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National Museum of Ireland, Dublin (carving from Carrowculleen)

pre-1974 traditional (Republic of Ireland) Dublin
now Dublin City
  • Roger Stalley

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Feature Sets

Carved fragment discovered in 1984 by Mr Jack Flynn and Mr Martin Timoney in a ruined farmhouse at Carrowculleen, where it was built into the north gable wall of the house. It was acquired by the National Museum of Ireland in 1990 (Reg No. 1990.129, File no. IA/295/88).


Prior to discovery in recent years, its history is unknown.


Loose Sculpture


The Carrowculleen slab presents a number of major problems: the original function is uncertain, its medieval provenance in unknown, the subject is unclear, and the carving has no obvious parallels in Hiberno-Romanesque. As a consequence some scholars have expressed doubts about whether the sculpture is medieval. Technical examination of the slab by Sara Pavia and Jason Bolton, however, has confirmed that the stone surface has been exposed to the elements for a very long period, and that the carving is likely to be at least several centuries old.

(a) Function

As there are traces of a border at the top left corner, the left section of the sculpture appears to be almost complete. Assuming the composition was roughly symmetrical, about 5-6cm must be missing from the right side. The original block was thus probably about 60cm in length. It is difficult to establish a context for such a stone. The block seems too small for an altar or altar frontal, and an architectural context is more likely. However, the length seems insufficient for a lintel and the shape of the stone seems to preclude its use as a tympanum (there is no trace of a curve on the left side, where the carving is reasonably well preserved). It is just possible that it formed part of a frieze, like that at Ardmore.

(b) Provenance

Since the farmhouse is marked on the Ordnance Survey map of 1837, the relief was probably moved to the farm at Carrowculleen before that time. The stone formed an intrinsic part of the fabric of the house, so it must have been put in place when the house was under constructionc.1800 (?). Since the stone is local, it almost certainly came from a church in the vicinity. The presence of the large quartzy pebbles made it a most unattractive material to carve; indeed the quality is so poor that it is hard to believe that blocks would have been transported far from the Ox mountains.

There were two medieval foundations near Carrowculleen. Four miles NW is Aughris, an early Christian monastery founded by St Molaise, which, in the twelfth century, adopted the Augustinian rule. Only a mile away is Skreen, the site of a Columban monastery. Skreen is best known for its 7thc. abbot, Adomnán, who later became abbot of Iona and wrote the famous vita of St Columba. The name Skreen itself refers to the Irish word scrin or shrine and the monastery came to be known as scrin Adamnán. All that is left of the monastic site today are the ruins of a later medieval church. Unfortunately none of the stone at the site appears to match that on the Carrowculleen relief. While there is no evidence to associate the Carrowculleen carving with Skreen, this site must be included in the list of possible provenances.

(c) Subject

There is no certainty about the identification of the seated figure. Suggestions have included Christ, David, Solomon, St Paul, St Matthew, and Herod. The central figure is unlikely to be Christ (the nimbus lacks a cross) and it is doubtful whether the lion and eagle should be interpreted as evangelist symbols, not least since the lion is treated in a highly decorative manner, set against scrolls of foliage. The use of lions and birds as decorative elements was of course commonplace in Romanesque art, as for example in the Herefordshire school. At Fownhope (Herefordshire) a carving of the Madonna and child is also flanked by a lion and eagle; although these are sometimes identified as St Mark and St John, they do not appear to have an obvious religious function.

The central figure must be a saint, to judge from the halo (which rules out Herod), but the only additional clue is the sword held across the knee. Although swords were an attribute of kingship, the lack of a crown may preclude identification with a royal figure. The sword is also an attribute of St Paul, though the saint is not normally depicted with it resting across the knees. A further possibility is St Matthew, who is shown with a sword held vertically between the knees in the Book of Deer, an early 10thc. gospel book in the Insular tradition (Cambridge University Library, Ms Ii.6.32, fol. 4v). This peculiar iconography was explained by Kathleen Hughes as a misunderstanding of a tau crozier. A carving of St Matthew would not be all that easy to explain in a Hiberno-Romanesque context, since early Irish churches were usually (though not invariably) dedicated to local saints; there is no obvious reason why St Matthew would have been selected for special emphasis. A sword is also held by an unidentified figure depicted alongside St Matthew in the so-called 'Garland of Howth', a 9thc. Irish gospel book (Trinity College Dublin, Ms 56, fol. 1). In this case the sword is placed across the shoulder.

Alternatively the figure may have represented an Irish saint, St Columba or St Adomnán perhaps. Depictions of Irish saints are rare in medieval art and it difficult to associate them with specific attributes. Irish hagiography does, however, offer the occasional clue. For example, the epithet nia or champion was used in connection with St Columba and there is one episode in his life which involved the use of a miraculous sword. Its special powers were such that no one would die in its presence. It is worth noting that the late medieval shrine known as the Domnach Airgid (National Museum of Ireland) includes in its decoration a saint wielding a sword alongside St Peter and St Paul, possibly a depiction of St Columba. The iconographical link with St Adomnán is more remote. The vita of the saint emphasises that he had the power to deprive secular rulers of kingship and even to deprive them of life altogether, a context in which a sword would not be inappropriate.

(d) Style

Although the sculpture is quite unlike other Hiberno-Romanesque carvings, it is not without some Irish elements. The design of the eagle recalls the evangelist symbol of St John on folio 27v of the Book of Kells, and the upright pose can be paralleled in a twelfth-century gospel book from Armagh (British Library Ms. Harley 23). The lion with its head turned back along the body belongs to a huge family of animals, found throughout Europe in the Romanesque era. One particular comparison is of interest. At Lathbury (Buckinghamshire) the space above the lion is filled with tight scrolls of foliage in a manner not dissimilar from that found on the Carrowculleen relief. It is more difficult to find analogies for the seated figure. The way in which the sword is held, with the left hand grasping the blade, is close to that found on the kings of the Lewis chessmen, though that is as far as the similarities with the ivories go. Seated figures holding swords across their lap can be found elsewhere in Romanesque art, so the pose itself may not be all that significant. The sculpture on the east windows of the Romanesque chancel at Tuam (c.1184) includes a figure holding a sword horizontally, this time above some form of beast. There is also a good parallel in stone sculpture at Aalborg (Denmark), in this case illustrating Herod ordering the slaughter of the Innocents. In general terms the design of the figure, with its strongly marked drapery folds and wide spreading knees recalls English rather than Irish art.

The Carrowculleen relief reflects the extent to which European influence permeated Irish sculpture in the twelfth century. While the carving includes some Irish elements, the sculptor appears to have been influenced by works imported from England.


G. Zarnecki (ed), English Romanesque Art 1066-1200. London 1984, 63,154.

P. Anker and A. Andersson, The Art of Scandinavia. London 1970, II, pl. 57.

K. Hughes, 'The Book of Deer' in K. Hughes, Celtic Britain in the Early Middle Ages (1980), 22-37.

M. Herbert, Iona, Kells and Derry, The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba. Oxford 1988.

M.A. Timoney, 'A Romanesque Sculpture found at Carrowculleen, Skreen, Co. Sligo', in M.A. Timoney (ed.) A Celebration of Sligo, First Essays for Sligo Field Club. Sligo 2002, 161-82.

Acknowledgement: In preparing this entry the author is grateful for the advice received from Martin Timoney, Raghnall Ó Floinn (reference to the Book of Deer) and Dr Paul Mullarkey.