Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Episcopal Treasures in Limerick

Before we leave Annunciationtide and enter the spiritual austerities of Holy Week it might be good to take a lingering view of this representation of the Annunciation on the crozier made for Bishop Cornelius O’Dea of Limerick in 1418 and, together with his mitre, is still in the possession of the Catholic Bishops of Limerick.

O'Dea Crozier

Seven-and-a-half feet in height and weighing about ten pounds, the O'Dea Crozier is made of silver for the most part, ornamented along the shaft with crowns and chasted work. Within the crook in the open part is a silver figure of the Blessed Virgin seated with a dove suspended over her head. Also to be seen are the figure of the Angel Gabriel in a kneeling attitude and the figure of a lily growing out of a ewer. The crook is supported by a pelican with outstretched wings feeding her young. Below the curve are the enamelled figures of Saints Brigid, Barbara, Catherine, Margaret, and two others who bear no distinctive emblems, all under canopies. Below these are the figures of the Blessed Trinity, Saints Peter and Paul, Saint Patrick, an unknown bishop, and the Blessed Virgin, under rich canopies. Round the base is a wreath of enamelling containing the name and title of the bishop: "Me fieri fecit Corneli, O’Deaygh Epus Limiricens, Anno Dom MCCCCXVIII consecracionis sue anno XVIII" [Cornelius O’Dea, Bishop of Limerick, caused me to be made AD 1418, and in the eighteenth year of his consecration].

O'Dea Crozier

The theme of the Annunciation is repeated on the ends of the loppers of the mitre. This is presumably because the medieval cathedral in Limerick is dedicated to St Mary.

O'Dea Mitre
O'Dea Mitre 

According to a legend Bishop Cornelius O'Dea went to Dublin to attend a synod of bishops without his pontificals. Feeling the awkwardness of his position, he searched the city for a mitre and crozier, but failed to find any. The story goes that a youth landed from a ship which had arrived in port and presented the bishop with a box, saying what he sought was in it; if it pleased him he could keep them. When the bishop turned to thank the young man he was nowhere to be seen. 

In almost every legend there is said to be a kernel of truth. In this instance the story may have arisen from the fact that they were made in Dublin.

O'Dea Mitre
O'Dea Mitre
(front view)

The front and back of the mitre consists of silver gilt laminae, adorned with flowers composed of an almost infinite number of precious stones. The borders and ornamental panel, down the middle on both sides are of the same material but much thicker, being worked into mouldings and vine leaves enriched with a variety of pearls some of a large size. Near the top of the front panel, in the form of a cross and covered with crystal of the same shape, is the following inscription: "Hoc signum cruds erit in coelo." In similar setting on the back is the continuation: "Cum Dominus ad judicandum venerit." Round the lower edge a record of the date and name of the original owner are enamelled in black letters thus: "Me + fieri + fecit + Cornelius O’Deaygh Epus . . . Anno Dom Milli." The remainder is broken off above the band, the name of the artist is engraved Thomas O’Carryd, artifex faciens. The infulae or pendants appear to have suffered much as they are devoid of most of the ornaments that once adorned them.

The images and descriptions are from limerickdioceseheritage.org

There are drawings of the crozier and mitre at The Limerick Crosier and Mitre. They can be seen in the Hunt Museum in Limerick

There is a useful history of the Catholic diocese at Brief History and Wikipedia has an account of the history of the medieval and the later Anglican diocese and its various amalgamations at Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe

Two things are noteworthy about the O’Dea crozier and mitre - other than the very fact of their survival. So far as I know  they and the cloth of gold High Mass set from slightly later in the fifteenth century which survives in Waterford - for which see visit Cloth of Gold Vestments exhibition - are the only such vestments to survive in Ireland, and amongst the finest in the British Isles or indeed north-west Europe.

Firstly is their beauty and quality. They indicate the public splendour of the late medieval church, both in Ireland and elsewhere, together with its patronage of the arts of the goldsmith and the embroiderer. The fact the name of the maker of the mitre is recorded in his hndiwork is fascinating - a designer label fifteenth century style?

Secondly, and linked to this, they witness to the prosperity of late medieval Ireland and its integration into the wider cultural norms of its neighbours. Limerick, like Waterford, was a trading centre, closely linked to the administration in Dublin and to the wider world. They were therefore perhaps more likely to have high quality vestments than more remote places. Nonetheless they remind one forcefully that later medieval Ireland was not a “Celtic twilight zone”, that it shared a wider artistic perspective, and that it shared in a common spiritual and intellectual culture with the rest of the  British Isles. This was not a provincial backwater.

Here in Oxford we still have William of Wykeham’s crozier in display at New College - as well as his mitre in its carrying case - and Richard Fixe’s crozier on loan from Corpus Christi to the Ashmolean. These examples from two Bishops of Winchester are well known, but Bishop O’Dea’s deserves to be better known, especially as, like the two Oxford examples, it can be linked to a specific prelate and, indeed, to a particular year. We might expect medieval Bishops of Winchester to have fine and expensive  pontificalia but it might not occur to us that a Bishop of Limerick, a much poorer See and seemingly much further from access to specialist craftsmen could also possess such fine examples.

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