Mael Isu, Metal Worker

(fl. c. 1123)

Metal Worker

From A Dictionary of Irish Artists 1913

The artist who made the Cross of Cong, preserved in the R.I. Academy collection in the National Museum, Kildare Street. It was made about the year 1123 for Turlough O'Conor, King of Connaught, to enshrine a portion of the True Cross, and is inscribed with the artist's name, "Mael Isu, son of Bratan Ua Echan, who made this work." It was long preserved in the Augustinian Abbey of Cong. At the time of the Reformation it was concealed, and was found early in the nineteenth century in an oaken chest in a cottage in Cong. Professor MacCullagh purchased it from the successor of the last abbot of Cong and representative of the Augustinian Order in Connaught, and presented it to the Royal Irish Academy in 1839.

The cross, one of the finest examples of metal work of Celtic Christian art in Ireland, measures 2 feet 6 inches in height, and the width of the arms 1 foot 6 ¾ inches. It is formed of oak encased with copper plates enriched with interlaced ornaments of gilt bronze; the sides are framed in silver, the whole being held together by nails ornamented with little heads of animals. On the front, the shaft and arms are divided into a number of small panels of silver strap-work decorated at the intersections with settings alternated with flat silver discs in niello work. A crystal of quartz set in the centre of the front face of the cross probably covered the relic. The enrichment of filagree work in the panels immediately adjoining the setting of the crystal is of gold, and the spiral pattern contrasts with the interlaced designs of the other panels. The shaft is held in the mouth of a grotesque animal surmounting a boss which carries down the interlacements and settings of the shaft, and terminates in four small grotesque heads, the whole forming a socket in which was inserted the pole for carrying the cross. On the back of the cross along the projecting silver rim, and corresponding with the settings on the front, are flat discs of enamel with simple geometrical designs. The shaft and arms are not divided into panels as on the front, but are covered by single bronze plates, three of which remain, which were connected at the centre by an ornament now missing (From G. Coffey's "Guide to the Celtic Antiquities of the Christian Period in the National Museum, Dublin," 1909).

This is the only known work by this artist. "No other record can be found; no monument is left to tell of his former greatness save the exquisite work that has stood for more than seven hundred years bearing witness to the marvellous power and delicate skill of the artist" (Stokes' "Life of Petrie," p. 283).

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