Boyle Abbey, Boyle

Feature Sets (4)

Description

The church at Boyle is one of the outstanding examples of Romanesque architecture in the country. It follows the so-called Fontenay plan, with a square presbytery flanked by two chapels in each arm of the transept. The church is well-preserved, though the walls of both nave aisles have been destroyed. The nave of eight bays has an unusual variety of pier forms: four Romanesque drum piers, eight shafted clustered piers, an octagonal pier, and six rectangular piers with triple shafts on the E and W faces. Scattered throughout the building there is an array of carved corbels, the majority furnished with some species of foliage ornament.

Little survives of the claustral buildings and there are no remains of the cloister arcades.

The sculpture is executed in a hard wearing sandstone, grey and yellow in colour, which was quarried locally.

History

The monastery at Boyle was founded in 1161 as a daughter house of Mellifont. The founding community in fact left Mellifont thirteen years earlier, trying out two other sites before eventually settling beside the river Boyle. The major benefactors were evidently the local kings of Moylurg. Construction began soon after the foundation, and, according to the annals, the church was consecrated in 1218 or 1220.

Following the dissolution, the monastery fell into disrepair; the buildings were used as a barracks in the seventeenth century, by which time the cloister arcades and most of the conventual buildings had been destroyed. At some unknown period (seventeenth or eighteenth century?) four massive buttresses were erected on the site of the N aisle,  a strategy designed to prevent the collapse of the N elevation of the nave. During the early 1980s limited excavation took place in the area of the N walk of the cloister, revealing a substantial drain.

Features

Exterior Features

Windows

W window

A tall lancet of two orders; the outer has banded shafts and an arch consisting of point-to point chevron meeting on a keeled edge roll.

Interior Features

Sedilia

Capital on E angle in the form of a beast head, with a beak gripping the octagonal shaft below; details very precisely cut in low relief  (cf Clonmacnois, Nuns' Church). The corresponding capital to W has been destroyed.

Arches

Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

There are three capitals on each side; the centre capital on the N is decorated with simple upright leaves; the remaining five have split scallops, foliage filling the top of the cone; the foliage on the S capitals is the most delicately defined.  

Tower/Transept arches

1. Crossing arch, transept arches

Capitals of the E responds are plain; the three capitals of SW respond have simple scallops. The capitals of NW respond are more elaborate:  that in the centre has split scallops filled with foliage (cf chancel arch), those either side have shallow upright  leaves. The bases of E crossing piers have ornate mouldings with small, delicate spurs, also found in the two adjoining chapels.

2. N transept outer E chapel arch

The inner capitals have upright leaves, which could almost be mistaken for scallops.  the outer capitals have simple upright leaves.

The centre capital on the N side has, at each angle, a broad, plain leaf with a furled tip. The space between is filled with foliage.

The centre capital on the S side (which is difficult to see and covered with lichen) is a more elaborate version of the latter. The space between the leaves is filled with minute foliage scrolls; in the very centre a grotesque face is concealed within the foliage. Immediately above, on a plain strip of masonry below the abacus, are two pelta motifs.

3. N transept inner E chapel arch

There are three capitals on each side of the entrance arch; the innermost capitals are plain and the outer pair are carved with simple upright leaves. The centre capital on the N side has scallops at each side (above false angle shafts) with foliage motifs filling the space between. The centre capital on the S side has only scallops.  

4. S transept, inner E chapel arch

The outer capital on the N side has simple pointed leaves; the inner capital has plain scallops.

On the S side the outer capital is plain, the inner capital has plain scallops.

5. S transept, outer E chapel arch

There are no decorated capitals on this arch. (RS original document).

Editor notes: Kalkreuter perhaps more accurately describes these caps as follows: 'half-octagonal piers support the arch on tectonic capitals, the cubic upper half of each of which is transformed into a half-octagon below'.

Arcades

Nave

N arcade, pier capitals

The nave arcade is of eight bays, with pointed arches.  Several different types of pier were employed in the nave and the capitals correspondingly vary in form.  The first three piers are compound clustered piers, the fourth is octagonal, while the three western piers are rectangular.

E respond

A frieze of foliage sculpture embraces the capitals and extends a short distance along the face of the adjoining pier: to the S a geometrical arrangement of 'palmette' leaves; in the centre a series of blossoms entwined in thick rounded stems (this section is damaged on the N side). The N section, now visible only from the exterior of the abbey, has a pair of 'palmette' leaves on the upper part of each face, with thick entwined rounded stems. A lozenge shape, with a ball in the centre, is formed on the angle.

Pier 1

Clustered pier with six capitals, each with small partially furled leaves hanging from the upper part of the bell. Leaves on the angles have five lobes, the others have three. Edges of the lobes are sharply engraved.

Pier 2

Clustered pier with six capitals, similar to those on pier 1. The leaves are more tightly furled and are subdivided into approximately seven convex lobes. A sequence of narrow stems descend down the surface of the bell, giving the impression of concave flutes.

Pier 3

Clustered pier with six capitals, each containing dense clusters of 'palmette' foliage set above curving stems.

Pier 4

Octagonal pier with a continuous frieze like capital. A series of upright leaves with approximately six deeply hollowed lobes, overlapped by shorter leaves hanging from above, the latter varying in size. In a few places tiny 'berries' are carved along the edges of the leaves. There are also a few examples of a tiny furled leaf containing berries.

Pier 5

Rectangular pier with engaged triple shafts on the E and W face. The triple capitals are treated as a single design and surmounted by a polygonal abacus.

(a) Curled foliage of 'palmette' type envelopes upper part of the bell; a mass of 'berries' is carved on the lower surface of the hanging leaves. The bottom section of the bell has a sequence of furled leaves containing berries, much larger than those on pier 4.
(b) More unified design with a sequence of upright 'palmette' leaves separated at the top by series of furled leaves with 'berries'.

Pier 6

Form the same as Pier 5.
(a) Hanging 'palmette' leaves, boldly undercut with rope-like stems below, the latter entwined.
(b) Dense pattern of 'palmette' foliage, with a number of leaves bursting out across their neighbours.   Array of 'berries' on the under surface of some leaves.

Pier 7

Form the same as Pier 5 and 6.
(a) Two rows of 'palmette' leaves, each with six lobes. These hang down the bell and are divided by thick rounded stems, the latter entwined. The capital has no necking.
(b) Complex pattern of upright 'palmette' leaves, with deeply hollowed lobes.

W respond

Triple capital as on piers 5-7. Two rows of 'palmette' leaves set above concave flutes. Thick rounded stems surround the leaves and these are held by tiny hands, belonging to human figures, whose faces appear between the foliage above.  There are 14 such faces altogether.

S arcade, pier capitals

The south arcade, of eight bays, is carried on four drum piers at its east end, and three rectangular piers to the west.  The arches are round, not pointed, in contrast to those of the N arcade.  The capitals are diverse.  Those of the cicular piers are octagonal, with scallops.  Piers 5 and 6 include human and animal figures, while Pier 7 and the W respond are ornamented with scallops and foliage.

E respond

As on the N arcade, a frieze of foliage sculpture embraces the respond and adjacent pier. In the centre a series of upright leaves; those on the angle are reminiscent of acanthus, though with rounded tips. The N section has a mixture of both upright and hanging 'palmette' foliage. The S section has been destroyed.

Pier 1

Octagonal capital with scallops. Made up of stones with slightly different forms of scallops. The scallops are interrupted on a stone at the S-E, which is decorated with roll mouldings (an interloper). The whole capital comprises eight major stones, each with a well defined angle, plus four narrow infils.  The bases of piers 1-4 have large foliage spurs; that on the S-W angle of pier 1 has unusual rolled spirals flanking a leaf; at the S-E angle there are huge furled scallops.

Pier 2

Octagonal capital with scallops similar to that on pier 1.

Pier 3

Octagonal capital with scallops similar to that on pier 1.

Pier 4

Octagonal capital with scallops, this time cut with a deep hollow: a few of the scallops contain foliage at the top of the cone.

Pier 5

A rectangular pier with triple shafts on the E and W face, corresponding to pier 5 on the N arcade.
(a) Four human figures set in line, clad in short skirts (the centre pair with belts). The figures grasp branches of trees, placed between them.
(b) Affronted dog and (?) chicken, tussling over prey held in their mouths. The theme is carved twice on either side of the capital, though the N pair is largely destroyed.  The tail of the chicken ends in a lobed spiral and below the dog there is a tightly coiled snake.   The tails of the dogs entwine and terminate in foliage.

Pier 6

(a) three dogs set in line above a series of relatively plain upright leaves. The pair to the S are fighting over prey.
(b) Upright leaves, pointed, each with two lobes, which curve and intertwine. Much of the S section of the capital is destroyed. There is no necking.

Pier 7

(a) Dense foliage pattern, formed of leaves with distinctive convex leaves. S section destroyed. No necking.
(b) Trumpet scallops, surmounted by a line of 'palmette' leaves, each set in a circular frame formed by stems (cf Ballintober S transept).

W respond

W respond:  Dense pattern of 'palmette' foliage with entwined stems. No necking.

Vaulting/Roof Supports

Nave

N aisle, corbels above piers

Above the piers in the north aisle is a series of corbels and capitals, usually supported by a tapering triple shaft. The capitals are obscured by later buttressing on piers 2-5. Ornament consists of scallops or foliage.

E respond

Corbel in the angle formed of three tapering shafts.   Decorated with narrow trumpet scallops.   No necking.

Pier 1

As on opposite side of the pier, shaft rises from the ground and divides into three just below the capital.   Double row of 'palmette' leaves, organised in triskele form, with thick entwined rounded stems. Eight leaves altogether.

Pier 2

Capital obscured by later inserted buttresses.

Pier 3

Capital obscured by later inserted buttresses.

Pier 4

Capital obscured by later inserted buttresses.

Pier 5

Capital obscured by later inserted buttresses.

Pier 6

Corbel composed of long triple shafts as on opposite sides of piers 5-7. Narrow trumpet scallops (cf E respond).

Pier 7

As on pier 6, but corbel decorated with foliage patterns in shallow relief.

W respond

Single shaft with triple fillets in the angle, corresponding to that on the opposite side of the respond.   Capital with round abacus and necking. Capital badly decayed; apparently foliate, with vertical stems.

N arcade, corbels and capitals in the spandrels

In the spandrels of the arches there is a series of corbels and capitals; those on piers 1-3 are located at the top of a shaft which rises from the centre of the clustered pier. The corbels are too low to have been intended as the support for vaulting ribs. They appear to have held some form of wooden wall post.

Pier 1

Surmounts single shaft which divides into three to form the capital. Dense pattern of 'palmette' foliage with interlacing stems. There is no necking.

Pier 2

A variation on previous capital, more deeply carved. Small pieces of foliage have been carved at the point where the shaft divides into three.

Pier 3

Form the same as previous capital; decorated with thin trumpet scallops; no foliage where shaft divides.

Pier 4

Corbel inserted above octagonal pier. Decoration the same as that on capital over pier 3; W half broken.

Pier 5

Corbel surmounts triple shafts, which descend to a taper on the face of the rectangular pier.  Thin trumpet scallops.

Pier 6

As corbel above pier 5, but top circle of the scallops has been hollowed out to create a genuine 'trumpet' form.

Pier 7

Foliage decoration similar to that on capital of pier below (7a). No necking. Where the three shafts taper to a point there is a small sculptured head.

W respond

A single shaft, with triple fillets, rises from the ground in the S-W angle of the respond. This is surmounted by a capital with plain upright leaves, separated by thick rounded entwined stems. Clusters of 'berries' fill the upper surface.

S aisle, corbels above piers

Above the piers in the S aisle are a series of corbels and capitals.  On the E respond, the corbel is on a single shaft, its capital now missing. The corbels over piers 1-4 have a round abacus and each surmounts a tiny tapering shaft.  Those corbels above piers 5-7 consist of long triple shafts, with a polygonal abacus.

Pier 1

Undecorated.

Pier 2

Trumpet scallops.

Pier 3

Double row of leaves set above series of broad leaves with accentuated spines.

Pier 4

Trumpet scallops with the tops serrated and surmounted by foliage.

Pier 5

Seated man, ribs exposed, fighting rampant lion. Motif carved twice on each side of the capital, so that the men are placed back to back. One holds a sword. The tails of the lions end in foliage. No necking.

Pier 6

Trumpet scallops, with outer surface of scallops decorated with spirally organised strips (cf Ballintober). No necking.

Pier 7

'Palmette' foliage with thick rounded stems. No necking.

W respond

Triple filleted shaft. The whole capital filled by a large human face; worn and damaged.

S arcade, corbels in the spandrels

In the spandrels of the arches there is a series of corbels and capitals, mostly rising from a triple shaft and with foliate or scallop decoration.  As noted for the N arcade, the corbels are too low to have supported vaulting ribs but may have held some form of wooden wall post.

Pier 1

Round shaft, surmounted by plain corbel with round abacus.

Pier 2

Triple shafted corbel, with upright leaves. Rather worn. Polygonal abacus.

Pier 3

Form like that above pier 2; diagonal pattern of stems containing foliage.

Pier 4

General form similar to that above piers 2 and 3. Leaves overlap on two planes, with thick rounded stems below. Base of corbel decorated with foliage at the point of the taper (cf N arcade, pier 2, corbel).

Pier 5

Long triple shafted corbel; foliage decoration in which leaves appear to shoot out of 'cones'. At pointed taper of the shafts, a tiny circular motif with cable decoration.

Pier 6

Long triple shafted corbel; six beasts, necks entwined, set above a line of foliage.

Pier 7

Long triple shafted corbel; small line of hollow scallops at base (cf Graiguenamanagh and Mellifont, chapter house), with foliage above shooting out of cones. Around the top of the bell hanging leaves with furled tips.

W respond

Single shaft with triple fillets, surmounted by capital with upright leaves, each having an accentuated spine. Foliage in shallow relief above.

Interior Decoration

Miscellaneous

N transept minor frieze

A frieze of scallops links the arches of the two chapels of the N transept at capital level.

Loose Sculpture

1. Chevron fragment

A fragment of beaded chevron, formerly built into the walls of the refectory. Now preserved in the 17thc. gatehouse.

2. Capital

A square capital with upright foliage, similar to that in the nave, S arcade, E respond. This was formerly built into W gable of the nave. Now preserved in the 17thc. gatehouse.

Comments/Opinions

No other Irish church can provide such an instructive sequence of sculpture as that at Boyle. Covering a period of approximately fifty years, the carvings of the abbey are fundamental to the development of Romanesque W of the Shannon. The earliest carving in the building - a stunning animal head on the angle of the sedilia - has close parallels with those on the W doorway of the Nuns' church at Clonmacnois (1167). It is almost certainly by the same hand. This not only confirms a date of c1165-70 for the earliest work at Boyle, but illustrates the fact that masons working in local Romanesque techniques were employed by the Cistercians. There are related sculptures at Kilmore (Cavan) and Clonfert. Transport along the river Shannon and its tributaries no doubt helps to explain these connections. Other carving at the E end, most notably the 'hidden' face in the N chapel of the N transept, is executed in the relatively shallow relief technique favoured by Hiberno-Romanesque sculptors. This latter capital, with its two tiny pelta designs, has a distinctly Celtic flavour.

Most of the early work consists of varieties of scalloped and foliate designs, some of the latter ultimately derived from classical acanthus. The broad, plain leaves found on two capitals in the N transept, are Cistercian type, originating in Burgundy and much used in England. The 'split scalloped' motif found in the crossing capitals, re-appears at Abbeyknockmoy.   It appears to have an English background (cf Lilleshall, Shropshire).

The capitals of the three clustered piers of the N arcade represent a new departure. Although the designs employed, especially the hanging trefoiled leaf, are commonplace in Romanesque art, the exact antecedents remain unclear. Some features of the capitals recall the more sophisticated foliage capitals in the triforium of the S transept of Christ Church, Dublin, and a date of c1190-1200 is likely.

The most extensive amount of carving in the abbey was carried out by a sculptor dubbed (by Stalley in 1971) as the 'Ballintober master'. This sculptor and his workshop executed the capitals of the last four bays of the nave, as well as the corbels inserted in the spandrels of the arches. While most of the capitals are covered with dense patterns of palmette foliage, there are a few instances of animals and human beings. The so-called dogs and chickens capital in the S arcade is one of the outstanding works of Irish Romanesque: a complex composition, executed with plenty of vigour and depth. The sculptor can be recognised through a number of personal details, such as the furled leaf with a line of berries at the edge of the leaf, or the animals, which sprout foliage tails. The workshop was employed at Ballintober Abbey between 1216 and 1225, suggesting that the sculpture at Boyle was executed just before the consecration of 1218/20. The sculptor also worked at Abbeyknockmoy (founded 1190), a daughter house of Boyle, and the impact of his foliage designs can be seen in several other churches of Connacht, most notably that at Cong. The sculptor combined both local features with knowledge of more cosmopolitan Romanesque and it is a pity that the precise background of this imaginative and skilful artist remains unclear.

Bibliography

  • A. Champneys,  Irish Ecclesiastical Architecture, London, 1910, 147-151.

  • Britta Kalkreuter, Boyle Abbey and the School of the West, Bray, 2001.

  • H.G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, II, Dundalk, 1960, 32-5, 61-3.

  • R.A.Stalley, 'A Romanesque Sculptor in Connaught', Country Life (21st June, 1973), 1826-30.

  • R. Stalley, Architecture and Sculpture in Ireland, Dublin, 1971, 108-117.

  • R. Stalley, The Cistercian monasteries of Ireland, London and New Haven, 1987,  180-8.

Location

Site Location
Boyle Abbey, Boyle
National Grid Reference
G 81 03 
Boundaries
pre-1994 traditional (Republic of Ireland): Roscommon
now: Roscommon
Diocese
medieval: Elphin
now: Elphin
Dedication
now:
medieval: Blessed Virgin Mary
Type of building/monument
Ruined abbey church and abbey buildings, formerly Cistercian abbey  
Report authors
Roger Stalley 
Visit Date
27 June 1993