Irish High Crosses: National Museum of Ireland

An exhibition of Irish High Crosses is at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, in Dublin. The six plaster-of-Paris casts featuring religious and contemporary figures were chosen for their unique styles, exemplary sculpture and stylised motives. High Crosses of early Christian Ireland were decorated with pictures which taught biblical stories to the largely illiterate population.
Some medieval treasures are also on display with special lighting making it easier to observe fine detail of the sculptures often unnoticed in their natural state. The High Crosses are some of the greatest examples of how powerful religious communities supported and encouraged art in early Christian Ireland. An Irish art form was developed, with artists working in metal, vellum and wood as well as stone. The period is now looked on as The Golden Age of Irish art.
In the 19th and 20th centuries there was a growing interest in heritage and archaeology across Europe. Enthusiasts began to make reproductions of ancient objects to educate audiences at home and abroad. Of all the Irish reproductions manufactured at this time the most impressive are the plaster-of-Paris casts made of the Irish High Crosses, copies of which were transported to England, America and Australia.
Originally on display in the National Museum of Ireland Archaeology on Kildare Street in the early 20th century, the Crosses represent some of the finest examples of medieval sculpture from Ireland. They include two crosses from Ahenny, Co.Tipperary, two from Monasterboice, Co.Louth and single crosses from Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo and Dysart O’Dea, Co. Clare. The centrepiece of the exhibition is the 6.5 metre high West Cross from Monasterboice.
In recent years a selection of High Cross casts were displayed in Nagoya, Japan, continuing a tradition of using reproductions to teach people about ancient times and places. More than two million saw them in Japan.
An informative video lecture provides a useful introduction to the exhibition of Irish High Crosses giving insight into the history of Irish medieval sculpture ranging in date from the ninth to twelfth centuries.
National Museum of Ireland
A building steeped in history, the Museum was first known as Dublin Barracks later known as Collins Barracks. Of the early Neo-Classical style, it was designed by the architect, Col. Thomas Burgh (1670-1730). Other buildings built by Burgh include the Library at Trinity College, Dublin and Dr. Steeven’s Hospital across the River Liffey from the Barracks. In 1922, General Richard Mulcahy, Commander in Chief of the National Army, took over the Barracks on behalf of the Irish Free State. It was later renamed Collins Barracks after the former Commander in Chief and leader of the first Irish Provisional Government, Michael Collins (1890-1922).
Collins Barracks is surrounded by history. One of the main leaders of the 1798 Rebellion, Wolfe Tone, was held prisoner there and later died at the site. The Croppies Acre in front of the Museum was the burial place of many of the prisoners executed in 1798. Today it is a commemorative park dedicated to those who died in the Rebellion. At the back of the building is Arbour Hill Cemetery where the executed leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising are buried. The National War Memorial has the Proclamation of Independence of the Free State engraved in Irish and English.
The Museum’s Decorative Arts and History has a Curator’s Choice gallery. It contains twenty-five objects, each chosen from the Museum’s collections by a different Museum curator. Each artefact is displayed alongside an account from the curator on their choice. The objects range in material, origin and period but each has an interesting story to tell. Highlights include the Fonthill Vase, one of the earliest documented pieces of Chinese porcelain to reach Europe and the Fleetwood Cabinet, a wedding gift from Oliver Cromwell to his daughter. There is a hurling ball made of hair, a Japanese ceremonial bell which is over 2,000 years old, an 18th century hurdy-gurdy and a 19th century rifle made in Dublin.
A separate gallery is dedicated to Eileen Gray (1878-1976) based on her life and work. An Irish woman, she became one of the most influential designers and architects of the 20th century. The exhibition includes design classics such as chairs, tables, screens and carpets alongside personal memorabilia, lacquering tools, drawings and architectural models. The exhibition incorporates a resource room containing books, models, multimedia and reproductions of Eileen Gray’s most famous furniture designs.
The Out of Storage exhibition gives an instant snapshot of the vast range of the Art and Industrial collection, from large pieces of medieval wooden sculpture to delicate pieces of finely worked lace. The Royal Irish Academy and the Royal Dublin Society originally collected many of the artefacts on display and so the exhibition can be viewed as being about collectors and collecting and about the evolution of the National Museum of Ireland. The vast array of objects on display is interpreted through interactive computers.
The Museum also has galleries dedicated to Irish coins and currency, Irish silver, scientific instruments, Irish period furniture, Irish clothing and jewellery, Irish country furniture, What’s in store, A Dubliner’s collection of Asian art, donated to the National Museum between 1931and 1936 by Albert Bender (1866-1941).
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to National Museum of Ireland and other sources used in preparation of this text. It follows a published text on Irish Golden Age: High Crosses (2007) by Ita Marguet.