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…It was found in 1868, under a stone slab in a ringfort in Reerasta, near Ardagh, Co. Limerick…
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It was found in 1868, under a stone slab in a ringfort in Reerasta, near Ardagh, Co. Limerick, with a second, plainer bronze chalice and four gilt silver brooches. Along with the Derrynaflan Chalice, this is one of the finest liturgical vessels of the Early Christian world. Its beauty lies in the contrast between
the plain sheen of the polished silver and the finesse and complexity of the ornamentation: gold filigree of stylised birds and beasts; interlace in filigree and other techniques; intricate studs of red, blue and yellow glass (sometimes multicoloured or topped by filigree); and beautifully engraved lettering that spells out the names of the Apostles, with Paul being substituted for Judas. Like so much else from this extraordinary period, the chalice suggests a culture that is at once international and insular.
‘The model’, says Raghnall Ó Floinn of the National Museum, ‘is Late Roman tableware, from the early centuries AD. It has parallels not in Western Europe but with Byzantine vessels now in St Mark’s in Venice—not because there is direct Eastern influence but because they both draw on a common Roman ancestor’. The squat shape of the two-handled bowl of the chalice, however, is indigenously Irish, and the animal art, with its typical abstraction, is very different from the more realistic Roman style of representation.
This Irish love of complexity is everywhere on the Ardagh chalice. Numbers play a large part in the design: the Apostles are echoed in the twelve studs and twelve panels of the band at the top. What is extraordinary, though, is the number of pieces that make up the chalice: more than 350. The skill and complexity lavished on objects such as this highlight something conspicuous only by its absence. From this golden age of Irish Christianity, there are few surviving churches.
The simple stone oratories that do survive are not at all typical of the general run of contemporary Irish churches. Stone endures, wood perishes —and most churches in Ireland were wooden. A poem in the exuberant monkish collection Hisperica Famina describes a ‘wooden oratory… fashioned out of candle-shaped beams’ and talks of how monks would ‘hew the sacred oaks with axes, in order to fashion square chapels’. The usual word for a church in early mediaeval Irish is dairthech, literally, ‘oak house’.
These buildings were rectangular and probably plain. So, even while the Irish were making religious objects of astonishing opulence, they were using them in relatively humble spaces. The explanation for the tendency to use wood in church building is certainly not to be found in a lack of skill in masonry—as Ireland’s elaborate stone high crosses attest. One possibility, hinted at in the mention of the ‘sacred oaks’, is that Ireland retained a pre-Christian attachment to the holiness of trees.
The effect of this traditionalism could well have been to make the objects contained in these churches all the more striking. The author of the Hisperica Famina concluded his description by remarking ‘the chapel contains innumerable objects, which I shall not struggle to unroll from my wheel of words’. It is hard to imagine that however innumerable these objects, any was more magnificent than the Ardagh Chalice.