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Our Lady of Graces

Our Lady of Graces

A History of the Irish Dominicans in 100 Objects (#4)’

‘An inherited object … is not just an object, an antique, an item on an inventory (…). It can transmit the climate of a lost world’. These words by Seamus Heaney remind us about the power of objects that act like a portal, communicating across the ages and places, linking minds and mentalities.  A small ivory sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, now housed in the nineteenth-century building of the Dominican priory in Cork, links together fourteenth-century Parisian craftsmanship, personal devotions of the late medieval Irish medieval bishop, early modern miracle stories, and the nineteenth-century Catholic revival.

A small sculpture, dated to c. 1300, only 7.5 cm in height and now quite weathered, represents Mary seated frontally, and supporting her young son, who stands on her lap. The slight turn of her body, the incline of her head and the gesture of nursing are suggestive of the tenderness connecting the mother and the son; these subtle actions respond to the late medieval affective piety that stressed the humanity of Jesus and that sought to convey the reality of human emotions experienced by Christ and his mother. Mary, while represented as a crowned queen was a loving mother of a human child, seated on a bench, not a throne, as seen here. Such devotional images invited viewers to actively engage with the Gospel accounts and meditate on the sacred events by applying ‘the devout belief of the imagination’, as stated by the author of the famous Meditations on the life of Christ (c. 1300).

The sculpture, originally painted and gilded, was executed in Paris, where fourteenth-century ivory workshops were producing exquisite devotional diptychs that illustrated biblical stories. Here, the Mother and Son figures are enclosed within a Gothic frame and the overall shape of the object suggests that once it was a leaf of a diptych, with the other wing possibly displaying the Crucifixion. The leaves would close like a book to protect the delicate carvings inside and when open would create an intimate space for prayer. This object, according to the later sources, was owned by Maurice O’Carroll, Archbishop of Cashel between 1303 and 1316, and clearly carried personal significance to him, since he brought it on his travels. When he died in 1316 while on visitation and was buried together with the image in the Dominican priory in Youghal.

Not much now remains of the Dominican priory in Youghal. Established in 1268 (or 1271) by Thomas FitzMaurice Fitzgerald, the friary was dedicated to the Holy Cross, and later rededicated to the Virgin Mary on account of this small, yet powerful image. According to legend the rededication was linked to the miraculous discovery of the image. Although a legend, the story corresponds to the revitalisation of the Youghal community and the introduction of the Observant reform there in 1493. At that time the image became the focus of pilgrimage and veneration, its weathered nature suggests that it was frequently rubbed by devout pilgrims. When the priory became dissolved and demolished in 1587, due to its small size, the image escaped the injuries of the reformation iconoclasm.

The turbulent seventeenth century gave rise to more miraculous stories concerning the wonderous arrival of the image – they spoke about how the object was brought to shore in a piece of wood. It was also in that century that the ivory was enclosed in a silver casing, whose two wings represented the engraved Crucifixion and Mary as the suffering Mater dolorosa. The inscription reads ‘Orate pro anima Onoriae filiae Jacobi de Geraldinis quae me fieri fecit AD 1617’ and names Honora as a sponsor of the shrine. This Honora has been identified as the daughter of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, the leader of the Desmond rebellion; after becoming widowed, Honora retained large estates in East Cork, and provided support for the parish clergy and friars. Despite the sustained, although clandestine support for the persecuted Catholic religious, Youghal’s Dominican community was unable to endure and ceased to exist in the late eighteenth century, and the image was likely transferred to Cork. Here it received further enhancement: the ivory was again encased, this time in a brass reliquary and placed on the Rosary Altar in the nineteenth-century neo-classical friary of Cork Dominicans. The brass reliquary was executed in Paris and serendipitously completed the journey of the ivory that one travelled from fourteenth-century Paris to Ireland.

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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