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A 15th-century Cross from Sligo Abbey

A 15th-century Cross from Sligo Abbey

A History of the Irish Dominicans in 100 Objects (#1)

Writing in the wake of the dissolution of the monasteries, the scribe of the Annals of Loch Cé laments that ‘there was not in Erinn a holy cross […] over which [English protestant] power reached, that was not burned’ (1538).  Be it through iconoclasm, loss, or choice of materials, few crosses from medieval Ireland have survived to the present day.  One survivor is a fifteenth-century floriated latten cross with a gilt figure and blue champlevé enamel terminals with symbols of the Evangelists associated with the Dominican friary in Sligo.  The cross was purchased by the National Museum of Ireland in 1982 from the Dominican Fathers in St Mary’s, Tallaght for the sum of £2,500.

A 15th-century Cross from Sligo Abbey

Over the years the Sligo Friary Cross has suffered damage and undergone repairs. The original tang was broken and replaced, the socket has been lost, the cross was remounted on a wooden base coated in polychrome plaster, and a projecting tang at the back of Christ’s head suggests the figure was originally nimbed.  The original socket of the Sligo Cross may also have had projecting arms supporting smaller figures of the Virgin and St John the Evangelist as on the Multyfarnham Cross.

The figure of Christ is depicted as suffering – his body emaciated, oversized nails pierce his hands and feet, and sharp thorns pierce his forehead – but also as resilient, with an upright position and the eyes open.  The broken body but enduring spirit reflects the dual symbolism of Christ on the Cross in the late Middle Ages as both sacrificial victim and triumphator over death.  The figure is very close in design to both the Sheephouse Cross and a crucifix figure in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A, M.116-1956). All three offer a similar upright pose, facial features, hairstyles, gaunt frames, and loincloths, and wear spiked Crowns of Thorns.  They were likely produced by the same metalworker or workshop.  The floriated outlines and overall forms of both the Sligo Friary and Sheephouse Crosses have strong parallels with contemporary English examples. Likewise a fragment of a decorated copper strip above the head of the Sligo Christ which may have originally been a scroll or titulus board is also suggestive of English production or influence as Irish inclusions of the titulus board are rare. 

The 1453 Synod of Cashel stipulated that all altars must be furnished with a crucifix, indicating perhaps that this was not always the case.  For reasons of economy, the majority of crosses in late medieval Ireland likely served a multipurpose role as both altar and processional crosses.  This is especially practical in a Dominican context where not only may the cross act as a focus for prayer and meditation on the altar, or side altar before the Rood, it may also serve in the daily Salve procession after Compline.  During the procession the friars passed from the chancel into the nave carrying aloft a cross and singing the Salve Regina.  This practice was popular with the wider community especially on feast days such as Easter and Christmas.

Wooden crosses have not survived from the period but they are known to have been venerated. The ‘Holy Cross’ of Raphoe Cathedral, Co. Donegal, was said to have cured eyesight problems in 1397.  Wooden crosses would have also offered a more economical option as metal crosses of all types were expensive items.  The late fifteenth-century churchwarden’s accounts of St Werburgh’s in Dublin provide for the repair of a silver gilt cross, as well as a new staff for the cross, rather than commission a new object altogether.  Gifts and bequests to abbeys often took the form of crosses.  The Ballymacasey Cross (1479) for instance seems to have been commissioned by one of the O’Conors to coincide with his father’s founding of the Franciscan Friary in Lislaughtin, Co. Kerry.  Likewise the Register of Athenry records gifts of crucifixes to the Dominican friary there.  How the Sligo Cross came to be associated with the community cannot be said for certain, but Sligo Friary benefitted from the patronage of a number of local families such as the O’Conors, O’Rourkes, McDonaghs, and O’Creans and so it may have been the product of such generosity.

A practical, utilitarian object for a medieval Dominican community, the Sligo Friary Cross is also a thoughtful, valuable object.  Its iconography reflective of contemporary religious thinking, its design indicative of the strong artistic dialogue between late medieval Ireland and Britain, its survival precious to students and enthusiasts of Irish and Dominican history and culture. 

Measurements

Total height (including base), 49 cm
Height of cross, 40.5 cm
Width of cross, 33.5 cm
Length of figure, 15 cm
Width across arms of figure, 13 cm
Diameter of medallions, 7 cm

Author: Karen Ralph.

Further Reading:

Armstrong, E.C.R., ‘Processional Cross, Pricket-Candlestick and Bell, Found Together at Sheephouse, near Oldbridge, Co. Meath’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, volume 5, number 1 (March 31, 1915), 27-31

Carpenter, Andrew and Rachel Moss (eds), ‘Art of Worship and Devotion’ in Carpenter, Andrew and Rachel Moss (eds), Art and Architecture of Ireland: Medieval c.400-c.1600, volume 1 (Dublin, 2005: Royal Irish Academy), 224-327

Coleman, Ambrose (ed.), ‘Regestrum Monasterii Fratum Praedicatorum de Athenry’, Archivium Hibernicum or Irish Historical Records, volume 1 (1912), 201-221

Hourihane, Colum, “Holye Crosses’: A Catalogue of Processional, Altar, Pendant and Crucifix Figures for Late Medieval Ireland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, volume 100C, number 1 (2000), 1-85

Mould, Daphne, The Irish Dominicans: The Friars Preachers in the History of Catholic Ireland (Dublin, 1957: Dominican Publications)

Ó Clabaigh, Colmán, The Friars in Ireland 1224-1540 (Dublin, 2010: Four Courts)

Ó Floinn, Raghnall, ‘Irish Goldsmiths’ Work of the Later Middle Ages’, Irish Arts Review Yearbook, volume 12 (1996), 35-44 

O’Sullivan, Benedict, and Hugh Fenning (ed.), Medieval Irish Dominican Studies (Dublin, 2009: Four Courts)

Ralph, Karen, “Behold the Wounds on Christ’: Crucifixion Imagery in Late Medieval Ireland’, Religions, volume 13 (2022), article 570, 1-33

Robinson, John L., ‘Churchwardens’ Accounts, 1484-1600, St. Werburgh’s Church, Dublin’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, volume 4, number 2 (June 30, 1914), 132-142

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