Ardagh Chalice, Cross of Cong, Tara Brooch

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XII....continued

3. Artistic Metal Work.

The pagan Irish, like the ancient Britons, practised from time immemorial—long before the introduction of Christianity—the art of working in bronze, silver, gold, and enamel; an art which had become highly developed in Ireland by the time St. Patrick and his fellow-missionaries arrived. Some of the antique Irish articles made in pagan times show great mastery over metals, and admirable skill in design and execution. This primitive art was continued into Christian times, and was brought to its highest perfection in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Artistic metal work continued to flourish to about the end of the twelfth century, but gradually declined after that, owing to the general disorganisation of society consequent on the Anglo-Norman invasion, and to the want of encouragement. The ornamental designs of metal work executed by Christian artists were generally similar to those used in manuscripts, and the execution was distinguished by the same exquisite skill and masterly precision. The three most remarkable as well as the most beautiful and most elaborately ornamented objects in the National Museum are the Ardagh Chalice, the Tara Brooch, and the Cross of Cong, all made by Christian artists. But there are others little, if at all, inferior to these in workmanship.

Ardagh Chalice

FIG. 66. The Ardagh Chalice. (From Miss Stokes's Early Christian Art in Ireland). Underneath the ornamental band near the top, and extending all round the circumference there is an inscription giving the names of the twelve Apostles: but the letters are too delicate to be shown in this illustration.

The Ardagh Chalice, which is seven inches high and 9 ½ inches in diameter at top, was found a few years ago buried in the ground under a stone in an old lis at Ardagh in the county Limerick. It is elaborately ornamented with designs in metal and enamel; and, judging from its shape and from its admirable workmanship, it was probably made some short time before the tenth century.

The Tara brooch was found in 1850 by a child on the strand near Drogheda. It is ornamented all over with amber, glass, and enamel, and with the characteristic Irish filigree or interlaced work in metal. From its style of workmanship it seems obviously contemporaneous with the Ardagh chalice. No drawing can give any adequate idea of the extraordinary delicacy and beauty of the work on this brooch, which is perhaps the finest specimen of ancient metal-work remaining in any country.

Tara Brooch

FIG. 67. The Tara Brooch: front view. (Pin cut short here to save space). (From Miss Stokes's Early Christian Art in Ireland). The plates with the ornamental designs have been knocked off seven of the little panels.

The Cross of Cong, which is 2 feet 6 inches high, is all covered over with elaborate ornamentation of pure Celtic design; and a series of inscriptions in the Irish language along the sides give its full history. It was made by order of Turlogh O'Conor, king of Connaught, for the church of Tuam, then governed by Archbishop Muredach O'Duffy. The accomplished artist, who finished his work in 1123, and who deserves to be remembered to all time, was Mailisa Mac Braddan O'Hechan.

Cross of Cong

FIG. 68. The Cross of Cong: front view. (From Miss Stokes's Early Christian Art in Ireland).

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