We start our story with the discovery in the 1930s of an object that was to have a startling effect on our understanding both on our trade networks and the outside influence on Irish art. The object became known as the Ballinderry brooch from the crannog (manmade island dwelling) that was excavated in Ballinderry Lough in Co Offaly. This complex object which combines element of many diverse cultural influences clearly demonstrates that early medieval Ireland was not isolated in the post Roman era. It demonstrates that Ireland at this time was absorbing influences from many cultures adopting and adapting them and then exporting this hybrid art form to early medieval Europe.
The brooch is unique in Irish art and Flower the leading authority on Irish brooches sees it as the key transitional stage between the classic Irish design of early types and the later Tara type Brooch.
The brooch was a classic zoomorphic design which developed in Roman Britain in the 2nd and 3rd century using animals as a key element in the design. The adaptation of this design became popular in Ireland in the 4th and 5th century. Additional the brooch also utilised a penannular element in it meaning it there is a gap in the ring. The interesting element of the brooch was the amazing intricate and elaborate design that can be found on the body which demonstrates the extraordinary skill and varied influences of the craftsman who made it. It uses pre Christian design and influences and blends them seamlessly with Christian imagery to create a design that was to become the classic design that we now associate with Irish Art from this era.
This workmanship was not a once off and the craftsman was clearly in demand by influential people outside of Ireland and that leads us to the next element of our story. Experts now believe that the artist who made the brooch, also made a large hanging bowl found in one of the most famous archaeological discoveries in Western Europe, the Anglo-Saxonship burial from Sutton Hoo in East Anglia. This is a startling claim and if it true shows the link with Christian Ireland and the pagan Anglo Saxon kingdoms in England was more substantial than previously believed.
When people look at the brooch they can’t help being struck by the complex imagery found within the design. However these images are not unique and have been found elsewhere, on what is known as the “marigold stone”, from Carndonough, Co Donegal. We can now say that these two objects while used for different functions are linked by having the same pattern of a geometrical stem rising towards a marigold flower.
A key motif is the coiled shape of the brooch which represents a two-headed snake – although this is not a symbol of Satan as normally portrayed popular culture. It instead provides a subtle image of the key Christian element of its belief, the resurrection of Christ, the analogy being with the snake’s ability to shed its skin and be ‘reborn’.
Conor Newman who lectures in late prehistoric and early medieval archaeology at the National University of Ireland, Galway believes that this object shows a key development not only in the artistic development in Early Medieval Ireland but also in its growing influences in Europe after the fall of Rome using elements as far away as the Holy Land.
“There is a remarkably sophisticated iconography at work here, and it’s the same message which ultimately can be sourced to the iconologists at work in Jerusalem in the sixth century. So you have a brooch that is pagan in its original form but that carries this complex symbolism of the resurrected Christ.” Very early in the history of Irish Christianity, there is a brilliant mixture of continuity with older traditions and up-to-date cosmopolitan thinking.
“You have somebody living around AD 600 in the Midlands who is very wealthy, whose brooch is probably made by the same person who made the biggest hanging bowl found at Sutton Hoo [in Suffolk, England] and its iconography speaks, not just his religious persuasion, but to deep intellectual traditions that are most current in Palestine at this time.”
The use of designs on the brooch that can be traced to the Holy Land at this early stage in Early Christian Ireland is controversial. Newman believes the patterns on the brooch come from Jerusalem, and specifically from the little jars of holy oil that were sold to wealthy pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the reputed burial place of Jesus. Inscribed on these jars were the images that lie behind the patterns on the Ballinderry brooch. They show Christ’s tomb under the dome of the church. Rising from the tomb is the Tree of Life on which Jesus ascends into Heaven. In Irish art, the face of Christ at the top of the tree is represented by a marigold flower. This is the image of the resurrection that is shown in abstract and condensed form on the brooch.
In this small and delicate brooch we have been provided with a window into the talent of an artist who was not only in great demand in Ireland but also in Europe for his beautiful craftsmanship which incorporated both pagan and Christian images into works of outstanding beauty. Additionally it also has shown that Ireland in the 7th Century was not a small insignificant backwater but was showing the signs of its artists’ talent that was to become the envy of Europe in the 8th and 9th century as well as the saviour of Christianity in the west.