Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Saint Christopher in Irish Art

July 25 is the feast of Saint Christopher and below is a 1910 paper by the Belfast antiquarian, F. J. Bigger, in which he examines a later medieval carving of the saint from Jerpoint Abbey, County Kilkenny. The author, a northern Presbyterian, threw himself wholeheartedly into the Irish cultural revival in all its aspects. To his eye, the Jerpoint Saint Christopher possessed a uniquely 'Gaelic fervour' missing in the artistic representations of other lands. I regret that the accompanying illustration of the kilted Saint Christopher is not of better quality, but it is one of Bigger's own photographs reproduced in the Journal of the Royal Society of Irish Antiquaries. If you have a look at some of the photographs on this site, you will be able to enjoy a picture of Bigger himself resplendent in a kilt, bonnet and Tara-style brooch, what the well-dressed cultural revivalist was wearing a century ago. Bigger's collection of Irish books became the core of the Irish and Local Studies Department of the Belfast Central Library, and thus his legacy lives on in the city.




ST. CHRISTOPHER IN IRISH ART.

BY FRANCIS JOSEPH BIGGER, M.R.I.A., FELLOW.

[Read MARCH 29, 1910.]

AT Jerpoint Abbey, in County Kilkenny, there is much sculpture amongst the tombs and in the building itself. Built up against one of the pillars of the cloister, in high relief, were two figures that deeply attracted my attention, because I had not previously noticed similar figures in any other part of Ireland. Many of the cloisters of our abbeys have been destroyed, and with them much legendary lore which the monks chose to carve there on wall and column. Every stone of a cloister is worth examining. Here are found the best mason-marks, quaint little pieces of Celtic ornament and symbolism. I have noticed such at Quin, and at Drumahaire there is a St. Francis preaching to the birds. At Bective there are quaint figures in the cloisters, also at Fore. I have only noticed one St. Christopher, and that is at Jerpoint. This abbey was founded in 1158, but the cloisters date from the end of the fourteenth century, so the statue is about the later date. The story of St. Christopher is generally told in mural paintings. Many hundreds still remain in England and on the Continent, and there are numerous old prints with similar portraits.

Shortly, the legend is as follows: Christopher (literally, Christ-bearer) received his name because he bore Christ across a stream in Syria. When he gave up paganism, he desired to do some great Christian service, being a giant in stature and strength. He undertook to ford strangers across a deep stream. Once in the night a little Child presented himself to be carried across. Christopher carried the Child on his shoulder until the burden grew so heavy he almost sank in the waves. He succeeded at last in getting across, when he said, "Child, thou hast put me in great peril; if I had had the whole world upon me, it might be no greater burden." And the Child answered, "Christopher, marvel nothing; for thou hast not only borne all the world upon thy shoulders, but thou hast borne Him that made and created the world. I am the Christ whom thou servest."

And so the saint is mostly represented crossing a stream, with a treelike stake in his hand for support, and the Infant on his shoulders. There are those who say the whole story is allegory; that Christopher is Christ the Cross-bearer, the Child is the offspring of Adam, the river is Death. The saint is a giant or mighty person, because the Redeemer was able to bear the burden of the sins of the world. Be all this as it may, here we have St. Christopher carved in stone after the manner of the Irish, and set up in the cloister of an Irish abbey as a lesson and an example. The figures are boldly carved, the whole stone being about 3 feet high. The saint is kilted and draped in the Gaelic way, showing bare legs and feet, with a wave across the feet and a large fish cut upright beside the left leg, reaching from the foot to above the knee. In his right hand he grasps a stout stake or tree, with a crowned or branched top, while his left arm lovingly embraces the Child, thus showing a Gaelic fervour lacking in all the representations I have seen of other countries, where the Child sits on the shoulders unclasped. A halo surrounds the head of the Divine Infant, whose face is upturned, and His right hand is upheld in the attitude of blessing. The saint has on his head a cap or crown, and his beard is interlaced and twined in the Irish style. The whole representation savours of local art, with the deep Gaelic spirit so commonly traceable during the Irish revival of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In conclusion, I may add that the late Walter B. Mant, Archdeacon of Down, wrote at Hillsborough a poem on this subject, and published same in 1861 in a volume entitled Christopheros and other Poems.




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