A history of Ireland in 100 objects Ardagh Chalice, eighth century

Sat, Sep 10, 2011, 01:00

It was found in 1868, under a stone slab in Reerasta, near Ardagh, Co Limerick, with a second, much plainer bronze chalice and four silver brooches. Along with the somewhat later Derrynaflan Chalice, this is one of the finest liturgical vessels of the early Christian world.

Its beauty lies in the contrast between the plain sheen of the polished silver and the finesse and complexity of the ornamentation: gold filigree of stylised beasts, studs of red enamel and blue glass, and beautifully engraved lettering that spells out the names of the Apostles.

Like so much else from this extraordinary period, the chalice suggests a culture that is at once international and insular. “The model,” says Raghnall Ó Floinn of the National Museum of Ireland, “is late Roman tableware, from the early centuries AD. It has parallels not in western Europe but with Byzantine vessels now in St Mark’s in Venice – not because there is direct Eastern influence but because they both draw on a common Roman ancestor.” But the squat shape of the two-handled bowl is indigenously Irish. And the filigree work, with its typical abstraction, is very different from the more realistic Roman style of representation.

This Irish love of complexity is everywhere on the chalice. On the central medallion, the image can be read either as a crucifix or as a marigold.

Numbers play a large part in the design: the 12 Apostles are echoed in the 12 studs and 12 panels of the band at the top. What is extraordinary, though, is the sheer number of pieces that make up the chalice: more than 350.

The skill and complexity lavished on objects such as the Ardagh chalice highlight something that is conspicuous only by its absence. From this golden age of Irish Christianity, there are very few surviving churches. The simple stone oratories that do survive from this period, such as that at Gallarus in Co Kerry, are not at all typical of the general run of contemporary Irish churches. Stone endures, wood perishes – and most churches in Ireland were wooden.

A poem in the exuberant monkish collection Hisperica Famina describes a “wooden oratory . . . fashioned out of candle-shaped beams” and talks of how monks would “hew the sacred oaks with axes, in order to fashion square chapels”. The usual word for a church in early medieval Irish is dairthech – literally, “oak house”.

Typically, these buildings were small, rectangular and relatively plain. So, even while the Irish were making religious objects of astonishing opulence, they were using them in relatively humble spaces.

This tendency to use wood rather than stone was distinctive: in most of Europe, stone churches were regarded as essential marks of prestige. Why not in Ireland? The explanation is certainly not to be found in a lack of skill in masonry – the stonework at Gallarus is exceptionally accomplished. One possibility, hinted at in the mention of the “sacred oak”, is that Ireland retained a pre-Christian attachment to the holiness of trees.

But the obvious reason is that Ireland still had no urban tradition. When the idea of creating towns finally arrived in Ireland, it would come from the outside and at the expense of the culture that lavished its ingenuity on objects such as the Ardagh Chalice.


Thanks to Raghnall Ó Floinn of the National Museum of Ireland

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