Tuesday, 14 June 2016
New exhibition offers an alternative
history of Christ Church Cathedral
The new exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin – ‘Where neither Moth nor Rust doth Corrupt’ – offers an alternative history of the cathedral and brings forgotten cathedral artefacts to light. The exhibition, which is running throughout the summer, was launched last week [7 June 2016] while I was in England, so I had my first opportunity to see it on Sunday afternoon after the Cathedral Eucharist [12 June 2016].
The archives and treasures of a cathedral receive regular attention in the daily run of life. However, there are many unused and forgotten artefacts that are out of sight and mind, relegated to storage rooms and dusty areas, yet they also reveal something of the history and heritage of the cathedral.
For example, this exhibition includes a ‘widow’s mite’ coin unearthed in the cathedral grounds, and dating from 100 BC; a bone needle used for stitching shrouds; a Viking box; photographs of the neighbourhood from the 1870s; and a selection of beautiful gothic keys.
The cathedral education officer, Ruth Kenny, and Canon Roy Byrne have spent many months sifting through these hidden areas of Christ Church. In the process, they have uncovered many stories, such as the soldier eaten alive by rats in the crypt and the Archbishop’s gallows in Harold’s Cross. There are photographs in the exhibition that date back more than a century and that point to the many changes that have taken place in the cathedral and the surrounding area.
Over the centuries, Christ Church has become a repository for a bewildering array of artefacts. The exhibition title comes from Saint Matthew’s Gospel, where Christ stresses the value of the treasures of the Kingdom of God over the myriad of earthly things of no value or worth (Matthew 6: 20).
Before its restoration by George Edmund Street in 1871-1878, Christ Church Cathedral boasted a long choir filled with box pews and allocated seating. Among the pews was the Corporation seat, used by the Lord Mayor of Dublin and the aldermen when they attended the cathedral. The link between the city and the cathedral was an ancient one that stretched back many centuries. To this day, there is a special pew for the sole use of the Lord Mayor in the cathedral.
Before the restoration, the old Corporation pew was renovated on different occasions and a number of specially bound copies of the Book of Common Prayer were provided for the use of the Lord Mayor and aldermen. The earliest surviving cathedral prayer books date mainly from the late 17th to mid-18th century.
There are objects too from the celebrations surrounding the re-opening of Christ Church in 1878 following Street’s restoration.
Another case includes a bust of the lawyer and politician Sir Edward Carson, of unknown origin, and a bust the longest serving dean of Christ Church, Bishop Charles Lindsay. The Hon Charles Dalrymple Lindsay (1760-1846), a son of the Earl of Balcarres, was Vicar of Sutterton, Lincoln, and Bishop of Killaloe and Kilfenora (1793) before becoming Dean of Christ Church and Bishop of Kildare (1804-1846).
The decoration of the cathedral has changed slowly over the years as fashions have changed. Some early decorations in the exhibition include an oak mitre from the 18th-century archbishop’s throne, which was removed in the 1870s.
The exhibition shows how the choir space was altered over the centuries, as it was transformed from an Augustinian choir to a suitable liturgical space for the Knights of the Garter in the 1560s. It was altered again to reflect a more Eucharist-centred understanding of liturgical practice in the 1630s. Renovations continued in 1667-1668, and there was a further restoration in 1679-1680.
The present state pew dates from 1882 and was commissioned by Henry Roe. It bears the name of John Poyntz Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer. The royal arms were reused from an earlier state pew that was probably installed following the restoration of Charles II. Today the state pew is still used by the President of Ireland, with the royal arms covered with a pennant, depicting the presidential seal of office.
There is a mediaeval stone piscina once in place beside an altar in the cathedral and used for drain away the water used to rinse the sacramental vessels.
A number of encaustic tiles from the mid-13th century survive in the cathedral archives. At that time, Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral were decorated with tiled flooring, and the decorative schemes included simple Gothic motifs with deep inlay design. Following the collapse of the south wall and the nave roof in 1562, the original floor was raised and the old tiles were covered by stone flagstones.
The distinctive ‘foxy friar’ Victorian tiles throughout the cathedral were reproduced in the 1870s from a single surviving mediaeval tile, now in the Chapel of Saint Laud.
The Christ Church Cathedral seal originated in the 13th century has been re-designed several times over the centuries, most recently in 2014. Various versions of the Christ Church seal sit alongside the Seal of the Manor of Saint Sepulchre – an area of Dublin once under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop – and a cathedral library bookplate that probably dates from 1763.
A list of books borrowed from the cathedral library in 1607 includes a number of Calvinist works by Theodore Beza and Francis de Jon, as well as books by English authors. The cathedral library was sold in the late 1970s, but items from the manuscript collection that survived the sale are displayed in the cathedral treasury in the crypt.
The Manor of Saint Sepulchre or the Archbishop of Dublin’s Liberty was established in the 12th century and had its own court house, its own regulation of weights and measures, a resident coroner and exemption from certain customs and fines. Lands outside the city itself that were held as part of the manor or liberty included places in Tallaght, Lusk, Swords and Clondalkin amongst other places. The archbishop even had his own gallows at Harold’s Cross. The historic rights and privileges of the manor were dissolved in 1856.
The Chapel Royal Chair is a Gothic-style chair and one of a pair originally made for the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. The chairs were used as sanctuary chairs on either side of the altar by the Dean of the Chapel Royal and other assisting clergy. They remained in the Chapel Royal until 1943, when tThe chairs were given to Christ Church Cathedral and placed in the sanctuary. In December 1952, one of the chairs was given on loan by the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church to Saint Malachy’s Church, Hillsborough, Co Down, for use, according to the chapter minute book, ‘where the Queen of England was accustomed to worship.’
The objects found in the grounds of Christ Church over the years include a ‘widow’s mite’ dating from around 100 BC, a Viking coin and box, a Roman figure of Venus chastising Cupid, found in the Temple of Venus, Baalbeck, a bone sewing needle, a wig curler, stone marbles, clay pipe bowls, animal bones and a cockle shell that may have belonged to one of Christ Church’s many medieval pilgrims.
The ‘Widow’s Mite’ is a coin from ca 100 BC. It is a Lepton, a coin with little monetary and worth just six minutes of a worker’s daily wage.
The cockle-shell is a symbol of pilgrimage, and recalls the long tradition of pilgrimage to Christ Church, particularly in mediaeval times. The cathedral’s large collection of relics that attracted pilgrims included fragments of the True Cross and the Bacall Iosa or Staff of Jesus, which was said to have been used by Christ and given by an angel to Saint Patrick as his crozier by an angel.
Other relics included a fragment of the crib of the Christ Child, a portion of the cloth in which he was wrapped, a thorn from the crucifixion, a phial of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s breast milk and a piece of her girdle. Relics of Irish saints included bones of Saint Patrick, Saint Columba and Saint Brigit. After the Reformation, the collection was dispersed or destroyed, and only the heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole remained, until it was stolen four years ago.
There are signs and reminders too of the old cathedral Grammar School, once housed in what is now the Music Room, and dating back to at least 1480.
During the restoration in the 1870s, the cathedral choirboys were educated at the Erasmus Smith Schools in Great Brunswick Street and then at the newly opened High School in Harcourt Street. After the re-opening of the cathedral, a new Grammar School was run in what is now the music room until cathedral grammar school closed in 1972.
A marble miniature font probably dates from the late 19th century and was used for Baptism in private houses and hospitals in cases of emergency baptism.
The Fishamble Street Mission is also recalled. This inner city mission was founded ca 1863 by Canon Thomas Pope and it moved to Fishamble Street in 1886 to a new building on the site of the old Saint John’s Church. Its activities included a Sunday school, a temperance club, a needlework guild, a Bible Mission for women, a Dorcas institution, a savings club, clothing club and young men’s friendly society. The facilities included a library, gymnasium and savings bank. The ‘Mission’ finally closed in 1924.
There is a selection of cathedral keys. Indeed, a number of large, heavily ornamented keys are still in every-day use around the cathedral.
One of the finest items in the cathedral treasury is the mediaeval lectern that probably dates from 1490-1520. During the Cromwellian era in the 1650s the lectern was removed from the cathedral and hidden. It was returned by the wife of a former cathedral verger named Hatten, along with two pewter flagons and candlesticks.
Two broken swords on display relate to a gruesome and probably fictitious tale of a young soldier, eaten alive by rats when he was accidentally locked in the cathedral crypt. Before the restoration, the crypt was primarily a place for burials and was tightly packed with coffins. It is said a soldier at the funeral of General Samuel Auchmuty (1756-1822) was accidentally locked in the crypt. His regiment sailed for England and three days passed before a search was carried out for him. When the crypt was unlocked his body was discovered surrounded by dismembered rats. His sword, which he had used in vain to defend himself from the rodents, lay broken by his side.
For many years, the broken sword was displayed in the chapter house. One day, in the 1930s, the cathedral sexton found two local children running towards the gate of the cathedral clutching a broken sword and gave chase. The sexton liberated the sword from the boys, fearing they had stolen it from the chapter house. When he went to return the sword to its rightful place he discovered the original still hanging on the wall. Over the years, the two broken swords became mixed up and they now languish in storage.
The exhibition is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. An electronic version of the exhibition guide is available to download here.