On Thursday 16 June at the National Muesum, Collins Barracks, Dublin, a beautiful volume was launched to celebrate the faith of the Irish friars as expressed in their material heritage, in particular their altar vessels.
Published by The National Museum of Ireland the book is entitled Franciscan Faith: Sacred Art in Ireland, AD 1600–1750. The volume accompanies an exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland celebrating the material heritage of the Irish Franciscans in the late and early post-medieval periods. The volume catalogues some 50 of the finest pieces held by the Order, consisting largely of altar plate but also including sculpture, furniture and seal matrices. The catalogue is accompanied by a series of essays dealing with aspects of the material culture of the Irish Franciscans: church furnishings, objects of personal devotion, a unique collection of seventeenth and eighteenth-century silver chalices, as well as contemporary secular silver in Ireland and English Catholic silver.
The volume will be of special interest to historians, art historians and specialists in silver. It opens up a whole new perspective on the cultural heritage of Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European influence on sacred art, patterns of patronage and the identification of regional silversmiths’ workshops in Ireland.
The book is linked with the ongoing and very successful exhibition at Collins Barracks. It includes religious silver and other material from several of the Franciscan houses, displayed together for the first time. Indeed, many of the pieces have never previously been publicly exhibited. Noting and commemorating the work of the Franciscan Order in Ireland, it traces the history of the Franciscans and their houses during the turbulent period of the seventeenth century and the penal laws of the early eighteenth century. It does so in the main through the medium of religious silver, the chalices, monstrances, processional crosses and other religious items that were protected and revered amid the upheavals and uncertainty of the time. One of the earliest and most important exhibits is a processional cross, c.1500 AD, from Multyfarnham in County Westmeath, one of the most important Franciscan friaries.
Speaking at the launch of the book, Fr Caoimhin Ó Laoide, OFM, Minister Provincial, said: “The artists and craftspeople who made the items in this exhibition worked out of an inclusive and uplifting vision. The beauty of the exhibits is not cold – the religious spirit is far from Puritan or repressed. There is expressed a delight in all of creation which is one of the hallmarks of Franciscan Spirituality, with no antagonism between the sacred and the ‘profane’.
As a Franciscan I was thrilled with the Franciscan Faith exhibition. Now, this catalogue marks another phase of achievement. It is an exciting addition to the literature and opens up the possibility of a wide field of study which could mine the patrimony of many Religious Orders so as to tell us more about the cultural heritage of Ireland. Raghnall Ó Floinn has brought together a varied and complementary group of outstanding scholars whose contributions combine to shed light on the heritage of the 16th and17th centuries .
Toby Barnard and Tessa Murdoch’s contributions put the exhibition in conversation with the English and Protestant traditions and move outward to the wider context. Jill Connaughton’s essay brings matters to the personal level – the piety of the individual. Michael Kenny, who has done wonderful work in bringing this exhibition about, brings the heritage of Irish Secular Silver into the discussion.
I think it’s fair to say that the exhibition and the catalogue would not have happened without the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute based at UCD which has brought new life to Irish Franciscan studies. Gosha D’Aughton began her work in the area of Franciscan material heritage at the Mícheál Ó Cléirigh Institute and this catalogue is a testimony to the dedication, skill and spirit she has brought to the work. Congratulations, Gosha. To Pat Wallace and Raghnall Ó Floinn of the National Museum I want to say a particular word of appreciation. Your foresight and your vision in promoting this exhibition and catalogue has been inspirational.”
The care for all that is connected with the sacred liturgy, as expressed in these beautiful items, comes from the reverential vision of St Francis. He conducted what has been called a “Eucharistic Crusade” as he sought to renew faith in and reverence for the Eucharist. Writing in a letter to the Custos of the Order, he pleaded:
“I beg you more than I can, in so far as it is fitting and you have seen that it is expedient, that you ask the clerics humbly, that they ought to venerate the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Names and His written words, which sanctify the Body, above all things. That they ought to regard the chalices, the corporals, the ornaments of the altar and all things which pertain to the Sacrifice, as precious.”