Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ireland's 15th Century Magi Cope: Hidden, Re-Discovered, Restored

From the Irish Arts Review

The Art of Devotion

The rebuilding of Waterford’s Medieval Cathedral in the 18th century uncovered the secret location of one of its treasures, the Magi Cope, Eamonn McEneaney outlines the history of these lavish liturgical garments

The Waterford collection of 15th-century Benediction copes and High Mass vestments affords a rare insight into the richness of liturgical practice in late medieval Ireland. It is the only set of pre-Reformation High Mass vestments to survive in Ireland and the superb quality of the fabric (Italian cloth-of-gold) and the artistic mastery of the decorated panels, the work of Flemish artists and embroiderers, make it a collection of national importance. The vestments show that Waterford, at the close of the Middle Ages, was a cosmopolitan city connected to the great art centres of Europe. They are a product of an artistic world that produced the Renaissance, yet Ireland because of political and religious conflict would never experience the glories of that great movement. Consequently their history reflects the turbulent history of the city.

As early as 1481, the vestments are mentioned in the will of John Collyn, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford. They remained the property of the cathedral after the establishment of the Church of Ireland but in 1577 the Church authorities being short of money and no longer needing the silver plate and vestments associated with Roman Catholic rites gave them in pledge for £400 to the staunchly Catholic Corporation. When in 1637 the Lord Deputy of Ireland demanded that the Mayor Richard Butler return certain copes and vestments belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, the Mayor acquiesced. The greatest threat to their survival came from the Cromwellians. Oliver Cromwell unsuccessfully laid siege to the city in November 1649, however it fell to his son-in-law Ireton in August 1650. The respite between the two sieges provided an opportunity for the Church authorities to hide their treasures in the cathedral vaults. The subterfuge was only partly successful. A Co. Kilkenny woman informed the city’s Cromwellian Governor, Col. Sadlers, who found one of the vaults and sold twelve hundred-weight of brass ornaments at nine pence per pound. They failed to find the cathedral’s silver plate or vestments – an enquiry held in 1661 tells us that ‘not finding silver plate they arrested several priests in their mass houses and in Irishmen’s houses where there was a great store of plate, chalices, rings, and rich copes as rich as ever seen in Spain’. The cathedral’s own vestments were so well hidden that they escaped detection and the secret of their hiding place so well kept that all who knew of their existence died before they could be safely recovered. The vestments lay hidden for 124 years and were accidentally discovered when John Roberts demolished the medieval cathedral in 1773. On their discovery the Protestant Bishop, in a goodwill gesture to the Catholic community, presented them to the Catholic Dean, Dr Hussey, later Bishop of Waterford and first president of Maynooth. They have remained the property of the Catholic Bishop of Waterford and Lismore ever since.

The semi-circular Magi Cope is one of the finest pieces in the collection. Made of four full widths of velvet and two pieced ends, it is 1.4m long and maximum 2m wide. Made of cloth-of-gold with crimson velvet pile of two depths, it has a large asymmetrical pattern composed of undulating stems, leaves and a stylised pomegranate design (Fig 1). The pomegranate is a fruit symbolising fertility or in the Christian context spreading the message of Christ. Most specialists agree that the velvet came from a Florentine loom about 1480.

The magnificent embroidery on the hood and orphreys is worked with silver-gilt metal thread and coloured silks and split brick and stem stitches, couched work and the or nue technique on linen fabric. The columns framing the scenes on the hood and orphreys are also worked in silver-gilt metal thread on separate pieces of linen fabric cut to shape and applied. The gold work (flat-laid metal threads stitched down in patterns by shaded silks) was a technique perfected in Flanders. The faces of the figures are Flemish, as are the details of architecture, of dress and of armour.

The embroidered panels on the orphreys have New Testament scenes representing the birth and childhood of Christ with the Visit of the Magi on the hood as the central theme (Fig 2). The scenes are the Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate (Fig 7) the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, the Annunciation, the Circumcision (Fig 6) and Jesus among the Doctors (Fig 8). Catriona MacLeod referred in particular to the skill of the artist in depicting Jesus among the Doctors whose learned faces and the varying expressions of gravity, pomp and astonishment have all the meticulous naturalism of a Jan Van Eyck painting and the stage directions of the Mystery plays. Artists skilled in miniature painting and familiar with the rich contemporary sources drew each panel. There are nine figures in the Doctors panel measuring only 46 x 24cm yet there is no sense of overcrowding.

The hood depicts three scenes, the Visit of the Magi in the centre with the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon on the left and Abraham’s visit to Melchisedech on the right. This type of pictorial representation with events from Our Lord’s life illustrated by parallel scenes from the Old Testament goes right back to the medieval teachings of the gospels. Many artists drew inspiration from the Golden Legend and the Apocryphal Gospels, sometimes following them very closely. In the 15th century with the invention of printing the triple statement of the gospel theme became elaborated in the Biblia Pauperum (from its wood-cut illustrations it became known as the Bible of the Poor), the most popular book of the day with widespread circulation in Flanders. Its influence on contemporary art and the production of the Mystery plays cannot be overlooked: in it the artists found their theology and Christian symbolism presented in pictorial form and for the first time they had in their workshop a framework of ideas. The Visit of the Magi is almost certainly inspired by a page from a 15th-century Flemish copy of the Biblia Pauperum.

Note: The Magi Cope is on display in Waterford Museum of Treasures alongside the green cloth-of-gold Dalmatic from the set of High Mass vestments. Both objects were conserved by Cliodna Devitt, financed by generous grants from the Heritage Council and Waterford City Council. The objects are on loan to the museum by kind permission of the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Dr William Lee and Dr Pat Wallace, Director of the National Museum. The Passion Cope from the collection is on display at the National Museum in Kildare Street. The paintings of Christ Church Cathedral are on loan to the museum by kind permission of the Dean and Select Vestry of Christ Church Cathedral Waterford.

Eamonn McEneaney is Director of Waterford Museum of Treasures.

Source: Irish Arts Review. Vol 21, No. 1. (Feature Story)

For those further interested, a second story on this cope is featured here.

Here are some images of this beautiful vestment:

(Thanks to a reader tip for this.)

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