Insular Art: Three Best Examples of Early Irish Metalwork

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

Metalworking was one of the major insular style art forms prevalent in early Irish society. Examples of early Irish metalwork are also the most widely documented because metal lasts longer than other materials. Let’s take a look at some of the best examples of early Irish metalworking and learn more about this art.

A small plate, called a paten, with a stand at the bottom and a strainer in the middle, and repeated gold decorative   patterns around the edge.
Early Irish metalwork seem to have developed around the third and fourth centuries.
(Image: Kglavin/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The techniques and motifs of early Irish metalwork seem to have come about in the third and fourth centuries due to trading contacts between Ireland and Roman Britain. Those are the earliest objects we have that display the newer hybrid art style that draws on various traditions, including the La Tène motifs.

Almost everything that survives in metalwork from early Ireland is related to religion in some way (reliquaries and altar vessels were the most common, but you also see bells and bishop’s crosiers). There is one notable exception, namely, brooches.

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The Ardagh Chalice

Probably the most famous liturgical object to survive from this period is the Ardagh Chalice, which is on display in Dublin in the National Museum of Ireland. It has an interesting history. It was found in 1868 near a ringfort in County Limerick by two boys who were digging potatoes. Their spade struck something metallic, and that’s how they proceeded to discover this hoard.

We have no idea when or why it was buried; it was common in this period to bury precious objects when you were worried about losing them to violence, which was all too common. Sometimes you came back to dig them up, and sometimes you didn’t.

The chalice dates from about the 8th century. It is decorated with animals, birds, and geometric interlace, but the truly amazing thing about it is the fact that the underside is also richly decorated. Now, why would you expend the effort to decorate the bottom of an object? Is this just a way of showing how great a metalworker you are?

Well, remember what this is. It’s a chalice for the wine that is turned into the Blood of Christ during the mass. At the moment of consecration, the chalice is elevated by the priest, and at that point, you can see the richly decorated underside. So, the statement is that no part of this sacred object is unworthy of decoration.

The decoration also makes a statement about the patron who paid for the chalice. Whoever it was, it was a wealthy person, because then as now, it is the labor that costs the most, so adding this decoration would have made the chalice much more expensive.

One way to think about this is to consider how difficult it was to make objects. We can see this on a very intriguing artifact called a ‘trial piece’, that is a piece of bone on which a metalworker would practice the motifs that would later be incised on the metal. The very careful practice was required before you could transfer the patterns onto an actual metal object. The person or persons who created the Ardagh Chalice had trained for an extensive period before being able to produce this masterpiece.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Reliquaries

Another class of sacred objects that survives in relatively large numbers are reliquaries. A reliquary is a vessel meant to contain a relic, which is an object associated with a saint, either a part of the saint’s body or some object associated with the saint, even bits of cloth that had touched their tombs. These are extremely common throughout Europe.

In Ireland, we have a lot of them dating especially to the 7th through the 9th centuries.  They could be of various sizes, depending on whether they were supposed to be for personal use or communal use.

Some reliquaries were mostly meant to be displayed in churches or great religious processions. Others formed part of the personal devotions of an individual Christian.

One example of such a personal reliquary is the Emly shrine from County Limerick. It was made of lead-tin hammered into yew wood, and it’s small enough to carry on a cord around the neck—it’s only about four inches by two inches by four inches in size. Some of these personal reliquaries were quite simple, but this one had to have been owned by someone of considerable means.

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The Tara Brooch

As mentioned earlier, most metal objects that survive are religious in nature, but let’s learn about a secular object, perhaps the single most famous metal artifact of early Christian Ireland, namely, the Tara Brooch.

It’s hard to overemphasize how important brooches were in this society. Think about a culture where you don’t use buttons, let alone zippers. How are your clothes going to stay?

One of the most important garments that are mentioned consistently by people who describe the Irish is the mantle, which was worn by both men and women. It was a big cloak fastened over the shoulders with either one brooch or two. There were many, many brooches around at any given time, and they varied in quality according to the social status and wealth of the wearer.

A brooch with intricately designed head in gold and a long, strong pin in gold.
The Tara brooch is one of the most famous metal artifacts of early Christian Ireland. (Image: Johnbod/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The Tara Brooch is a spectacular example. It is decorated with exquisite gold filigree triple spirals, scrolls, and animal motifs. Similar to the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch was dug up in the middle of the 19th century, at Bettystown, County Meath in 1850. It was a sensation. Queen Victoria loved it so much that she gave several replicas as gifts.

Just like the Ardagh Chalice, it was also richly decorated on the underside. There seems to be no practical rationale for going to the extra expense of getting the back ornamented; when you’re wearing the brooch, you can’t see the back. So, it’s more about demonstrating opulence; the patron is so wealthy, he or she can afford this kind of extravagance.

So, Irish metalworking is evidence for a sophisticated clientele that could afford to pay for the very best.

Learn more about Celtic art and insular art.

Common Questions about Metalwork in Early Irish Society

Q: What was the Ardagh Chalice used for?

The Ardagh Chalice was used for the wine that is turned into the Blood of Christ during the mass. It’s elevated by the priest at the moment of consecration.

Q: How was the Ardagh Chalice found?

The Ardagh Chalice was found in 1868 near a ringfort in County Limerick by two boys who were digging potatoes. Their spade struck something metallic, and that’s how they made this discovery, which is on display in Dublin in the National Museum of Ireland.

Q: What was the primary purpose of a reliquary?

A reliquary is a vessel meant to contain a relic, which is an object associated with a saint, either a part of the saint’s body or some object associated with the saint, even bits of cloth that had touched their tombs.

Q: What does Tara Brooch represent?

The Tara Brooch is one of the most famous metal artifacts of early Christian Ireland. It is decorated with exquisite gold filigree triple spirals, scrolls, and animal motifs, and it’s also richly decorated on the underside.

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