Carved Panels from Urnes Stave Church
Photography: Kevin O'Dwyer
Detail from side panel of Saint Manchan's Shrine
photography: Kevin O'Dwyer
Late Viking art and the Urnes style
The influence of late Viking art on St Manchan’s shrine has been recognised for nearly a century now. The animal ornament on the shrine is a blending of Irish art with that of the Scandinavian Urnes style, which may be called Hiberno-Urnes, or Irish-Urnes, style. While the Vikings had a significant influence on Ireland from the ninth century, it was not until the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we see aspects of Scandinavian art being more widely adopted across the country. This is perhaps surprising given that Irish art and Viking art are both animal-based and are quite similar. The Viking settlers in Ireland and their descendants in the Hiberno-Scandinavian towns of Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick, maintained a distinct identity over the centuries. These urban communities kept in touch with Scandinavia and Viking and Scandinavian influence was felt in Ireland down to the period of the Anglo-Norman conquest. However, it was only after the Hiberno-Scandinavian communities became Christian and later when Irish kings started to rule directly over the towns that we see the influence of Viking art more widely in Ireland. The political changes may have facilitated the movement of craftsmen, apprentices, and the exchange of ideas and culture. The influence of late Viking art in this period can be seen in metalwork, sculpture and manuscript art. At a local level, the influence can be clearly seen in the animal decoration on the head of the late-eleventh-century Clonmacnoise crosier.
Urnes stave church and St Manchan’s shrine
Viking art has been divided into different stylistic groupings by modern scholars. These groupings generally follow each other chronologically and have been named after famous examples of each style. The very last Viking art style is called the Urnes style and is named after Urnes stave church in western Norway. This twelfth-century timber church, which is incredibly significant, incorporates reused elements from an earlier church that dates from 1070. Several of the older elements are covered with vigorous, animal-ornament carvings on a large scale and are some of the most impressive examples of Viking art in the world. The carvings are even more remarkable because they survive in wood, which makes us think about the art in wood that we have lost, not only in Scandinavia, but in Ireland too. Fragments of early carved wood, including pieces in the Urnes style, were recovered in the National Museum of Ireland excavations in Dublin, indicating that Ireland had a rich tradition of wood carving.
While Urnes stave church appears to be in a remote location today, it is situated on the Sognefjord, one of the most important maritime routeways in Norway. The early ornament on the church consists of three types of animals, including an animal with four legs, a snake-like creature, and a hybrid animal featuring one or two legs. These animals intertwine with one another and form loops and figures-of-eight with their bodies. The exact same three animal types make up the looping ornament on St Manchan’s shrine and form the basic composition of the Urnes style across Scandinavia. The style was current in Scandinavia in the second half of the eleventh century and the early twelfth century but continued to flourish in places like Gotland and Ireland after that. In Scandinavia, the style principally survives in stone sculpture on decorated runestones, but also in metalwork on brooches.
In Ireland, the influence of the style is seen in religious art where it occurs on reliquaries and crosiers, on sculpted high crosses, and in manuscript decoration. However, it was not directly copied by Irish craftsmen, it was incorporated into the tradition of Irish animal art, and, in this sense, it gave Irish art a creative boost at the time. One of the main differences between the animal art on St Manchan’s shrine and that at Urnes, is that the Irish preferred their art to be symmetrical. The result of this is that the vigorous struggling nature of the animals depicted at Urnes is not found in Ireland, where the animals tend to form more regular patterns. Notably, it is only on the gables of the shrine that we get the expanses of ornament we find in Scandinavia, while on the principal faces the animal ornament mainly occurs in panels in the Irish tradition. While the scale of Urnes stave church is completely different and there is nothing comparable on St Manchan’s shrine to its relief sculpture, the low relief carvings at Urnes are very comparable to the ornament on the shrine, in particular its decorated gables. In this we can see that St Manchan’s shrine mimics the decorated gables of a timber church, and it implies that decorated wooden churches like Urnes existed in Ireland at the time. Indeed, most churches in Ireland would have been made of wood up until 1200 and the evidence from Dublin suggests a well-established tradition of wood carving in Ireland.
The Hiberno-Urnes style was popular in Ireland from the late eleventh century until the late twelfth century, but with its main flourishing in the first half of the twelfth century. It occurs on the shrine of St Patrick’s bell from Armagh, which dates from around 1100, the Lismore crosier, dating from before 1113, and on St Laichtín’s arm-shrine from Donoughmore, Co. Cork, dating from 1118 – 1121. It can also be seen in stone sculpture on a remarkable sarcophagus at Cashel, Co. Tipperary, and on a group of early twelfth-century high crosses. Later vestiges of the style can be seen on Irish Romanesque churches dating from the second half of the twelfth century. It was also used in manuscript art, most notably on an Irish missal, now in Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
However, the most well-known example of the Hiberno-Urnes style is the Cross of Cong from Cong, Co. Mayo, now in the National Museum of Ireland. The cross was commissioned in 1123 by king Turlough O’Connor to enshrine a relic of Christ’s Cross. Its original home was probably Tuam, Co. Galway, which became the archdiocese for Connacht, and where there is a large stone cross dating from 1127 also decorated in the Hiberno-Urnes style that was also commissioned by Turlough O’Connor. The connections between the Cross of Cong and St Manchan’s shrine are, in fact, remarkable and by examining the cross in more detail it can reveal a great deal about St Manchan’s shrine.