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Late Medieval Wood Sculptures in Fethard

By Catriona MacLeod
Royal Society of Antiquaries (July 1947)

    The conflict between Henry VIII and Rome over his divorce from Queen Catherine culminated in England’s acceptance of the Reformation. This new ideology together with the king’s need for money brought about the suppression of the monasteries and the confiscation of church property. The chief wealth of the monasteries lay in their lands, but they also had much treasure in richly decorated shrines-offerings of the people. There were reliquaries, chalices, candelabra, and sacred vessels of rare workmanship, altars backed with gold, image-tables of silver, and richly plated statues glittering with gems. These were seized, in the name of the king, melted down and converted to secular use; so to this phase of the 16th century may be traced not alone the loss of so many treasures, but the break in the continuity of craftsmanship Wood sculpture of the 15th and 16th centuries are represented by only a few surviving specimens.

    Among the remaining late mediaeval wood sculpture in Ireland comes a very interesting group from Fethard. There are three figures, all life size. They represent Christ on Calvary, God the Father, which is part of a Holy Trinity group, and St. John Baptist.

The Christ on Calvary
© National Museum of Ireland

    The Christ on Calvary illustrates a favourite mediaeval devotion. Representations of the Ecce Homo where Pilate shows Christ to the people are still popular in our churches, and tell the beginning of the Passion. The figure of Christ on Calvary Rock presents the end. There He is shown, seated not far from where the cross should be. Beside Him rests the skull, of Gologtha. The Passion is almost over. The bleeding body has been scourged. The head weighed by heavy thorns inclines to the side. Torn knees show that He has stumbled over the road to Calvary. The soldiers have removed the seamless garment, leaving only the purple mantle of derision. As though escape were contemplated, or even possible, the hands are bound with a rope. (The hands of the statue are modern replacements). The tragic figure, the most moving conception expressed in art, portrays the entire Passion. Emile Male, attributes its origin to the 15th century artists who had watched the Mystery plays:

    "It is at the theatre, in fact," he writes, "that they (the artists) were able to see for some moments the Christ divested of his robes, waiting with resignation until the executioners have prepared the cross. The diffusion of the new motif seems to coincide with the greatest period of the Mystery plays. Almost all the seated Christs belong to the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century."

    In addition to the plays the numbers of sacred books written during this period-meditations, poems and dialogues-consecrated to the Passion also influenced contemporary artists. Henceforth the sufferings of Christ become a constant theme in sacred art. Whether in painting or in sculpture Christ teaches through His wounds, through the instruments of the Passion, by His dead body laid on the Virgin’s lap or stretched on the tomb slab where the weeping women and Joseph of Aramathea are assembled with the spices and burial shroud.

    In Ireland contemporary artists were familiar with the iconography of the Passion. The Scourging of Christ and the instruments of the Passion were a favourite theme on late 15th and early 16th century altar tombs. Good examples may be seen in Kilkenny Cathedral and Dunsany Church. The series of Passion sculptures on the MacMahon tomb at Ennis Abbey illustrates native workmanship of a high order. There and at Great Connell, Co. Kildare, carvings of the Man of Sorrows lead us to an iconography very close to the Christ on Calvary Rock.

    The Fethard Christ is life-size. It is of oak much decayed by dry rot, and the back is hollowed out in the usual way. The features are damaged and the original expression marred by uniformed repair. The nose has been mended with plaster. The face, beard and hair are thickly coated with paint. The original colours were laid on gesso over a red lead priming of the wood. The once pallid flesh tints are now dull pink. The cloak has been repainted purple, brown, dark red and finally scarlet. The broken-edged folds of the mantle show a late mediaeval influence.

    In France, Germany and Italy representation of Christ on Calvary are also preserved. At Venizy, in Yonne, north of central France, the seated Christ is also shown with hands bound, and skull at feet. In the Fethard Christ the dramatic realism of emaciated flesh, torn knees, heavy thorns pressed into bleeding brows suggests a strong Spanish influence. If the artist was an Irishman he possessed in addition to technical ability a rare gift of lofty conception together with feeling for proportion and style.

God the Father
© National Museum of Ireland

    The second statue from Fethard represents God the Father. It is part of a Trinity Group, and is especially interesting because of local devotion to the Blessed Trinity in mediaeval Fethard. There, two churches were dedicated to the Trinity-the great square towered parish church which belonged to the Regular Canons of St. Augustine, and the Monastery of the Holy Trinity founded by the Friars of St. Augustine.

    St. Augustine’s monumental work, "De Trinitate," laying down the framework of Catholic theology on the mystery of the Three Divine Persons in One God, had entitled all religious Orders following St. Augustine’s Rule to the special protection of the Blessed Trinity. The Fethard Convent was established by the 14th century, though our statue of the Trinity does not date to that early period, but from the 16th century it witnessed a devotion persisting almost into our own day.

    The figure is life size. It is of oak and the back is quite flat. It represents God the Father as pope, who, in the Middle Ages, symbolised the most exalted earthly power. Although in the sacred art of Germany and England in imperial or regal instead of papal robes. The Fethard God the Father is shown vested in alb, cope and papal tiara. This cope swept over the knees from right to left, and fastened by jewelled clasp, is painted vivid blue. The alb now red was formerly white. The tiara, made from a separate piece of wood is triple crowned-the final development of the tiara, first noticed on papal monuments from the second half of the 14th century. On it there are traces of gold-blue, crimson and yellow paint. The Fethard tiara, however, elongated and with towering high sides hardly corresponds with conical tiara as worn by the popes and illustrated in contemporary art. An Irish 17th century example may by seen at the Franciscan Abbey, Galway, from Sir Peter French’s tomb, desecrated in 1652, during the sack of the town. There is a limestone copy of this figure in Galway Cathedral. The shape of the Fethard tiara and the treatment of the face with its heavy eyelids and protruding eyes suggest that our figure was executed locally, perhaps, in the late 16th century.

    There was a tradition in Fethard when the old parish church passed into Protestant hands the statues were buried and disinterred later, were placed in the post-Reformation Catholic Chapel. The figure of the Trinity was in the possession of Father Dwyer, the Parish Priest in 1759. It was during the removal from the old chapel to the new church, circa 1822, that the dove and perhaps the crucifix got lost.

    About the time the Pattern of the Blessed Trinity was held with the greatest solemnity on every Trinity Sunday in Fethard. As early as 1608 the Citizens had obtained a charter from James I, authorising a fair to be held on the three days following the feast in order perhaps to take advantage of the crowds coming into the town. Within the last century the statues were shown on the outer steps of the church on Trinity Sunday, when people came from all parts of Munster to take part in the "Pattern." Preparations were made in advance, and we are told that for weeks beforehand the streets were filled with booths to cater for the visitors.

    Abuses crept in. The pattern were discontinued and another long, lingering custom of Mediaeval Ireland passed away.

St. John Baptist
© National Museum of Ireland

    The third of the Fethard figures represents St. John Baptist bearing the Lamb of God. The statue is almost life-size; it is made of oak and the back is hollowed out. The right arm is missing, the Lamb is damaged, also the top of St. John’s head and the hair at the sides; the whole nose has been replaced, and the painting of the face is the mere daub of an amateur. The treatment of the anatomy with its flat chest and thick wide neck are almost certain signs of Irish work; but the hair technique of interlocked strands suggests an English influence. This technique often seen on English 15th Century sculpture is well illustrated on an alabaster figure from Selby Yorkshire. It is also clearly shown on a carved wood Madonna in York Museum. The folds of the cloak indicate late mediaeval craftsmanship.

    The treatment of St. John’s beard is reminiscent of the Waterford’s Saviour’s hair and both figures have similarly shaped faces. This resemblance hints at the presence of local sculptors within the same archdiocese working under influences similar to each other, but are very different from those responsible for the surviving figures in the west.

Fethard’s mediaeval statues were given on loan to the
National Museum in 1948

The Trinity figures photographed on their last visit to Fethard in the 1960's


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