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…This object, found on a riverbank at Donore, Co. Meath, in 1984, is almost certainly the handle for a church door…
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This object, found on a riverbank at Donore, Co. Meath, in 1984, is almost certainly the handle for a church door. Its opulence and sophistication tell us how far Irish monasteries had come from the largely ascetic impulses behind their foundation. It reveals a period of obvious prosperity, in which the church is fully integrated in the structures of power. The handle is a spectacular and supremely confident expression of technological mastery. It is made up of three pieces: a beautifully engraved circular plate of tinned bronze, a splendid lion’s head that was probably made from a wax model and a frame that was probably cast from a twopiece mould. The lion’s eyes are inlaid with brown glass made to look like amber.
In addition to its technological sophistication, the handle’s artistry is evidence of a confident cosmopolitanism. The lion’s head obviously comes from Roman traditions (similar images were used in Roman temples) and from biblical iconography (the lion is often a symbol for the evangelist St Mark). More specifically, decoration on the head of this lion is comparable to some of the decoration in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the superb illuminated manuscript from Northumbria. Thus, Irish, Pictish, Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon influences are mingling to produce a vigorous stew of visual styles. The idea of the lion as doorkeeper is also a more broadly European image: it is found, for example, on the door of a chapel in the palace of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne at Aachen.
All of this is a far cry from the origins of monasticism in the deserts of North Africa and Asia Minor as a way of fleeing the entanglements of the ordinary world. This ascetic strain certainly survived in Ireland, most notably in the stark remoteness of the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael, off the Kerry coast, but there is nothing stark or remote about the Donore handle. It speaks instead of a worldly, cosmopolitan church with connections to both local politics and international currents. It is significant, indeed, that Irish monks seeking to attain the original monastic ideal of removal felt it necessary to go to the Skellig, or even, by the ninth century, to Iceland. The need to go to such literal extremes suggests an awareness that the mainstream monasteries were increasingly integral to the economic and political life of the country. They enjoyed the patronage of, and were intertwined with, the powerful local dynasties that were asserting control over an expanding and increasingly productive society. This was a period of great clearances of forests, of the expansion of arable land and of the building of perhaps as many as 50,000 ring-forts as enclosures for well-off farmers. The church was a key part of this expansive Ireland.
This was a church that had felt confident enough to engage in long disputes with Rome about the correct date for the most important Christian festival, Easter. It was now developing new ideas about pilgrimage and penance that had a profound influence on Christianity as a whole; and it was not embarrassed to display its wealth and sophistication on a church door.