Die formed corner
The hollow tubular corner, shaped using the die forming process, held the openwork decorative strips and protected the corners of the shrine.
A die is a tool used to form metal to a desired shape or profile or to imprint a design on a thin sheet of metal. Depending on the form and the detail required, a die could be made from a block of hard wood such as oak, which was widely available in Ireland or from a lead or steel plate. A simple die could be made by carving a channel into a wood template, matching the required shape to be fabricated. A thin metal sheet was prepared and pressed into the form using a hammer or alternatively a “thick lead” block. The pressed metal sheet conforms to the die’s cavity shape. The die could be used repeatedly to form a consistent uniform shape along the sheet metal. This technique was ideal for forming the half round tubing that framed the cast openwork borders found on St Manchan’s shrine.
For creating more elaborate and detailed designs on sheet metal, which were often used for church seals, flowers and animal motifs, a design was carved on steel plate and the sheet metal pressed into the die. Theophilus describes the process used for decorative work on reliquaries, book covers, and altar panels:
…. thin out some silver much more thinly than for raised work, of whatever length you wish. Clean it with a cloth with finely ground charcoal, scrape chalk onto it and polish it. After doing this, cut out a piece of this silver to fit a border, place the die on an anvil and lay the silver on it. Then put some thick lead on top and strike it hard with a hammer so that the lead forces the thin silver into the carving die.
Text and photography: Kevin O'Dwyer