A Pieta from Cloran Old Near Fethard, Co. Tipperary
By Mary Cahill
A few years ago while engaged in fieldwork in the Fethard area the writer came across a carved representation of a pieta (exact location: O.S. 71, Td. Cloran Old, ,Par. Cloneen, Bar. Middiethird, Co Tipperary. 2.9 cm from W; 33.7 cm from S) which so far has gone unrecorded in the literature. Its discovery increases to seven the known representations in stone of the type - three of which, although varying in date and detail are in the south Tipperary area (Clonmel, Cloran Old and Kilboy, near Killenaule; see Hunt, 1974). The Ordnance Survey sheet (1904 revised edition, 1928 reprint) for the area indicated that in the townland of Cloran Old 'Grave Yard, Disused' within the boundaries of which, another monument noted as 'Laghtnavar', would be found. The 1840 edition does not record the existence of any monuments in this field. A visit to the site disclosed that the'graveyard' is barely perceptible from the surrounding field and that 'Laghtnavar' is a long narrow stone, now lying prone. No tradition of burial in this field exists in the neighbourhood nor is there any reference to it-in the Ordnance Survey Letters or Field-Name Books for the parish. Thus it was all the more surprising to find a pietà depicted on a limestone slab lying against the field-fence. However, further discussions with the owner disclosed that a number of other stones, which from the description appear to have been bullàun 'stones, were removed from the site some years ago.
The pietà (see Plate XVIII) is carved on a limestone slab measuring 64 cm by 58 cm by 15 cm approx. The words IHS and MARIA appear at the top of the slab on either side of the Virgin's head. The figure of the Virgin is depicted seated on a throne. She is clothed in a full-length, round-necked robe with a belt or girdle at the waist. The robe falls to the 'ground' from the waist in heavy folds or pleats of which there are eight - four on either side of a central panel of drapery. This central panel consists of four V-shaped folds executed in high relief giving a good impression of depth and texture. The gathering or pleating of the bodice from the neck band into the girdle is also indicated in a manner similar to that on some of the fifteenth and sixteenth century effigies of civilian women and female saints. The head is covered with a very large voluminous veil which is arranged to reach shoulder level at the front and falls from the back of the head on the left hand side to a point somewhat below the seat of the throne. The veil is not as long on the right and reaches only to waist level. The left arm is raised and the hand touches the veil in a gesture common amongst English examples. The fingers are only slightly indicated. The right hand, emerging from the veil, supports the head of Christ. The Virgin's face is long and rectangular in shape and almost expressionless with only slight indications of forehead, eyebrows and nose. Christ's face is carved in a similar way although this lack of detail and expression may be due, partly, to weathering.
The body of Christ rests upon the knees of the Virgin and in comparison to the proportions of her figure seems very slight - the ratio being approximately 1.5:1 - this also being a common attribute of pieta groups in all mediums. The head is tilting, downwards slightly leaning on the right shoulder and further supported by the Virgin's hand. The right arm hangs loosely from the shoulder. Lhc outer surface facing the viewer. The left arm, slightly crooked at the elbow, rests on the left hip. The torso, for the most part, is treated simply and naturally, the chest, waist and hips being clearly indicated although it might be said that the waist is a little overaccentuated. The figure is clad in a simple loincloth with a suggestion of loose pleating on the left hand side. The legs, which are very thin, fall almost vertically from the knees. The feet, which like the hands, are lacking in detail, appear somewhat awkwardly placed:
Although the concept of Mary contemplating the death of her Son while holding him on her lap developed in Germany around 1300 (Schiller, 1972), the first Irish representations do not occur until the middle of the fifteenth century. The theme had made its appearance in England somewhat earlier. Two variations in the attitude of the Virgin are distinguishable; firstly, the gesture of touching the veil with the left hand which indicates sorrow or secondly, the Virgin supporting Christ's body with her left hand. Of the Irish examples only two show the Virgin touching the veil - the slab at Cloran Old and the cross at Balrath, Co. Meath whereas this is the preferred attitude of the surviving English examples. Peter Harbison has suggested a Rhenish model for the two freestanding examples from Ennis and Kilmurry, Co. Clare, in which the Virgin supports Christ with her hand (1975, 41) and, by implication suggests that those which prefer the first attitude must be based on an English original. However, it is possible that both models are of German origin as pietà groups of the first variation are known from Bohemia and the Rhineland at the beginning of the fifteenth century (Schiller, 1972, Pls 629 and 638). The choice of one gesture rather than the other may be simply a reflection of a regional preference.
The purpose of this particular iconographic grouping of the Virgin 'and Christ was to imbue a sense of pious contemplation in the viewer and to reiterate the redemption of mankind by the supreme sacrifice of Christ. For this reason the pietà was usually placed at a secondary altar where presumably this response might be more readily evoked in the individual penitent. It seems likely that, as freestanding sculptures, the Ennis and Kilmurry pietas would have served this purpose also. The pietá at Balrath would also have emphasised this ideal having been united with the cross itself. The remaining examples at Clonmel, Cloran Old, Kilboy and Srade (Co. Mayo) form or would have formed parts of tomb-chests or altar reredos and as such their purpose may have been slightly different in that the image in such a position becomes more public and in the case of tomb components may have functioned as an aid to mourning.
The Cloran Old pietà is also unusual in the group because it is the only one with an inscription (noted above). The form of the letters suggests a mid-sixteenth century date for the slab corroborating the evidence of the group itself. How and when it came to its present isolated position remains to be answered.
My thanks to Dr Peter Harbison for drawing my attention to the Bairath pietà and for useful discussion, to Michael Ryan for providing the photograph and to Victor Shea and Mrs Shea of Cloran House for allowing me access to the site.
Harbison, Peter, 1975. 'The pieta from Kilmurry Ibrickane, Co. Clare' N Munster AntiqJ
17, 39-41. Hunt, John, 1974. Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture, 1200-1600.
Hunt, John, 1975. 'The influence of alabaster carvings on medieval sculptures in Ennis Friary', N Munster Antiq J 17, 35-39.. Schiller, Gertrude, 1972. Iconography of Christian Art.