Medieval Graffiti at Cahir Castle

Cahir Castle in  Co Tipperary is one of my favourite  historic sites.   The castle which dates to the 13th century is built  on a rock outcrop in the River Suir and was once the stronghold of the Butlers of Ormond.  The castle was rebuilt in the  15th and 16th century and there was also  a lot of restoration work carried out in the 19th and 20th century.

 

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View of Cahir castle from the outer ward (courtyard).

The castle has a very rich and interesting history and  I highly recommend a visit  and guided tour of the  Castle.   Abarta Audio Guides also  have an excellent audio guide for   Cahir Castle.

There are many interesting features within the castle but my  favourite  is a piece of medieval graffiti  located on the east gable of  the 13th century gatehouse, which later became the castle keep.  The carving is located just inside the gateway with the portcullis (a latticed/grilled gate).  If you have any difficulty finding the graffiti just ask any of the guides who work here they are so helpful.

 

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Portcullis gateway close to the reception area in the middle ward of the castle.

As you pass through the gateway  keep your eye out for a triangular-shaped stone with some cement surrounding it  at the top of the batter of the east gable of the gate house wall. If you are coming from the middle ward (courtyard) it will be on your left hand side.

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Stone with medieval graffiti on the east gable of the gatehouse at Cahir Castle.

The graffiti consists of a design of three figures which have been designed to fit the natural shape of a stone.  The central figure consists of a triangular-shaped head with a rounded crown sitting on top of  a thin neck and torso. Traces of ribs are visible in the torso.

‘The   lower part of the body is damaged  making it impossible to say where or how it terminated. The figure has a thin left arm and possibly a right arm, bent at the elbow, which many be indicated by a loop on the side. (Holland 1988, 15).

 

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Stone with graffiti showing the three faces.

On either side of the central figure  are two inverted  faces with  eyes, eyebrows and nose.  Both  are of a similar shape to the central figure, with ears placed high on their heads.  All three are contemporary and there appears to have been some thought about the design to make use of the shape of the stone.

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The photo above inverted to show the two side faces more clearly.

Given that  the stone is in situ its likely the  graffiti was carved some time after the gatehouse was built-in the 13th century.  But who carved it and why ?  Was someone bored ? Or  was it  placed here for a specific purpose ?  Most of these question may never be answered but its fun to  try and come up with some answers.  I havent come across anything like this graffiti at any other  Irish medieval site I have visited which makes it all the more special.   For a more  in-depth discussion of the Cahir castle graffiti there is a very interesting article  ‘A Carving in Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary’ by Patrick Holland (full references below).

 

References

http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/south-east/cahircastle/

http://abartaaudioguides.com/cahir-castle

Holland, P. 1988.  ‘A Carving in Cahir Castle, Co Tipperary’, North Munster Antiquarian Journal , Vol. 30, 14-18.

 

 

St Brendan’s Rag Tree and Holy Well at Clonfert Co Galway

Last Sunday I paid a flying visit to the medieval Cathedral at Clonfert Co Galway.

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Medieval church at Clonfert

Clonfert Cathedral was built on the site of an early medieval monastery founded by St Brendan the Navigator circa 557 AD.   The history of Clonfert and its architecture is really interesting  and I will come back to it again but for this post I want to focus on a lesser known feature at the site known as St Brendan’s rag tree.

The tree,  a horse-chestnut,  is located in a grove of trees beside  the medieval church along the nuns walk. This is one of the most impressive rag trees that I have come across.  It is covered in votive offerings.

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St Brendan’s rag tree at Clonfert.

The following text was written  by  Christy Cunniffe  for the  South East Archaeological and Historical Society Newsletter for Spring 2012  and provides an excellent discussion of the tree and its history and folklore.

Devotion at holy wells and sacred trees is still quite common
throughout rural Ireland. This example in the woodland near the
cathedral at Clonfert consists of a holy well dedicated to St Brendan.
It manifests itself in the form of a horse chestnut tree with a small
opening in its northern side. In its original form St Brendan’s Well
consisted of an actual well in the ground located in the corner of a
field some three hundred metres south east of here. According to
tradition the well was desecrated when a dog drowned in it. It then
dried up as is usual for wells that are interfered with in some way .

It moved to a new location in the bough of a large ash tree growing on
the ‘hill of the abbey about a hundred metres away. The folklore
attached to this latter well relates that two young boys climbed the
tree and that one of them ‘peed’ into the waters of the well causing it
to fall in a subsequent storm . So once again because the well was
desecrated it went dry and was forced to move. The well that people
now recognise as St Brendan’s Well was only discovered in the
earlier part of the twentieth century and was recognised as such due
to it resembling the shape of the nearby Romanesque doorway of St
Brendan’s Cathedral. Pilgrims and people seeking cures for illness
visit here and leave votive offerings and requests for cures. In earlier
times it was used only for the cure of warts, but in more recent times
is used as a place to seek cures for sick children, thus explaining the
particular array of votive offerings left by believers. To effect a cure
it is commonly believed that one must make three visits and leave
something (Cunniffe 2012, 2).

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Offerings pinned to St Brendan’s rag tree at Clonfert.

The offerings pinned to the tree are varied.  They range from rosary beads, hair bobbins, sockets, babies dummies,  religious statues and children’s toys and brown scapular.

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Votive offerings surrounding St Brendan’s rag tree at Clonfert.

The base of the  tree is surrounded with a circle of offering some may have fallen from the tree but others  are likely placed here on the ground.  These offering are similar to those pinned to the tree although I notices more items of clothing,  religious statues, inhalers, containers for tablets  and holy water bottles. The volume of objects is astonishing and shows that there is still a great devotion to the tree.

References

Cunniffe, C. 2012 ‘St Brendan’s Tree, Clonfert’, South East Archaeological and Historical Society Newsletter, No 9,  Spring, 2012, 2.

A poem from childhood

My niece  is almost two. My parents  often recite  little poems and rhymes to her that they told to my sister and I  when we were small.  Many of the poems they learned as children  making some at least three generations old.

One of my nieces favourite poems is How many miles to Dublin? which  is always recited while being bounced on one knee. It  goes a follows

Hupp, hupp my little horse, hupp, hupp again sir.
How many miles to Dublin? Three score and ten sir,
Will we be there by candle light? Yes sir and back  sir.

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Photograph of a hansom cab, From ‘Street Life in London’, 1877, by John Thompson and Adolphe Smith (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hansom_cab#mediaviewer/File:London_Cabmen.jpg)

This is not an Irish poem. According to the book A history of nursery rhymes,   during the 19th century the poem was  commonly recited to children in  Britain as well as Ireland,  where the word  Dublin was substituted  for London or other  English towns.   This book suggests that this poem may date  back even further  to Tudor times. Its really interesting to see how simple family traditions can be preserved  through the generations.

References

Green, P. 1899. A history of Nursery Rhymes. London: Greening & Co. Ltd.

 

Reek Sunday 2014: my pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

This year I joined with thousands of pilgrims  in the annual pilgrimage to  Croagh Patrick. For those of you who might not know,  Croagh Patrick is a holy mountain  located on the western coast of May on of the southern shores of Clew Bay associated with St Patrick.  The mountain is  764m (2510 ft) in height.  Pilgrimage can place throughout the year but the main focus for pilgrims takes place the last weekend of August.  The  Friday of this weekend is generally the day local  people climb the mountain and the  Sunday often called Reek Sunday is the main day for pilgrims from a wider geographical hinterland.  Each year on this weekend thousands of people  make pilgrimage and ascend the mountain to pray at its summit.  There is a long history of pilgrimage at this site  which I have discussed in a previous post.

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Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo

Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick  2014

On  the morning of  the  27th of  July  I joined with circa twenty thousands  pilgrims in the annual pilgrimage  to the summit of Croagh Patrick. There are a number of approach route the summit. The majority of pilgrim climb from  the townland of Murrisk following a track worn by centuries of feet known as the Cásan Phádraig (the Path of Patrick).

I arrived  by car to the base of the mountain  about 10.00am.  An early start for a Sunday but not at Croagh Patrick, where pilgrims had begun climbing in the early hours of the morning to arrive at  6 am on the summit.  I parked my car in one of the fields converted into temporary car parks to cope with the influx of traffic  and paid a  5 Euro fee for the  day.    As I pulled on my walking boots and pack my rucksack with food and water,  I noticed many of the  people  in my car park were having picnics out of their cars , tea and sandwiches, a reward for a pilgrimage completed or perhaps fuel for the climb ahead.  To begin my climb   I a short distance to a small laneway located beside  the car park of the Croagh Patrick  visitor centre.

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Pilgrims begin their climb at the car park at the base of the mountain.

I have  climbed this mountain many times over the years  in various weather condition while doing research for my PhD thesis  but this was my first climb with actual pilgrims.  I was slightly apprehensive.  I am not a fan of very large crowds  and knowing how difficult the terrain of the mountain is I worried  crowds the  would make the climb uncomfortable however  once I began my fears were soon allayed but I was conscious throughout the climb of what was going on about me.

On the main pilgrimage day  Mountain Rescue groups and the Order of Malta have a very visible presence and  they do really excellent work to help pilgrims get up and down the mountain safely.  Croagh Patrick can be a dangerous mountain.  Much of the route  and in particular the conical top  of the mountain  is covered by loose shale which moves under foot and can be very slippery in wet weather.   The terrain is difficult especially in the final stages.  The weather conditions on the summit can be very changeable  and temperatures at the top of the mountain can be up to 10 degrees colder than at sea level.  It is very important to be prepared for the climb and to  have good footware, appropriate clothing water and a stick.  As I walked to the summit I noticed blood on some of the stones on the path and I witnessed at least 3 people fall  and many more stumble but retain their balance because of their sticks.

The following day I read that there had been 17 casualties on this years pilgrimage   with four people  taken off the mountain via stretcher, and two helicopter evacuations. On my way up I saw one person being carried by stretcher from the cone of the mountain and one person being  air lifted from the mountain during my decent.

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Helicopter getting ready to take an injured person off the mountain

 

The Cásan Phádriag

The pilgrim climb in Murrisk begins at the  base of the mountain at a small laneway on the east side of the carpark of the visitor centre.   This path  takes you passed numerous  stalls  such as the legion of Mary  as well as vendors selling religious items.

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Vendor selling religious items.

At the top of the lane  you come face to face with a large statue  of   St Patrick and get a great view of the mountain looming behind. The weather conditions were pretty good it was a warm day with a slight refreshing breeze.  During my climb summit of the mountain was covered with low-lying  cloud, that cleared  intermittently to reveal the top. I could see  people  on the summit who from a distance looked like tiny colourful ants.

 

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Statue of St Patrick at the base of Croagh Patrick.

On the way up the path was very busy with  a constant stream of people coming up and down the mountain passing each other by. The pilgrims were made up of  all age groups from  as young as 7/8 to  people in their 80’s.  Some people walk alone while others  walk in small  groups of friends or family.

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Pilgrims climbing the lower sections of the Cásan Phádraig.

People climb and participate in Reek Sunday for  many reasons some for religious and spiritual reasons, others to carry on family traditions and other to  experience this unique occasion and to enjoy the amazing scenery.  As I walked along I saw a wide range  of human emotions; a father and his small child  quarrelling about the climb, a woman sitting down and spontaneously crying, children racing along like mountain goats and a woman helping bandage the hand of a stranger who had fallen and cut his fingers.  There was a great sense of  comradery among pilgrims. I noticed  people would often stop and help people who slipped or ask others  who stopped for their breath, if they were ok.  In the final stages of climbing the cone those coming down the mountain would offer words of encouragement “your nearly there now”  “Nearly at the top now”.   I also noted a handful of people climbing the mountain in their bare  feet as part of their penitential pilgrimage.

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Pilgrims walking the lower section of the Cásan Phádraig

Climbing the Croagh Patrick on such a busy day means that you must pay extra attention to where you walk. One often needs to   manoeuvre and avoid  walking in the path of those  coming down  the mountain  as well as those walking  ahead at a slower pace  or those who  stop suddenly in front of you. You also need to be aware of where to put your feet and to try and choose the best path ahead.

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Views of Clew bay from the lower section of Croagh Patrick

Depending on your level of fitness and weather conditions it can take anywhere between 1.5 to 2/3  to reach the summit.  It took me ages as I was constantly stopping to take photos.

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Cásan Phádraig as it levels out before reaching the cone.

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Pilgrims approaching the cone of Croagh Patrick

At the base of the cone of the mountain pilgrims encounter the pilgrim station known as Leacht Mionnáin/Benan. This is a large cairn of stones probably of 19th century date.

 

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Pilgrims walking in prayer around Leacht Benan a the base of the cone.

Pilgrims preforming the rounds (traditional prayer focused on a number of holy foci ) walk in a clockwise direction around the cairn reciting the following prayers; 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Mary’s and  the Creed. Having finished they embark on the final climb  to the summit. The steepness of this section of the route and the movable terrain underfoot  make this the most difficult section of the climb.

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Pilgrims starting to climb the cone of the mountain the final stages of the ascent.

As I climbed upward the summit was hidden from by the clouds. The final stage of the climb is very steep and lots of concentration is needed to keep your balance but  almost without realising it the ground suddenly becomes flat and you realise you have made it in one piece to the summit.

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Some pilgrims perform their pilgrimage barefoot

The first thing I did was to sit down and catch my breath. I was sitting on the left hand side of the church  lots of pilgrims were sitting down in this area too.    It wasn’t long before I noticed the cold air and I was very glad of the fleece top I had packed at the bottom of my rucksack.  The summit is a large flat area enclosed by a dry stone wall  in poor condition on the top are  toilets,  a small church and a number of pilgrim stations.

The pilgrimage rituals on the summit include  visiting the remaining stations or foci of devotion,  as well as attending mass and confession. The first station is an unnamed cairn of stones.

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The pilgrim kneels at the cairn and recites 7 Hail Marys, 7 Our Fathers, and 1 creed.  Next the  pilgrim prays near the modern chapel for the Pope’s intentions and walks 15 times round the oratory reciting 15 Our Fathers, 15 Hail Marys and 1 Creed.

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The back the oratory on the summit of Croagh Patrick

Finally, the pilgrim proceeds to the station known as Leabha Phádraig/Patrick’s bed. This is a small hollow defined by a metal railing. The pilgrim walks clockwise around  reciting  7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and 1 Creed.

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The small chapel on the summit provided the sacrament of confessions begin on the summit at 7:30am and continuing until 2:00pm.   The first Mass on the summit began  at 8:00am and every half hour thereafter until the last Mass which at 2:00pm.

 

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Pilgrims attending mass on the summit.

Traditionally  the final pilgrim station of the pilgrimage was a visit to large possible Bronze age enclosure called Roiling Mhuire (Virgin’s Cemetery) on the western side of the mountain. Three cairns of stones are found within the enclosure and the pilgrim walked 7 times round each cairn, saying 7 Our Fathers, 7  Hail Mary’s and 1 Creed and finally go round the whole enclosure seven times praying.  The majority of modern pilgrims skip this final stage and finish their pilgrimage on the summit.

 

While the pilgrims pray and perform their rounds  other pilgrims take the opportunity to relax after their arduous climb many  take the opportunity to sit and eat the food they have brought with them or purchased at the food stall that sells tea and sandwiches.

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Stall selling food and hot drinks on the summit.

The summit was covered in cloud but intermittently the cloud would clear to reveal the stunning scenery and let the sun warm the weary pilgrims.

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Views of Clew Bay from the summit.

I also notice people taking selfies on their mobile photos in front of the church or  Leabha Phádraig  while others posed beside a signs placed here in 2013  which says Croagh Patrick Ireland’s Holy Mountain. I am not sure sure why you need a sign to tell you your are on the summit  but those who were photographed beside it seem to like it.

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Sign on top of Croagh Patrick.

 

The final part of the pilgrimage is the decent.  Climbing back down is as difficult if not more so then the ascent. This is also when most accidents take place.  It was here that I found my trusty  stick  most useful.

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Climbing down Craogh Patrick.

Taking part in this pilgrimage was a wonderful experience and I hope I will be lucky enough to take part again in the future. Pilgrims  who climb here should also be aware that the constant foot fall of pilgrims and tourists whose numbers can be up to 100, 000  during the year  is causing sever erosion of the mountain. To find out more about this check out  Mountaineering Ireland website.

Having returned safely down the mountain I  ended my pilgrimage here by  visiting the nearby sites of Glaspatrick and Kilgeever-   posts to follow.

Further reading on this years pilgrimage.

http://www.irishmirror.ie/news/irish-news/croagh-patrick-pilgrimage-17-people-3922909

http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/0727/633338-croagh-patrick/

http://www.mountaineering.ie/aboutus/news/2013/default.aspx?iid=305

http://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2012/07/29/an-overview-of-the-history-of-pilgrimage-to-croagh-patrick/

http://liminalentwinings.com/path-croagh-patrick/

 

 

 

St Non’s chapel: a destination for Irish pilgrims to Wales in medieval times

During  medieval times  Irish pilgrims  travelled on pilgrimage to British shrines.  One of the most popular destinations was the shrine of St David located in Pembrokeshire in Wales.  It not surprising St Davids was such a popular destination given it possessed the corporeal relics of St David and in the later medieval period two pilgrimages to St Davids  was equal to one to Rome.  For Irish pilgrims a trip to Wales was a lot less expensive and time-consuming  then one to Rome.

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St David’s cathedral in Wales

Like many  important pilgrim sites  St Davids was at the centre of an extensive pilgrim landscape composed  of minor outlying pilgrim shrines/foci connected to the saint.  As well as praying at the relics of St David,  pilgrims would have also visited some of these minor shrines more often than not prior to visiting the primary shrine.  This post focuses on one such site namely the chapel of St Non’s.  This site is located in a field  over looking St Non’s Bay approximately  a mile from St Davids.

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View of St Non’s  Bay.

St Non (also known as Nonna or Nonnita) was the mother of St David.  Her feast day is the 3rd of March and her cult spread to  Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The daughter of Lord Cynyr Ceinfarfog, she was born around AD 475.  As a young woman she  became  a nun at Ty Gwyn near Whitesands Bay (Dyfed).  St David was conceived when  she was raped by  Sanctus, a king  of Ceredigion.  Tradition hold that the  chapel was built on the site  where she gave  birth to St David.  St Non’s chapel is one of a number of sites which claim to be the location of St David’s birth.

Today the site consist of  the ruins of  a  single room building aligned north-south. The walls do not survive to any great height and  the present structure cannot be dated easily as there are not  any  distinguishable features. The alignment of the building  is very unusual as churches  are normally aligned  east-west.

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St Non’s Chapel.

 

Fenton writing in 1818 states

In digging for earth within the walls of the chapel, stone coffins were found, and part of a curious image of pottery glazed, being the head and shoulder of a male figure.  It was hollow, and filled with a prodigious hard cement, and is now in possession of Mr Archdeacon Davies.

 

An early  medieval cross slab, of 7th/8th century date,  is located in the corner of the interior of the chapel.  When I visited the site in late June there were a number of  beach pebble with names written on them, left in front of the slab perhaps  as modern votive offerings.

 

 

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Early medieval cross slab at St Non’s Chapel.

A holy well also dedicated to the saint is located  very close to the chapel. The  waters of the well  flow into a rectangular chamber  covered with  superstructure with a rounded top.  The water then flows into a second  rectangular stone  trough.

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St Non’s well

Local tradition holds that the well burst forth from the ground upon the birth of St David.

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The water from St Non’s well flows into a stone rectangular trough.

The well and a small area around it  are enclosed with a stone wall.  A niche  in the wall opposite the well holds a small statue of St Non with out stretched arms. Modern pilgrims have left a number of offering at her feet including a brown  scapula , money and rosary beads.

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Statue of St Non at St Non’s well

The oldest written account of pilgrimage  here is found in a 15th century poem and concerns the pilgrimage of Edudful ferch Gadwgon and her sons.  The text records that Edudful  visited St Non’s chapel and holy well on her way to St Davids. When she  arrived here she washed her head in the holy water.  She also prayed at an image  of the St Non, most likely a statue and lit candles before the altar in the chapel. When her pilgrim rituals were complete she proceeded to her primary destination St David’s where as part of her pilgrim rituals  she left an offering of wax and money (Cartwright 2007, 190).

On Sunday Edudful comes

to pray sincerely to God;

puts her head in the well,

raises her hands merrily,

worships the holy image,

lights the large, yellow candles,

and puts all of them on the altar;

From there she passes to

the good close of St David’s church;

makes an offering of crimson wax

and money and kisses the saint; ( ibid after Johnson 2007, 371)

Browne  Willis (1717)  writing in the 18th century quotes an early 16th century description of the well by George Owen of Henllys

There is a fine Well beside it , cover’d  with a Stone-Roof and inclosed within a wall, and Benches to sit upon round the Well  (ibid., 190).

Cartwright (2007) suggests  the superstructure over the well was  more substantial than it is today. The present covering may date to the 19th century  but it was  extensively restored in 1951.

The waters of the well are said to have healing powers and to be of particular use for eye complaints. In 1811  the following account of the well is given in Fenton’s Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire

…a most redundant spring arched over, and at one time inclosed with a wall. The fame this consecrated spring had obtained is incredible, and still is resorted to for many complaints. In my infancy, as was the general usage with respect to children at that time, I was often dipped in it, and offerings , however trifling , even of a farthing or a pin, were made after each ablution, and the bottom of the well shrone with votive brass.

The immersion of children in the waters of holy wells were carried out at many Irish sites in the 19th and 20th century such as at St Moling’s well at Mullens in Co Carlow and at St Keeve at Glendalough.

A second chapel can be found a  short distance from the well,   in the grounds of St Non’s Retreat house . This chapel which has an ancient appearance was built-in 1934 by Mr Morgan-Griffith a solicitor from  Carmarthen who had it built for his wife who had converted to Catholicism.

The building was constructed with  recycled stones from cottages and possibly also from monastic buildings at Whitehall.

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Our Lady and St Non’s Chapel built-in the 1930s.

The modern chapel is dedicated to Our Lady and St Non.  Within are a number of beautiful stain glass windows of the William Morris school  depicting Welsh saints including St Non see image below.

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Stain glass window of St Non

The base of this window depicts a scene of  St Non and her son St David arriving in Brittany by boat.

 

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St Non and St David arriving in Brittany by boat.

Another interesting feature within the chapel  is the altar which incorporates numerous pieces of medieval architectural fragments.

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Altar incorporating pieces of medieval architectural fragments.

Today the  Passionists are the owners of the property and they have granted the Sisters of Mercy a licence to occupy and manage St Non’s Retreat Centre and chapel.

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Looking out from the interior of Our Lady and St Non’s Chapel.

The ruins of St Non’s Chapel and holy well has a long tradition of pilgrimage. The stunning scenery and peaceful setting at the site makes it a must see for modern pilgrims. The modern church of Our Lady and St Non is also a lovely place to spend some time.  Although there  are no accounts of Irish pilgrims travelling here I suspect the majority of Irish pilgrims to St Davids would have also visited the site.

 

References

Cartwright, J. 2007. ‘The Cult of David’, In (eds.) Evan, J. W. & Wooding, J. St David of Wales Cult Church and Nation. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 182-206.

Fenton, R. 1811. Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & co., 112-113

Johnston, D (ed)   Gwaith Lewys Glyn Cothi. Walse: Welsh University Press.

Rees, N. 1992. St David of Dewisland. Llandysul: Gomer Press, 21-24.

 

St Fin Barre’s Cathedral: unlocking the hidden meaning the western doorway

In June of this year I went on  a  tour of St Fin Barre‘s Cathedral in Cork.  This was an amazing experience. During the tour the symbolism  and the meaning  behind the carvings and statues of the building was explained and in turn I saw the building in a very different light.  I was so impressed  by the tour that I asked my guide  Martin Dier the Cathedral Administrator  to write a post  about the Cathedral.  So I am delighted to  introduce this guest post by Martin which focuses on the  central doorway of the west gable of the  building.

 St Fin Barre’s Cathedral the western portico doorway

The Cathedral of St. Fin Barre  is a masterpiece of engineering. It was created  by the famous British architect William Burges and built-in the Neo-Gothic style and completed in 1879.   The current building is the latest in series on the site, with early Christian roots going back 1400 years to the year 606AD. Tradition holds this was the site of an early monastic settlement of St Fin Barre.

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St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

The current building was built-in the style of the French  Gothic structures popular in medieval times. The Cathedral is unusual on many levels and importantly all of its designs spring from a single mind giving a uniformity of style, which few other Cathedrals can boast. Everything from the super structure to the stained glass, the door hinges to the communion table are all from Burges.

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Western gable of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

Symbolism and hidden meaning

The secret language of symbolism is built into the fabric of the building and every part of the Cathedral is placed there for a reason, nothing is as it seems, nothing is random. There are several iconographic themes running throughout the building and the front of the building contains a wealth of symbolism that can be read like a book.

Looking at the magnificent western portico the eye is initially lost in the carvings, the tracery and the sculpture. However, if one pauses certain images will seem familiar and one thing leads to another which can lead one on a spiritual exploration of one’s own soul.

This post explores the central doorway in the western wall of the Cathedral which tells the tale  of the five wise and the five foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) which relays the story of how living the wise and prudent life is rewarded in eternal life.

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Central doorway in the western wall depicting the story of the wise and unwise virgins.

This was a very popular story during the medieval period and had several mystery plays, carvings and works of art associated with it. The wise virgins all have their heads covered as a display of their purity and hold their lights aloft in flame. They are on the right hand side of the bride groom, the side associated with strength, virtue and favour.

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The five wise virgins on the right side of the doorway.

 

In contrast the foolish virgins are bare headed and look despondent after wasting all their oil for their lamps.

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Five foolish virgins on the left side of doorway.

The Virgins all stand on decorated pedestals. The  decoration in turn contains symbolism connected to the story. Beneath the feet of the first wise virgin the doors to the wedding party/heavens doors  are open.

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The pedestal under the feet of the 1st wise virgin  showing the doors to the wedding party/heaven are open.

In contrast the first  unwise virgin  (on the left hand side of the bride groom) stands on a pedestal which depicts the same doors  but this time it is closed. Indicating those who do not prepare for death and live just lives may find the gates of heaven closed to them.

FB 6The next niche on the side of the wise virgins  depicts a phoenix rising from the flames a symbol of resurrection and ever lasting life.

 

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Phoenix rising from the flames.

In contrast  on the left hand side of the bride groom the flames are crossed and inverted.

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Flames are crossed and inverted.

Then on the side of the wise you have the organ whilst on his left you have the music of the lute which is a frivolous “pub” type music, leading one away from salvation.

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The Organ.

Next on the side of the wise you have the pelican who in medieval mythology became a symbol for Christ as it was thought to prick its own breast to feed its blood to its offspring so that they might live.

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Pelican who in medieval mythology became a symbol for Christ.

This is contrasted with a locked treasure chest showing us that the way of the foolish leads us to the place where we become locked out of the treasures of heaven.

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Closed chest symbolising heaven being closed to the unworthy.

And finally on the side of the wise you have the cup of eternal life, the eternal spiritual food contrasted against the earthly bread and wine that when consumed do not satisfy the soul.

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The cup of eternal life under the feet of the 5th wise virgin.

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Earthly bread and wine under the feet of the last unwise virgin.

 

Standing  between  the wise and foolish  virgins is the figure of the bridge groom who symbolises Christ. His face is turned away from the foolish virgins.

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The imagery of death and judgement is  again picked up in the tympanum above the door with the dead rising from their graves and being met with life ever lasting on the side of the wise virgins or damnation on the side of the foolish. Notice the angles are helping those on the right rise to heaven while pushing those on the left into  hell.

The original idea by Burges was that the dead would be naked and that the fires of hell would be extending half way across the façade, but Victorian prudishness forced the fires of hell into a whisp of smoke and the dead to be fully clothed before judgement.

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Burges  originally designed the  tympanum so that the dead would be naked and that the fires of hell would be extending half way across the façade ( Sketch by Burges from the Cathedral Archives).

 

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Tympanum depicting the judgement of souls.

The place of this doorway in the west is also significant as the west-facing aspect of the carvings is also the direction in which the sun sets every night thus linking the idea of death and rebirth to the rhythm of the daily cycle.
The journey of the wise soul continues inside the building in an almost linear progression with the narratives in the windows from the old and new testaments illuminating the path to heaven which culminates at the high altar. Here the image of the fishing net is used to signify that heaven is like a net cast into the sea that gathers all types of fish/people (Matthew 13:47). The stylised fishing net not only shows the fish but the different classes of man from rich to poor.
So the exploration of ones soul progress from the outside to the inside and from judgement to salvation happens symbolically at the Communion Table through Christ who is again referenced in allegorical form as the fish.

 

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Mosaic beneath high altar

The above  text was written by Martin Dier.

This post highlights just one of the many  hidden themes that run through  this stunning building.  If you visit here and I hope you  will,  do consider taking a guided tour as it will  really bring the building to life.  Below are  the opening times and contact details for the cathedral.

Opening hours: 9:30 to 17:30 Monday-Saturday, 13:00 to 17:30 Sundays. Admission: €5/€4/€3 Group rates available.
Guided tours available too