A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Aug 20, 2011, 01:00

Church door handle, circa 700-720

Found on a riverbank in Donore, Co Meath, in 1984, this is almost certainly the handle for a door to a church. Its opulence and sophistication tell us how far Irish monasteries had already come from the ascetic, unworldly impulses behind their original foundation. It opens a door into a period of obvious prosperity, in which the church is fully integrated in the structures of power.

The handle is a spectacular and supremely confident expression of technological mastery. It is made up of three pieces: a beautifully engraved circular plate of tinned bronze, a splendid lion’s head that was probably formed in a clay cast, and a frame that was probably made from a wax model. The lion’s eyes are inlaid with brown glass that is made to look like amber.

As well as its technological sophistication, the handle’s artistry is evidence of a confident cosmopolitanism. The lion’s head obviously comes from Roman traditions (similar images were used in Roman temples) and from biblical iconography (the lion is often a symbol for the evangelist St Mark). More specifically, this lion is similar to one featured in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the superb illuminated manuscript from Northumbria.

Irish, Pictish, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon influences are mingling to produce a vigorous stew of visual styles. But the idea of the lion as doorkeeper is also a more broadly European image, found, for example, in the palaces of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne.

All of this is a far cry from the origins of monasticism in the deserts of north Africa and Asia Minor as a way of fleeing the entanglements of the ordinary world. This ascetic strain certainly survived in Ireland, most notably in the stark remoteness of the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael, off the Kerry coast. But there is nothing stark or remote about this door handle: it speaks of a worldly and cosmopolitan church with connections both to local politics and to international currents.

It is significant, indeed, that Irish monks seeking to attain the original monastic ideal of removal felt it necessary to go to Skellig or even, by the end of the eighth century, to Iceland. The need to go to such literal extremes suggests an awareness that the mainstream monasteries were increasingly integral to the economic and political life of the country. They enjoyed the patronage of, and were intertwined with, the powerful local dynasties that were asserting their control over an expanding and increasingly productive society. This was a period of great clearances of forests, of the expansion of arable land and of the building of perhaps as many as 50,000 ring forts as enclosures for well-off farmers. The church was a key part of this expansive Ireland.

This was a church that felt confident enough to engage in long and bitter disputes with Rome about the correct date for the most important Christian festival, Easter. It was developing new ideas about pilgrimage and penance that had a profound influence on Christianity as a whole. And it was not embarrassed to display its wealth and sophistication on a church door.


Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2, 01-6777444, museum.ie