The Iconography of Saint Patrick

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Thomas MacGreevy

Original Source: Father Mathew Record. March 1943. p. 1.

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The Iconography of Saint Patrick

By Thomas MacGreevy

One of the most valuable studies of the iconography of St. Patrick is the short essay by Henry Morris published in the Down and Connor Historical Society's Journal, Vol. VII, 1936. Acknowledging his debt to the researches of the American scholar, Kingsley Porter, Mr. Morris begins with the representation of the Apostle of the Irish on the 10th century High Cross of Flann at Clonmacnoise and then takes us on to those of the 12th century Clogher Cross, the 14th century Domnach Airgid and Fiacal Padraig or Shrine of St. Patrick's Tooth, the 16th century cross at Rathmore, County Meath, and the slightly later McCragh tomb at Lismore Cathedral, the early 17th century Duleek Cross, the McGrath monument at Cashel of about the same date, and finally, the late but undated figures in the graveyard at Faughart and at St. Patrick's Well, near Limerick.

Though the earliest of them dates from no less than five centuries after St. Patrick, these must always be the most important representations of him from the traditional point of view. As a matter of fact, Mr. Morris' study was undertaken for the very restricted purpose of proving that, as regards externals, the St. Patrick depicted in modern art marks a complete break with the true tradition. During the last 300 years St. Patrick has always been represented wearing a beard, whereas there seems to be good reason to believe that he, and after him the clergy of the infant Irish church, were clean-shaven. The Irish laity wore beards but in 5th century Roman lands it was more usual for men to shave. We know that one of the sayings attributed to the saint is "as ye are Christians, so also be Romans." That was said in connection with the observance of ritual, but the persistent belief that the Irish tonsure included the shaving of the beard as well as of the head suggests that, in his own tactful way — for the Confession was clearly written by a man of extraordinary patience and tact — Patrick was a dyed-in-the-wool Romaniser. However it be, the mediæval figures enumerated by Mr. Morris are all beardless, and if they be accepted as true to tradition, then the bearded Patrick of modern art is, by that tradition, invalid.

Again, St. Patrick is always represented driving the serpents from Ireland. But, as Mr. morris point out, writers of antiquity had already discussed the fact that there were no serpents here, so we may take it that, as St. George saving the maiden from the dragon was but an allegory of that saint's fight to protect the early Church from heresy, so St. Patrick's serpents were but symbols of the pagan rites and practices that in out-of-the-way places survived his early teaching. As a matter of fact the serpents do not seem to have become a main feature in Irish representations of our saint before the 15th century. And in an engraving dating from as late as 1600, by the Italian artist, Mitellus, it is demons, not serpents, that he is driving from the mountain top.

Beards and serpents are, however, minor matters. What is of more interest is the character which artists have attributed to St. Patrick in their figures of him. The earliest Irish sculptures are inevitably somewhat defaced by the passage of time, but in all the later ones it is clear that the artists had a conception of St. Patrick, derived, no doubt, form knowledge of his own Confession, as a vigorous man in whom courage and deep conviction were allied with simple tenderness and a kind of rueful humility. And it is these disarming qualities (which must have had much to do with the extraordinary success of his apostolate amongst our forefathers) that we find artists everywhere endeavouring to bestow on their imagined Patricks.

The finest of all the better-known representations of the saint is probably that which forms one of the great series of 15th century stained-glass windows in the church dedicated to St. Patrick at Rouen — a series which the French authorities have classed as a national monument of the first class. But there are several that, in their modest way, would seem to have merit in the sanctuary of St. Patrick at the village of Vertova, near Bergamo, a village, incidentally, which is under the special protection of the Irish saint. The Father Mathew Record is fortunate in being able to publish a reproduction of the little known but impressive St. Patrick by Tiepolo at Padua. And then there is the Patrick of Messingham's Florilegium Insulæ Sanctorum (Paris, 1624),Apropros of this, see Dr. George A. Little's article in the 1942 issue of The Capuchin Annual. N usually regarded as the prototype of the modern bearded figures.

Devotion to St. Patrick was spread all over Western Europe in the Middle Ages. On the Dino estate, near the village of St. Patrice on the Loire, there is a the famous blackthorn tree which St. Patrick made to blossom in January, and which still blossoms in January. Just outside Orvieto is the well of St. Patrick with a beautiful superstructure designed by the great Renaissance architect, Bramante. We have first-hand accounts by 15th century Florentine merchants of the pilgrimages they made to Lough Derg. And there is the remarkable play, St. Patrick's Purgatory, by the 17th century Spanish dramatist, Calderon.

Of modern figures of St. Patrick, Mr. Morris mentions a statue at the entrance to the monastic church of St. Honoratus on the Island of Lerins off the Mediterranean coast of France (where the saint spent some time as a student); a stained-glass window at Mansfield College, Oxford; and another at the Honan Hostel Chapel, Cork — the last an early but brilliant work by Harry Clarke, in which the (unbearded) saint is accompanied by the young St. Benignus. But possibly the most sympathetic of all modern St. Patrick's is the window by the late Michael Healy in the Sacred Heart church at Donnybrook, Dublin. In this, a gravely tender, bearded Patrick, wearing a low mitre and full Roman chasuble of gold brocade, is depicted by the Mansfield College spring of Clebach with the young girl saints, Ethne and Fedelm, Ethne the Fair and Fedelm the Ruddy, wearing the white dresses of the lovely story, under mantles of green and purple. The quietly beautiful colour harmonies of this window alone would give it unusual interest, but what makes it unique is that, in expression, in the grave refinement of perception with which the artist has approached his subject, he has caught the temper of St. Patrick's own writings, and thus proved himself to a rare degree of worthy son of the Apostle of Ireland .