Tuesday 6 January 2015

Irish High Crosses and the Baptism of Christ

On January 6 there is something of a divergence in the celebration of the feasts of the Epiphany  between Eastern Christianity and that of the west. In the West, the Epiphany commemorates the recognition of the infant Christ by the Magi and their honouring of His divine person and kingship by their gifts. In the East, however, the Magi are commemorated as part of the Nativity feast itself and today is given over to the commemoration of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by Saint John the Forerunner and the showing forth of the Holy Trinity. O'Hanlon, in a footnote to his Lives of the Irish Saints, seems surprisingly unaware of this feast's history and appears to learn of it only from the following entry in the 9th-century Martyrology of Oengus:
To Brian O'Loony, Esq., M.R.I. A., Professor of Irish History and Archaeology in the Catholic. University, the writer is indebted for the following Irish stanza of the Felire of St. Oengus (extracted from the Leabhar Breac, p. 79, Vellum MSS. of the R.I.A.,) with the accompanying English translation. As will be seen no Irish Saint's name has been introduced at this day, on which the great Festival of the Epiphany or Manifestation of Our Lord to the Gentiles takes place. It is most interesting to learn from this valuable old Irish Hymnology, that our forefathers in the Faith seem to have had a tradition that Our Divine Redeemer had been baptized by St. John on the 6th day of January. The Julian mentioned must be Julius the Martyr, who is commemorated on this day in the MS. Martyrology of St. Jerome. See " Acta Sanctorum Januarii." tomus i., p. 324.

F. uiii. id.
“To his noble chosen king went forth
Julian of abounding purity
Tis not meet to asperse the perfect joy
Of the baptism of the great son of Mary.”

O'Hanlon's clerical contemporary, John Healy, an Anglican rector in County Meath, contributed a most interesting paper on the depiction of The Baptism of Christ on the high crosses of Kells and Monasterboice to The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1893. I have reproduced the first of his illustrations above, but for the others and for the footnotes to the paper please consult the original volume. I have no idea to what extent Healy's conclusions are still upheld by archaeologists today, but he feels that the Kells representation is directly influenced by Byzantine art, which I am sure will be of interest to Orthodox readers.



...The Baptism of Our Lord is not a favourite subject in very early Christian art. Rarely once or twice at the most is it represented in the Roman catacombs. It is completely absent from our Irish illuminated manuscripts. I cannot remember it in connexion with any of our Irish metal work, and I am not aware of any Irish representation in stone beyond the two which I am now about to bring under your notice.

The first representation to which I wish to direct attention is that found on the shaft of a cross, which stands in the churchyard of Kells. It is in such excellent preservation that some very minute details may be easily recognised. Here we may notice the river issuing from its two sources, the Jor and the Dan; the Dove descends, not on the Head of our Saviour, but on the river ; Saint John the Baptist stands in the river, but is fully clothed, has a book in one hand and pours water from a kind of ladle with the other. It will be observed that the Baptism, although represented as taking place in the river, is by aspersion not by immersion. The figure of our Lord appears to be nude, and on the bank are the two disciples, whose dress is well worthy of notice as a study in the ecclesiastical vestments of the day. Somewhat similar vestments are represented on the other crosses in Kells as worn by bishops, but they are completely different from the bishop's dress as represented on the Cross of Tuam. Three garments seem to be depicted the outermost, in the form of a cloak, being fastened with a brooch of that ring shape of which so many examples are found in all our museums.

Now it is evident that when this sculpture was executed the curious etymology was known in Ireland by which the name Jordan was derived from the two streams Jor and Dan, which are supposed to unite and form in name as well as in reality the one river, Jordan. The early commentators on Scripture, it may be remarked in passing, spoke for the most part Greek or Latin, and Hebrew etymologies were not with them a very strong point.

Another peculiarity worthy of notice is the nudity of the figure of our Lord. In early times the rule was often observed that those who were to be baptized should be nude, and this rule was followed even when a font was used for the baptism. In all the early representations of our Lord's Baptism the figure is so represented. It is remarkable, however, that the Sacrament is administered by pouring water on the head not by immersion. In J. Romilly Allen's recent work on "Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland" there are several representations of the Baptism taken from Runic fonts. In every case, however, the rite is represented as being administered by immersion.

We have, therefore, in this a fundamental difference between the Irish and the Runic representations. On the other hand, in a catacomb fresco lately recovered by De Rossi and copied from him by Lundy in his work on "Monumental Christianity," baptism is represented as being administered to a nude figure standing in the river, but the method employed is that of pouring water on the head. In other respects the catacomb painting has not much resemblance to the Irish sculpture, so that although this comparison leads us to conclude that the Roman artist and the Irish had the same ideas as to the facts to be represented, we are also led to conclude that this agreement was theological rather than artistic. The teaching was the same, but the conventional representation of it was different. It has been held by many that immersion was the method employed by the ancient Irish Church in baptism, the principal reason adduced being the great size of some ancient fonts. The sculpture we are now considering does not, it is true, decide the question, but as far as its testimony goes it favours aspersion rather than immersion.

The conclusions we have arrived at so far are important, but they are negative. We can see that the artist of the Kells cross had not the same ideas as to the incidents of the scene to be presented, as had the sculptor of the Runic fonts, and we can see, too, that they drew their artistic inspiration from different sources. On the other hand, the Irish sculptor agreed as to the incidents to be represented, but had no artistic connexion with the painter of the catacombs. Happily we can go a step further, and this time in a positive direction. We can trace the source whence this Irish design has been derived, for we have in fact practically the same design repeated in several of the Byzantine and Italian ivories. In the museum at South Kensington, for example, are three panels of a casket in carved ivory, of the Byzantine school. The subjects represented are all scenes from the life of our Lord. They are interesting to Irish archaeologists in other ways besides that on account of which I now direct attention to them. For example, on one of them is represented a church at one end of which are two round towers which seem to be identically the same as those of our own country. Miss Stokes in her work on " Early Christian Architecture in Ireland " gives a picture of the church and two round towers of Deerness. This Byzantine ivory might be taken as a picture of the very same building. On another panel of the same casket we have the Baptism of our Lord represented, and in such a way as to suggest that the artist had learnt in the same school as did the sculptor of Kells. The partially unclothed figure of the Baptist, and the fact of only one source of the river being represented, speak of a more modern date; but notwithstanding these differences, the general treatment and style is the same. The ivory is said to be of the eleventh century. Here then we have a proof tangible and visible that those Greek artists whose influence was being felt all through Western Europe, extended that influence as far as Ireland ; and the question, whence did the Irish artist obtain his inspiration is, as far as this sculpture is concerned, satisfactorily answered. He followed a Byzantine model.

We now come to look at another representation of the same subject, found at Monasterboice. Unfortunately, the sculpture here is much more weather-worn than at Kells; the details, therefore, are not made out so easily. We can see enough, however, to recognise that the two pictures belong to an entirely different school. Our Lord here stands in the river, the water of which reaches to the waist, whereas in Kells it reached only to the ankles. The side at which Saint John the Baptist stands is very indistinct, but the high position of the figure sufficiently indicates that he is standing on the bank, not in the river, as at Kells. There is no appearance of pouring water on the head; indeed, the mode of baptism seems to be by immersion. The Dove descends upon the Saviour's head, not upon the river. The Lord is represented in the attitude of prayer. In all these respects it resembles the Runic designs to which I have already directed attention. An entirely new feature common in ancient art, but one for which there is no warrant in the account which the Evangelists give is also introduced. There is an attendant angel who holds our Lord's tunic ; this again being not uncommon in Runic representations.

We can trace this design still further, and find in Continental models the original from which both it and the Runic examples have been copied. Bosio has reproduced a picture taken from a catacomb fresco which is in all essentials the same as that which we have now under consideration. In it we have Saint John the Baptist standing on the bank, while our Lord is partially immersed in the river; we have the Dove descending on the Saviour's head, and the angel holding the tunic. Still more nearly approaching the Irish sculpture, and again embodying all these peculiarities, are the ivory carvings, especially those of the Byzantine School, several of which may be seen in the Dublin Museum. See specially Nos. 450, 461, 472, and 735. One of these, taken from the front cover of the Sacramentaire de Metz, is here reproduced. It will be seen that in the elevated position of the Baptist, in the figure of our Lord being partially immersed, and in the presence of an angel holding the tunic, it agrees with the sculpture on the cross at Monasterboice.

It will thus be seen that we have two essentially different modes of treating this same event. "What explanation can be given of this difference? I think that a careful statement of the facts of the case supplies the answer. The sculpture at Kells is like some examples that exist on the Continent, but it is utterly unlike any that are to be found in England. Hence it tells us of a direct influence exerted by the Byzantine Masters on Irish art. The sculpture at Monasterboice is also like some Continental examples, but it follows the same design as was adopted by sculptors in England. Here I conclude that the design was only indirectly copied from the original, and that the artistic influence of which it is the expression reached Ireland through Britain. From its position Monasterboice would be a place where British influence would be felt, perhaps, more than anywhere else in Ireland. Not only is it near the coast, but it is also not far from the River Boyne, which was one of the best known approaches to the interior of the country ; and, if I am not mistaken, this is not the only token we have of Saxon, or, perhaps, rather of Scandinavian influence. Where, except at Monasterboice, do we see the figures all decorated with luxuriant mustachios ? Well, in Kells, on the street cross, we have one such figure ; but as the individual so decorated is also represented with horns and a tail, we can scarcely think that the distinction is meant to be complimentary. In Monasterboice, however, the saints all wear mustachios ; and in England you have the same. The font at Castle Froome, Herefordshire, as figured in Mr. Allen's book, looks as if it were simply a panel from Monasterboice.

Many other reflections might be made, but I trust I have said enough not only to explain the two sculptures of which my Paper particularly treats, but also to draw attention to the importance of the study of our stone crosses, and to enlist some workers in a field which will require much labour and many labourers before that knowledge is gained which will enable us rightly to understand the subject.

JRSAI Volume 23 (1893), 1-6.

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