Found in the 1930s in a crannóg (lake dwelling) on the south side of Ballinderry Lough in Co. Offaly, this is one of the most startlingly complex objects ever discovered in Ireland. It arose from a richly sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture in which pre-Christian forms are being subtly reshaped to elaborate Christian theology. It tells us that Irish art was both absorbing very complex iconography from as far away as Palestine and enriching it with older pagan symbolism. The brooch is zoomorphic (animal-shaped) and penannular (there is a gap in the ring); this is a style developed in Roman Britain but popular in Ireland between the fifth and seventh centuries. This is the most elaborate ever found. Its maker may have been an Irish artist-craftsman of international standing, who may also have made the escutcheons of the largest hanging bowl found in one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in western Europe, the Anglo-Saxon ship burial from Sutton Hoo in East Anglia.
The basic image is pre-Christian: the twoheaded snake biting its own tail, a symbol of eternity and regeneration. This snake, here, is not a symbol of Satan. It hints, rather, at the resurrection of Christ, the analogy being with the snake’s ability to shed its skin and be ‘reborn’. The key to understanding the Christian iconography of the brooch is found on what is known as the ‘Marigold Stone’, from Carndonagh, Co. Donegal. The two objects have the same pattern of a geometrical stem rising towards a marigold flower.
More remarkably, however, the patterns on the brooch come from Jerusalem, specifically from the jars of holy oil sold to wealthy pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the reputed burial place of Jesus. Inscribed on some of these jars were the images that lie behind the patterns on the Ballinderry brooch. They show Christ’s tomb under the dome of the church. Rising from the tomb is the Tree of Life on which Jesus ascends into Heaven. In Irish art, the face of Christ at the top of the tree is represented by a marigold. This is the image of the resurrection shown in abstract and condensed form on the back of the brooch. In addition, the millefiori cross on the brooch front represents the most famous monument to the resurrection in Jerusalem, the Crux Gemmata (jewelled cross).
‘There is a remarkably sophisticated iconography at work here’, says Conor Newman of NUI Galway, ‘and it is the same message which ultimately can be sourced to the iconologists at work in Jerusalem in the sixth century. So you have a brooch that is pagan in its original form but that carries this complex symbolism of the resurrected Christ’. Very early in the history of Irish Christianity, there is a brilliant mixture of continuity with older traditions and up-to-date cosmopolitan thinking. ‘You have somebody’, says Newman, ‘living around AD 600 in the midlands, whose brooch is probably made by the same person who made the biggest hanging bowl found at Sutton Hoo, and its iconography speaks not just to his religious persuasion, but to deep intellectual traditions that are most current in Palestine at this time’.