Irish metalwork and archaeology were the conduits that lead to his metalwork practice. His work is held in the grand state museums of London, Dublin and further.
It is unusual to give this much space to the makers of a book, but this they are, the monograph itself being a work of art. The research, writing, photography and overall artistic direction are integral to the formal analysis of this handsome shrine, a multi-layered structure of composite elements, low relief figures and decorative metal work now covered in a surface texture and pattern incrusted in the patina of age and a little misfortune. Book and object are products of the Irish mind: observance, devotion, originality, creative, and imaginative freedom.
Artificer or Artist?
In his 1902 book Art and Ireland, Robert Elliot conveys the craftsmanship of the old Irish metalworker as being instilled with a profound ingenuity:
In metal work, as we know as well, this sense of decorative design was as great as that of any artist in any period, . . . When looking at some very imperfect work [in some of its details] we may feel, in spite of these imperfections, the power of artistic sincerity; and when that sincerity has a rightful objective we feel an undoubted joy, . . . ; for here we are face to face with the sincere man himself, who is technically clever and a great designer to boot.
Elliot questioned whether he should describe the blacksmith as ‘artificer’ rather than ‘artist’. The debate goes on. Now, we see him as a manufacturer of functional items, but at the time of the shrine’s creation, these artisans made beautiful and expressive art objects. Thus, Saint Manchan’s Shrine holds the secrets and keys to the great flowering in early twelfth century spiritual Ireland, the land of saints, scholars, artists, and poets in collaboration. The authors assert that:
Despite the losses and damage to the shrine, it can still be appreciated as a masterpiece of metal craftsmanship and is undoubtedly one of the most important treasures of Ireland.
This monograph is necessary reading not just for scholars of medieval Ireland but all who are interested in Irish Studies. Though this was a time of invention, paramount is the accretion of wisdom passed down from the ancients to augment these new and glorious forms. Though created of the insular, it was in neither splendid nor ignorant isolation. The authors’ objective is to deepen our understanding of the historical and spiritual realities, as much as can be gleaned from available evidence, tying together both regional and continental aspects of medieval crafting, bringing new evidence of the cross-fertilisation of ideas and techniques, all of which account for the trans-historical life of the shrine through the silence of time.
The construction of the shrine is described at length, much knowledge obtained due to some surfaces now being incomplete, revealing under layers, structural methods, and ritualistic function. O’Keeffe suggests that to fully understand an artifact:
Critical analysis goes hand in hand with historical contextualisation.
Though the shrine was built in the early twelfth century, Saint Manchan died in AD. 644. Contextual evidence allows the authors to point to possible reasons the saint’s life and work might be commemorated years later by such craftsmanship. The reader will find the evidence pertaining to his life and family compelling and rich, including a poem that fuses nature and the sacred, expressing delight in God’s glorious creating of such a perfect place in which the saint may carry out his spiritual duties. The poem gives clues to what might be an explicit setting and the folk traditions of Saint Manchan’s time and place.
Local excavations reveal much about how important events ‘are measured by significant remnant constructions, such as split-oak roads’, and other treasures revealed in preserving bogs. Tadgh O’Keeffe emphasises the importance of ecclesiastical reform and monastic revivalism of the time, and stresses the significance of ‘the role of pilgrimage in the dissemination of the Romanesque.’
Alongside what is known about the historical and political background, the authors are able to build a picture that constructs a narrative of protagonists described in the Annals and other manuscripts. For example, at this time the kings of Connaught held the high seat but this was not accepted by all-Ireland, so they were termed High Kings with Opposition. Political alliances made between church and state reinforced authority and a king’s belief that his connections, historical and contemporary, were a sign of his right to rule. These powerful men gave splendid gifts to monasteries, which were to become bishoprics and dioceses, as the Irish church conformed to the wishes of Rome.
Rivalry for ecclesiastical authority played out between hereditary sacred sites, mostly relating to the life and work of the major establisher of Christian Ireland, Saint Patrick in the 5th century AD. By the twelfth century, the monasteries and parishes of Saint Manchan’s realm were under the rule of King Turlough O’Connor. The authors make substantial and explicit links to his patronage.
Saint Manchan’s shrine has had an eventful history since the seventeenth century which has seen it survive a war, and a theft. Since the mid-nineteenth century, it has been well known and celebrated, not only in Ireland, but across the western world. Yet, it remains in the same locality it was created for around nine hundred years ago, where it continues to be venerated. As in the case of other antiquities, we are reminded that the audience for which Saint Manchan’s Shrine was built was a time of relics and sacred places, of profound devotion and a closer proximity to the arcane Irish past. We are only able to translate its meaning today, as is the method of unwrapping ancient manuscripts and other records. Where there is doubt, the authors are prudent, ‘both possibilities being highly significant’. Some facts are reiterated, to aid recollection from previous chapters.
Whilst Latin was the language of the then Christian religion and rituals, it is believed that in Ireland, much poetry and other texts were at that time written in the vernacular for a predominately Irish and ecclesiastical audience. There are two major Gaelic Irish families mentioned in relation to the preservation of the shrine. Naturally, at this time the ruling class would have been considerably well-educated and as part of their religious observance: they most likely acquired some Latin; the language of Rome, the central point from where the Romanesque style emanated. Many forget that Latin was for some in Ireland, another language, up until recently. O’Keeffe clarifies:
The regularity of architectural form can potentially be thought of as a product of the same ideology that regularised Latin grammar and orthography in the ninth century and later, and especially in the twelfth century...
There is another parallel between Romanesque, as historically conceived, and ‘Romana lingua’. Latin was really a second language in the middle ages [sic], acquired by people whose vernacular tongues were Romance or Germanic. The proper spoken use of Latin, when delivered in the appropriate context was an indicator of status: a fluent Latin communicator was educated and would have been well-connected within the contemporary Christian intellectual milieu because Latin language and literacy were part of Church culture.
O’Keeffe equates Romanesque in architecture and objects as also being a language. They speak as symbols and signs conveyed from specific social and cultural conditions. He imagines clerics and brethren switching tongues from their vernacular to the language of sacred rituals, and he parallels shifts from vernacular architecture of folk traditions to that pertaining to the origin of the western Christian church, the ‘romanitas’. Thus, the leading local Irish families and the relevant high kings were entangled in the church hierarchical structure. Murray and O’Dwyer carefully make links that further prove the aforementioned structure of a religious society at the time of the ‘Romanesque’, drawing comparisons with other significant church architecture in various parts of Ireland.
As king, Muirchertach Ua Brien attached himself to Cashel and Armagh in the late eleventh century, so too in the early twelfth century, the then king of Ireland, Turlough O’Connor, chose Clonmacnoise, ‘the ancient burial place of kings’.
In this monograph. mysteries have been solved; lacunas infilled. However, various contradictions and surprises are also revealed, through the unfolding story of several cultures merging to make something new, fresh, and dynamic, such as is found in this compact reliquary of the Hiberno-Norse style embedded in the Romanesque of the late medieval Christian empire, in Ireland.
For those of us who might never be able to visit the shrine in person, this splendid book is the next best thing, and we are delighted and grateful.
All photographic images supplied courtesy of Kevin O’Dwyer. All rights reserved.
Griffin Murray and Kevin O’Dwyer, Saint Manchan’s Shrine: Art and Devotion in twelfth century Ireland, Silver River Studios, Tullamore, County Offaly, Ireland, 2022
Tadhg O’Keeffe, Archaeology and The Pan-European Romanesque, Duckworth, London, 2007.
Robert Elliot, Art and Ireland, [Kennikat Press Scholarly Reprints, port Washington, New York, London, 1902], p. 11 -1
Jules McCue is a Wollongong based artist, musician, writer, teacher, and independent researcher. She has written many essays about artists and their work, for example: Extraordinary Exhibition: Holy Threads: Savanhdary Vongpoothorn, ; Black Man in a Whiteman’s World: Indigenous Art in NSW Jails  ; Allan Mansell: The Creation of Visual Stories from an Original Tasmanian . Her Masters Dissertation: Wildflowers and White Porcelain and Circles and Seeds: a study of the History of Women Artists through Still Life Painting , University of Wollongong. Conference Papers include Not Surrealism, Magical Realism , Katheen and Kitty: Two Women; a painter and a composer/pianist, both of Irish heritage , and Historical Ireland: control and cadastrophe through stories of circumjacent mythology, weird and wonderful, ambiguous shapings of the
vigorous mind . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: julesmccue.com