• Medieval wall paintings on Clare Island, Co. Mayo

    Picture, if you will, a medieval stone church, once on the edge of the known world, still standing today despite suffering the full force of Atlantic storms for hundreds of years. This is not the context in which one would expect to find the remains of Ireland's finest surviving medieval wall paintings. Nor are such sophisticated and accomplished paintings something we would tend to associate with the O'Malleys, who founded this church, a family conventionally painted as treacherous pirates on land and sea.

    In the late 1990s a team of conservators painstakingly restored and stabilised the paintings on the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chancel of the Abbey Church on Clare Island. At the time I had the privilege of visiting the team led by Christoph Oldenbourg and Karena Morton and had the opportunity of seeing their work close up. The term 'watching paint dry' doesn't even come close to capturing the process of conservation team that took several years of painstaking work to complete.

    This summer I returned again to see the paintings and was delighted to see that they are in remarkable condition – a testimony to the work of the conservation team over 15 years ago.

    In a country where this kind of artwork is such a rare survival, the Clare Island paintings are a national treasure. Indeed, they are a treasure trove of images and iconography. Two phases of painting have been identified where the plaster has fallen away and exposed an earlier layer of plaster beneath that was also decorated with paintings. Scenes include a cattle raid, a knight dressed in chain mail on horseback, wolves attacking stags, dragons, griffinsand musicians, including a unique and fascinating image of a medieval church organ. The vault was painted with false ribs, which divided the surface into 16 triangular areas. In the north wall of the chancel is a beautiful canopy tomb, in which there are faint traces of a crucifixion scene painted on the back wall. The canopy tomb is traditionally the burial place of Grace O’Malley, though it is probably 15th century in date. The tracery of the tomb was painted in black and red colours. A curious feature is that on the wall between this tomb and the east end wall of the chancel are faint traces of the shape identical to the canopy tomb also painted in similar red and black colours onto the wall.

    The attention to detail that the conservators have lavished on these wall paintings, in terms of stabilising, conserving and recording them, is a fitting tribute to the artists who deliberated, composed and executed their designs. Of course, we are also indebted to the original O’Malley patrons of these artists, and the more recently inspired choice to see them restored.

    For a detailed description of the paintings and their conservation see New Survey of Clare Island Volume 4: The Abbey. Edited by Conleth Manning, Paul Gosling and John Waddell. Published by the Royal Irish Academy 2005. ISBN 1 904890 059

    See video

    2 Comments

    • 1. Nov 27 2015 9:17PM by Ann Buckley

      Hello Christiaan, Are there digital scans availble of these images now? You may know that I have a chapter on the musical instruments in that publication and I would love to make a complete pdf available if that's possible.

      Thank you and best wishes,

      Ann

    • 2. Dec 12 2015 9:44PM by christiaancorlett

      Hello Ann, many thanks for your comment. The photo here and those in the short video are my own digital images that I took during the summer. I only took a selection of images and didn't make a full digital record of the paintings, as I was really there for another purpose. To be honest, I am not entirely sure if they have been digitally recorded, or recorded at all since the conservation works were completed. I will make a few enquiries.

      Best wishes to you too,

      Chris

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