Christ on the cross in early Ireland

Christ Slab

As far as the medieval world was concerned, Ireland represented the very ends of the earth. And yet, although geographically on the boundaries of Europe, in cultural terms Ireland was a part of the wider Christian hegemony, the western centre of which was in Rome. During the medieval period, Christianity had grown from its origins as a small, marginalized circle of believers living on the outskirts of Roman society to become the most enduring, diverse and inclusive of the various institutional, regional and ethnic communities to which a person might belong. Clearly, the process by which this had been achieved did not occur at a uniform rate or in a uniform manner across the various regions that adopted the faith; nevertheless, there were certain constants of universal significance across the Christian world. One such constant was Christ's crucifixion, which represented a defining moment central to every branch of Christian theology. Yet even this was interpreted in ways divergent enough to cause controversy and the image of Christ on the cross was represented by variant groups accordingly.

The Romanesque cross at Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare

In 2008, following informal research discussions which revealed the potential rewards of close inter-disciplinary co-operation, scholars from the School of English and History of Art department at University College Cork came together to work on a project entitled 'Christ on the cross: textual and material interpretations of Christ's passion in early Ireland (800-1200 AD)'. Led by Dr Juliet Mullins (School of English), the project recently received nearly €250,000 under the Project Grants in Theology and Religious Studies from the Department of the Taoiseach (administered by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences). The project team also includes Dr Richard Hawtree (School of English) and Dr Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh (Dept. of History of Art). Drawing upon the different areas of expertise of its constituent members, 'Christ on the cross' offers a paradigm of interdisciplinary research in the arts and humanities. Central to the research ethos of this project is the desire to integrate the study of textual and material culture in order to explicate how these early Irish portrayals of the crucifixion engage with theological and doctrinal controversies emerging from the Continent. The time with which the project is concerned, 800-1200 AD, marks a stage of development and decisive change within the Irish church and represents a period when the isolation of the island in intellectual terms is often assumed, but seldom demonstrated. The 'Christ on the cross' team will use this complex and defining moment to assess how Irish theologians reacted to continental controversies and will illustrate an aspect of Ireland's religious history that is rarely acknowledged: that Irish interpretations of Christ upon the cross were profoundly influenced by and influential within the Christian federation. Ireland's position on the boundaries of Christendom created a unique tension that encouraged and required a creative response to Christological concerns. That response was the inception of a textual and material culture that revelled in the multivalent readings to be found in the moment of Christ upon the cross.

The Romanesque cross at Dysert O’Dea, Co. Clare

Reading is an act that we, particularly within the academic world, consider natural, neutral and unmarked. In the medieval period, however, the idea of reading, vision (in every sense of the word) and meditation were theologically charged. Reading was not something limited to textual encounters; images, space, music and the liturgy were all open to various levels of 'reading' and interpretation. Recent studies of material culture (art history, archaeology) have recognised the importance of the various modes of medieval reading and have turned increasingly from the aspects of craft or artistic production to focus more strongly on the 'cultural biography' of the object. This entails, at the most basic level, recognition of the significance of multiple audiences' reading of the object; and this development is key to the project's methodology. It is important and significant, also, to acknowledge the power which certain images and objects possess to evoke and channel emotions and thoughts, often of great ideological complexity. The cross is the most potent of all objects in early medieval culture: it is a strikingly simple image in structural terms, yet its significance is profound and its readings multivalent. The transformation of the cross from physical materiality to theoretical concept and literary conceit, then back to wood and stone, represents possibly the most intricate of all cultural biographies. This transformation did not occur in an intellectual vacuum; as we might expect, the concepts and concerns behind developments in material culture are reflected in and expounded upon in the contemporary textual record. Unlike earlier studies upon the place of the cross in insular culture, this project is driven by the desire to integrate the study of material remains preserving iconography of Christ upon the cross, with liturgical metalwork and manuscripts bearing decoration depicting the same, and with the theological texts preserved within these codices. In this way, texts in which contemporary doctrinal issues and traditional patristic exegesis of the Crucifixion are expounded are considered within their manuscript context and these manuscripts are, in turn, placed within the broader cultural context from which they emerged. For it is clear that one cannot define the images of Christ prevalent in medieval Ireland without considering the ideological context in which they were produced. Once this contextualization has occurred, these images can be read as a response to contemporary Christian theology and as important witnesses that reinforce and explain the substantial corpus of religious writings produced in Ireland during this period.

The Southampton Psalter: Cambridge, St John’s College MS C9, f. 35, reproduced by kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge

A central concern of the project is to present and to interpret the textual and the material in a relationship that reflects the environment in which their original 'readers' would have experienced them: that is, together and as equal partners, and not in a source-secondary relation. For there is rarely a direct causal relationship between text and image: one seldom directly inspires the other. This concern will further be expressed in the publications of the project: these will include a database of texts and images which will allow researchers to access and examine depictions and expressions across a variety of media, in a fluid and flexible way, and which will be accessible on-line.

The team are currently engaged in gathering, analysing, and where necessary translating texts in order to set in place a framework for the examination of the material culture, which, in the form of the ninth/tenth-century scripture crosses, is at present perhaps better known, and certainly more accessible, to the general public. Raising public and scholarly awareness of the project, and initiating links with researchers in similar fields across Europe and the USA, will be key to the successful completion of the work. With this in mind, the team are currently putting together a call for papers for an international conference entitled 'Croch saithir: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West', to be held in Cork in Holy Week 2010. The conference will draw together scholars from across the disciplines of history, art history, archaeology, liturgical studies and theology, to engage with ideas and problems raised by our own work, and to complement the Irish dimension with expertise on Rome, the Carolingian world, the Iberian Peninsula and Byzantium. We are delighted that we will be able to welcome Professors Celia Chazelle (The College of New Jersey, USA), Louis van Tongeren (Tilburg University, Netherlands), and Dr Jennifer O'Reilly (UCC) as plenary speakers at this event. It is envisaged that the papers will be published afterwards, and will provide a European context against which Irish depictions of Christ's passion may be measured and explored.

In our modern world, it is easy for us to forget the daily rhythm of Christ's Passion celebrated with intensity in the masses at monasteries, and indeed in city churches, throughout medieval Europe. The highly charged effect of artworks and texts can revive that for us — but only when examined with rigour through the lens of contemporary doctrinal and theological concerns. This is, ultimately, what our project, 'Christ on the cross' aims to do.