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Kilkenny’s Throne of Grace

Kilkenny’s Throne of Grace

A History of the Irish Dominicans in 100 Objects (#3)

This alabaster image of the Holy Trinity from the Black Abbey in Kilkenny represents the towering figure of the seated and crowned God the Father, with his right hand raised in blessing, in front of him is the crucified Christ, whose cross hovers over the knees of the Father, while a dove of the Holy Spirit rests on the top shaft of the cross. The Father’s elaborate crown stresses the heavenly glory of the Trinity, while Christ’s crown of thorns emphasises the Son’s human suffering.

This iconographic type of Trinity combined with the Crucifixion has been described since the nineteenth century as the Throne of Grace or the Seat of Mercy (Gnadenstuhl): in such images God the Father holds or projects the cross, his gesture gives prominence to the gifting aspect of Christ’s sacrifice and emphasises the Father’s sacrifice of his Son. The term ‘Throne of Grace’ originates from the Bible; in the Letter to the Hebrews, St Paul writes ‘Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace in seasonable aid’ (Hebrews 4:16). The throne of grace (‘thronum gratiae’) metaphorically refers to God reigning in heaven, and through the accompanying Pauline verses that name Christ as a high priest (Hebrews 4:15, 5:1), the throne of mercy obtains a Eucharistic meaning. Unsurprisingly, the Throne of Mercy iconography from the twelfth century became frequently associated with the bloodless sacrifice of Mass and was depicted in missals and on liturgical objects. The original position of the Trinity, possibly above the main altar in Kilkenny’s priory, would have highlighted the sacramental aspect of the image.

In the Kilkenny sculpture, which stands at c. 82 cm in height, the facial features of the Father and the Son, their hollow cheeks, beards and long hair create a visual unity between the two persons of the Trinity, and dramatically emphasise their shared pain. The humane and palpable sense of suffering is achieved with the help of alabaster as a medium – alabaster’s light colouring and translucence, and its relative softness in carving contributed to its frequent use in devotional imagery. Here, the interplay of light and shadow on the Father’s and the Son’s faces, on Christ’s emaciated body – all amplify the dramatic expressionism of the scene.

This fifteenth-century alabaster depiction of the Holy Trinity came to Ireland from an English workshop. In the late Middle Ages, England became an important centre for the manufacture and export of religious alabasters. Great workshops existed in London, Nottingham, Burton-on-Trent and York, with alabaster being quarried in the Midlands. Similar Trinity alabasters were produced in large numbers and many can now be seen in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, it is therefore unlikely that the piece was specially commissioned by the Dominican friars from Ireland, although it may have been purchased for a special occasion.

The Dominican priory in Kilkenny, commonly known as the Black Abbey, was founded by William Marshall in 1225, within a year of the Friars Preachers’ arrival in Ireland. The Kilkenny foundation, the third Dominican establishment on the island after Dublin and Drogheda, was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, probably at the wish of the founder. The Trinitarian theology was central to Christology and was formulated during the early centuries of Christianity. The leading thinkers of the medieval mendicant orders, including Bonaventure (1217/1221-1274) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), positioned Trinitarian theology at the centre of their thought. For Thomas Aquinas, it was that foundational belief in triune God which made it possible to correctly understand both creation and salvation – the times when the presence and the workings of the entire Trinity were manifested.

The dedication of Dominican foundations to the Holy Trinity was not uncommon, medieval priories in Cambridge (c. 1238) in England and Kraków in Poland (1222) held such dedications. It is possible that the Kilkenny friars obtained the representation of the Holy Trinity, to mark the church’s dedication and its 200th anniversary of establishment. It is also likely that the sculpture was displayed in the priory above the main altar from the time of its arrival in Kilkenny in the fifteenth century to the time of the priory’s dissolution in 1540. At some point the sculpture was hidden for safe keeping in a niche located in the transept, where it was discovered in the nineteenth century during restoration works. The Black Abbey is the only medieval Dominican house still used in Catholic worship, its walls and surviving medieval statues of the Holy Trinity and St Catherine of Alexandria provide material links to the Order’s rich history in Ireland and its connections to Europe’s artistic and intellectual networks.

Author: Dr Małgorzata Krasnodębska-D’Aughton is Senior Lecturer in the School of History, University College Cork. She specialises in the cultural and religious history of the later Middle Ages. She co-edited Monastic Europe: Medieval Communities, Landscapes, and Settlements (Brepols, 2019). She is now preparing a monograph titled Image and Identity: Franciscan Ideologies in Medieval Ireland.

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