16.04.07, Murray, The Cross of Cong

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Colum Hourihane

The Medieval Review 16.04.07

Murray, Griffin. The Cross of Cong: A Masterpiece of Irish Art. Dublin: National Museum of Ireland, 2015. pp. xxxiii, 326. ISBN: 9780716532743 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Colum Hourihane
Independent Scholar

There are many books on the metalwork of Ireland’s Golden Age, but, to date, single works have not been subjected to detailed scrutiny. That has now changed with the publication of this monograph which is entirely devoted to the reliquary known as the Cross of Cong. Made in the early twelfth century, the reliquary which enshrines a relic of the True Cross was made under the patronage of Turlough O'Connor (1106-1156), high king of Ireland. Associated with the O'Duffys, it is called after Cong, a small town in what is now County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, but it may not have been made there. Along with the Ardagh Chalice, the Derrynaflan Assemblage and the 'Tara' Brooch, it is one of the most important examples of Irish twelfth century metalwork to have survived and now occupies an important position in the national collection in Dublin (National Museum of Ireland, NMI R2833). Measuring some thirty inches high, it is nineteen inches wide and has an oak core covered with cast bronze plates. There is a rock crystal on the front, at the junction of the arms and staff which held the now lost relic. Employing a variety of styles, the cross has an inscription on the sides which records not only the patron (Turlough O'Connor) but also the craftsman (Máel Ísú mac Bratáin Uí Echach).

Over seven long chapters, the author of this monograph covers not only the medieval life of the relic but also its modern history and life within the museum. Also included is a catalogue of ecclesiastical objects produced by the workshop responsible for the Cross of Cong (ninety-nine pages) as well as two short technical reports on the cross by Paul Mullarkey. This monograph is based on work undertaken for his doctoral thesis, along with later research and is written for a specialist audience. It is the first in what will hopefully be a series of such works to be published by the National Museum of Ireland.

The relatively short introduction outlines the known salient facts covering previous scholarship (or detailed lack of it), and sets the context for the following sections. It is clear that the author wants to cover the work within the larger picture of surviving metalwork of the period as well as the church background. In a series of short notes, he outlines the coverage of each chapter and reiterates his wish that the objective of this study is to give the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work-simple wishes which he more than accomplishes in the following chapters.

The first chapter looks at the "Rediscovery, Acquisition and Study" of the work. Using historical sources as well as the inscriptions, the author weaves an interesting post-medieval history for the work. He tracks its pivotal role in the foundation of the national collection after the cross was acquired by the Royal Irish Academy in1839. The author writes of the significant role played by the Anglo-Irish in the history of the cross and its impact on the Celtic Revival, all of which is paralleled by its historiography. It is in this section that he traces the different opinions on the Urnes or Irish Urnes style decoration on the cross before tackling it in more depth later on. This is a small format book-compared to the subject and it is disappointing to see some of the images reproduced so small that it is virtually impossible to see the detail. Similarly, the color seems slightly dead in some of the images compared to the luster of the work itself.

The second chapter is devoted to Turlough O'Connor, Tuam, and the True Cross, and, it is here that he examines the historical context of the cross. Using the work itself as well as what can be gleaned from the annals, he paints a detailed and interesting picture of the work in which he explores the political and religious influences and factors that may have led to the creation of the work. By dating the cross (1123) and noting its close relationship in terms of decoration to the Market Cross at Tuam he arrives at a new date for the latter which of course also impacts on the other high crosses in Ireland. In this chapter, as indeed elsewhere, the reader is constantly made aware of the uniqueness of this cross and what a pivotal role it plays in understanding Irish twelfth century metalwork. O'Connor's impressive military career is detailed as is his important role as patron of the arts. His reign coincided with a period of church reform in Ireland and he seems to have played a central role in that movement acquiring the relic of the True Cross for Connaught so that the status of Tuam, its archdiocesan capital would be increased.

Organizing a book such as this is not an easy task and I can appreciate the sequence followed by the author but I am slightly puzzled as to why the description and analysis of the cross should be relegated so far into the book--in the next or third chapter. It is the first reference the reader has to the fact that the cross is also a processional reliquary cross. It is an expert archaeological description in which the most minute detail is provided and will be the benchmark study on this work for many years to come. Even though it is most likely to have been processional in use, an altar function cannot be ruled out entirely and this is dealt with by the author in the next chapter. This is clearly the part of the book where the author is most at ease and his analysis includes comparanda from within Ireland and abroad.

The fourth chapter is devoted to the process of making the cross and the religious, political and social reasons why it was undertaken in the first place. His particular focus is on the master craftsman, identified by an inscription on the work itself. After a brief examination of the status of the craftsman in twelfth century Ireland, he looks at the bigger picture of metalworking in the same period as well as the source and techniques of handling the materials. He argues that the designer and craftsman were one and the same person. He does not deal in any detail with the iconography of the materials and the possible reasons for such variety. Was the use of different colours and materials significant? A major and puzzling omission in the book is the near complete absence of any iconographical analysis of the animal panels and what possible meaning they might have. The author's identification of other works by the same craftsman is impressive, and this section, as well as the appendix is a thesis in itself. It would seem from the authors work that the designer/craftsman responsible for this cross--Máel Ísú mac Bratáin Uí Echach--must have been very busy in that he seems to have been responsible for most of the metalwork that survives from twelfth century Ireland!

The fifth chapter, "Tradition and Influence: The Style of the Cross of Cong" broadens the picture by looking at the form and style of the cross against comparanda outside of Ireland. Here, he discovers, for the first time, some parallels with Anglo-Saxon material but his real focus is on the Hiberno-Urnes decoration of the cross and the late Viking style in Scandinavia. In conclusion, the author believes that the cross owes most to the native tradition of metalworking in Ireland, and that it is Insular in style above all else. His holistic approach to the work is more than evident in this chapter, where he uses style and form to understand the purpose of the cross. It is clear that the author is widely read and has undertaken considerable research into the cross.

The meaning of the Cross is the subject of the author's next and sixth chapter, and it is here that he looks at the iconography and symbolism of the work as well as its processional role. I was pleased to see him examine the cross in terms of an altar or votive function and not to rule the former out entirely. His argument that the disc shaped projections at the sides of the cross are symbolic of buds or flowers and that this in turn enables us to consider it an arbor vitae is less convincing and stretches the imagination when it is compared to parallels of this period. The book could have done with some slight editing and the captions also lack some detail such as inventory numbers, dates etc. which are sometimes relegated to endnotes. There are many "conclusions" throughout the book, and the author states his methodology perhaps a little too frequently.

The seventh and final chapter is devoted to "The Significance of the Cross: Identity, Workshops and Relics," and is one of the shortest in the study. It looks at the role of the cross in twelfth century Irish society and, in many ways, is a synthesis of the preceding sections of the book and slightly redundant. It is a conclusion to a pioneering study that is a model as to how individual works should be studied. The author claimed at the start of this book that the Cross of Cong was a cultural icon and I must admit that I had not seen it in such a position before. It does not seem to me to have had the same popular status as works such as the Ardagh Chalice, the Book of Kells or The Tara Brooch but after reading this study I feel confident that if it did not have such a status already then it must surely follow from the impressive labors of this author.

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