Glendalough, St Saviour

Feature Sets (3)


The priory is situated about three quarters of a mile to the E of the main monastic buildings at Glendalough, on the S bank of the Glendasan river. At the moment the ruins are completely surrounded by timber plantations. The buildings consist of a nave and chancel church with an annex to the N of the nave. The latter is the same size as the nave and linked to it by a doorway near the E end of the dividing wall. The masonry coursing in the W wall of the priory indicates that nave and annex are coeval. A mural stair in the E wall of the annex led presumably to an upper floor and probably also to a croft over the barrel vaulted chancel. When the Commissioners of Public Works took over the site in 1875 the buildings 'were buried under heaps of rubbish and tangled vegetation'; extensive reconstruction took place at this time. The bulk of the Romanesque carving is to be found on the chancel arch and the E window, both of which were rebuilt in the 1870s.


The history of St Saviour's Priory remains very unclear. According to the Official Guide, it is said to have been founded by St Laurence O'Toole in 1162, but the author(s) provide no supporting evidence. The Vita of St Laurence states that while he was abbot of Glendalough (1154–62), the saint showed a great zeal for church building, and on this basis Francoise Henry attributed the foundation of the priory to him. The style of the carving lends support to this idea, the analogies with Baltinglass (founded 1148), suggesting a date in the 1150s for the sculpture. The only caveat is the keystone of the first order of the chancel arch, which has a filleted roll, a feature which is not to be expected in Ireland as early as the 1150s (but see also Killeshin for an early use of fillets). The fact that St Saviour's followed the Arrouasian Rule strengthens the connection with Laurence O'Toole, who introduced this branch of the Augustinian canons to Holy Trinity Dublin, soon after he became Archbishop of Dublin in 1162.


Exterior Features


S doorway, nave (E)

Round-headed, with a single undecorated order. The doorway has inclined jambs, so the width of door diminishes from 1.08 m to 1.01 m. In 1875 traces of a square chamber, a sacristy or possibly a tower, were uncovered outside this door.

S doorway, nave (W)

The arch does not survive. The doorway has inclined jambs and is undecorated. The width diminishes from 0.89 m to 0.84 m.



N window: a round-headed window with a chamfered reveal (total depth of reveal 0.06 m) and a chamfered label.

E window: the bases consist of plain blocks (possibly modern). The angles of the reveal are furnished with pseudo-octagonal shafts, each flanked by a fillet. The voussoirs are plain. The label is chamfered, and has no label stops

The rear arches of both windows of the annex have disappeared, but parts of the original jambs survive.

E window

A two-light window set within an outer containing arch, 0.89 m wide. The S base is 0.11 m high and takes the form of an inverted scalloped capital. The N base is considerably shorter, 0.07 m high, and apart from a chamfered upper section, lacks decoration. Pseudo-shafts, flanked by narrow fillets, are worked on the jambs. On the N jamb the uppermost block of stone is slightly different, the shaft being decorated with lines of beading instead of fillets. The fillets employed beside the shafts run down into the bases and tail off. The S capital has a horizontal line of running spirals, with thinly incised scallops above, the N capital has roughly cut scallops.

There are 18 voussoirs in the arch,  of which 11 are modern insertions. The patterns on the remaining seven stones are highly irregular and the widths of the archivolts vary:
(a) four of the stones (on the N side) contain two rows of lateral chevron on the face and soffit, creating a lozenge on the angle, alternating with lozenges set point-to-point. The chevrons are beaded. One of the lozenges on the face is filled with a boss, the other has an eight-petalled flower (this lozenge is solid and not framed by a beaded roll). While the lozenges on the edge are centred on a voussoir, their points are cut on adjoining stones. 
(b) three stones, all very narrow, contain two rows of beaded, lateral chevron on face and soffit, forming a lozenge on the edge (one of the lozenges is filled with a pellet). Three stones are employed to create two chevrons.

In the label three original stones survive, decorated with pellets, some plain, others pierced. On the N side is an original dragon-head stop, with walnut-shaped eyes, rather crude in execution. The R upper half is broken off.

On the interior the rear arch is flanked on N and S by aumbries and the decoration of the jambs of the arch takes account of these.

S side, W face: a system of hyphenated lozenges, set between deeply cut three-quarter rolls on each angle; the rolls and lozenges are outlined by beading:
Stone 1: a half lozenge at the base: two affronted birds peck at an object descending from above (possibly a tiny bird). A circular boss sits between the birds and two smaller bosses sit behind their backs.
Stone 2: a lozenge filled with a pattern of two-strand interlace, forming a four-part knot.
Stone 3: two vertical rolls, lined by beading.
Stone 4: a lozenge filled with a 'ravioli'-like form comprising four semicircular motifs, with a boss in the centre.
Stone 5: as stone 2.
Stone 6: the moulding to the S is now discontinued, as the window rises above the adjoining aumbry. The stone has a circular motif, beaded around the circumference, and filled with an ornate multi-petalled flower.

The N face has one row of hyphenated chevron, the chevron bands beaded. Two of the triangles created by the chevron are filled with motifs:
Stone 1: a foliate motif within a half-triangle.
Stone 2: ambiguous: this could represent a flying bird, seen from above, with its beak in the angle of the chevron.
Stone 4: this has no motif within the chevron.
Stone 6: another circular motif, corresponding to that on W face of the stone. In this case there is beading around the circumference along with a six-petalled flower, simpler in detail than the adjoining flower.

On the N jamb: only three original sections remain:
Stone 1 (at bottom): on the W face is a half lozenge (as on the S side), containing a lion, with its head turned over its back, biting its tail which curls between the legs. On the S face of this stone is an elaborate knot, set in a beaded triangle formed by the chevron.
Stones 2, 3, and 4 are modern.
Stone 5 (very damaged) has a vertical beaded roll on the angle. Beside this on the W face a further roll takes a scrolled form, like a crosier, and terminates in a dragon's head. To the left there is a fragment of foliage scroll.
Stone 6: this has one row of point-to-point chevron, beaded, meeting on the angle roll.

The arch was rebuilt in the 1870s. Ten of the voussoirs are original. Nine contain one row of point-to point chevron, meeting on a bold angle roll. Both chevron and angle roll are bordered by fillets, not beading. On the soffit the chevrons are not defined by separate rolls, but instead form flat triangular patterns. The sixth stone (from the N, effectively the keystone) has the triangle on the face filled with a mass of shooting tendrils. On the soffit the chevron is defined by a separate roll, unlike neighbouring voussoirs. The fourth stone from the N has a different form of chevron, in which the zigzag, arranged centrifugally, forms a triangle with its base set against the edge roll.

S windows

S wall, E window: a round-headed opening with a reveal 0.14 m deep. Five of the original archivolts survive. These have a roll moulding on the angle, flanked by two moulded bands, each lined by beading (on the western springer the two outer rows of beading are neatly brought together at an acute angle). The label has a chamfered moulding with indeterminate stops.

S wall, W window: undecorated, with a reveal only 0.05m deep. The label is a simple chamfered moulding, with uncarved blocks (possibly modern) serving as stops.

Both of these windows have the usual internal splay, with well-cut, but undecorated, rear arches.

Interior Features


Chancel arch/Apse arches

Chancel arch

Of three orders. Beyond the first order, the arch continues eastwards, forming a barrel-vaulted section, 1.50 m in length, supported on rough corbelling at the level of the imposts. Its profile was originally continued into the barrel vault over the chancel. The Official Guide explains that the 'S group of pillars was standing to its full height in 1875' and except for the capital of the second order is unrestored. However, the capitals on the N side are all restorations.

height to top of impost 1.89 m
width of opening (at base) 3.11 m
First order

The bases rest on chamfered sub-plinths. The S base is treated as an inverted scalloped capital. The N base is decorated with scalloped forms, the scallops outlined by thin bands; on the E face triangular motifs, on the W face a triquetra knot. Half-columns stand above. 

S capital: this has human heads on both angles The hair, which has a central parting, develops into strap-like interlace. On the W face, to the R of the head, is an animal with open jaws, its tail between its legs. On the E face the capital is partially obscured by the adjacent corbelling. The N face has an unusual motif between the two human heads: straps form a design which looks like the prow of a boat with a figure sitting inside.

capital: this has rounded forms on each angle in place of human heads, with a triangular motif on the S face between (1875).

The impost is chamfered.  The arch has been rebuilt, using at least five modern blocks. The decoration comprises a row of lozenges, with many of the lozenges filled with foliage ornament, boss motifs and what appear to be minute human heads. The keystone does not have a chevron design: it has a filleted roll, with a fret motif beside it on both face and soffit.

Second order

The S base has cable pattern on the torus, with foliate scrolls below. The N base has two inverted zigzags on the S face, filled with scroll patterns. On the W face  are three rows of frets, each subtly recessed below the next.

Above the bases are pseudo-shafts cut on the angle, each flanked by a fillet and a flattened roll.

capital: (an orange-coloured stone) this has thick necking (1875). (the original showed two beasts either side of a bearded head, according to Beranger's drawing and engraving in Petrie's Ecclesiastical Architecture)

capital: plain, with thick necking,  as on S side (1875).

The arch has two rows of frontal chevron on the face (the keystone is a plain block). The voussoirs are of widely different dimensions.

Third order

The S base has a horizontal row of pierced bosses, set within framing bands, with foliate scrolls below. The N base is plain wih an exaggerated torus.

Above the bases is a large pseudo-shaft, cut on the angle.

capital: this has a cushion-like form, with fret pattern filling each face of the 'cushion'. There is a foliate motif on the angle. The inner edge of the N face has a scalloped design.

capital: this follows the cushion-like form of the S side. It has no decoration (1875).

The arch is plain apart form a tiny chamfer.  The label is chamfered.


The carvings at St Saviour's can be related to many other churches in Leinster and beyond: for example, the thin bands of zigzag (on the N base of the first order of the chancel arch) can be compared with carving on the font at Wicklow, and the animals on the interior jambs of the E window recall work at Baltinglass. Shooting tendrils occur on the reused doorway at Wicklow, a feature which Francoise Henry compared both with grave slabs at Glendalough and with similar motifs on the Cross of Cong. This decorative element also recurs at Wicklow, where the capitals have the same squat proportions of some of those at St Saviour's. Other themes, such as the human heads on the capitals, are standard features of Leinster Romanesque. The roll on the E window, which terminates in a dragon's head, has more distant connections; something similar is found on the chancel arch of one of the churches at Inisfallen (Kerry).

The E window, with its two-light arrangement, is a unique form in Ireland. It is a type commonly associated with English castle building. The chevron around the window is notably complex and bizarre, made all the more confusing by the failure to use voussoirs of consistent dimensions. While the chevron in the chancel arch is a little more orthodox, the keystone of the inner order, with a filleted roll, is without parallel. The delicacy of the sculpture on the jambs of the E window is characteristic of the low relief carving often encountered in Irish Romanesque. The use of traditional motifs - running spirals, and knotwork, for example - is combined with themes commonplace in Romanesque Europe, such as lions with tails between the legs, the 'ravioli'-like motif, scalloped capitals etc. While some of the carving is executed with great precision, other aspects of the work are curiously arbitrary, not least the application of chevron ornament and the peculiar treatment of some of the bases.


  • G. L. Barrow, Glendalough and St Kevin, Dundalk, 1972.

  • Glendalough Co. Wicklow, Official Historical and Descriptive Guide, Dublin, n.d., 33–38.

  • F. Henry, Irish Art in the Romanesque Period 1020–1170 AD, London, 1970, 145, 152–3.

  • H. G. Leask, Irish Churches and Monastic Buildings, Dundalk, 1955, 96–100.


Site Location
Glendalough, St Saviour
National Grid Reference
T 123 968 
now: Wicklow
medieval: Wicklow
medieval: St Saviour
Type of building/monument
Priory church  
Report authors
Roger Stalley