04 August 2018
A restored royal tomb
is now the glory of
the friary in Ennis
I was writing this morning [4 August 2018] about my visit earlier this week to the Franciscan Friary in the heart of Ennis, Co Clare. The friary dates from the 13th century, but its attractions include its unique late mediaeval sculpted monuments, tombs and statues, many dating from the 15th century.
A beautifully executed series of carvings was added to the church in the 15th century as part of a devotional cycle that introduced the laity to the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Saint Francis, displaying his stigmata or the marks of the wounds of Christ on the cross, was placed to the left of the great rood screen while to the right was a small carving of Ecce Homo. A broken statue of a Pietà shows the sorrowful Virgin Mary with her dead son lying across her lap.
The small carving of Ecce Homo is set in a tablet with an ogee-shaped recess. It shows Christ as the Man of Sorrows surrounded by the Instruments of the Passions. The half-figure of the naked Christ is shown with his hands bound, his head bearing the Crown of Thorns, and a halo with a cross behind his head.
The tablet is filled with symbols of the Passion. Behind Christ’s head we can see the spear that pieced his side and the cup holding vinegar that was offered to him on a sponge on a pole. At the tip of the spearhead are three dice, rolled by the soldiers as they gambled for his clothes. Below the dice is this seamless garment.
In the bottom of the panel, a cock rises from a cooking pot, a reminder of Peter’s betrayal.
To Christ’s right, on the left of the panel, we see the pillar and the ropes used at his scourging during his trial. On each side of him is a birch bundle with which he was beaten. On either side of Christ we can also see mouths with protruding tongues, representing those who mocked and spat at Christ.
In the left spandrel are the three nails used to crucify Christ: two for each hand, and one for his two feet. In the right spandrel is a lock of hair, representing how his beard was pulled at as he was mocked (see Isaiah 50: 6).
In the left side, below the hood moulding, is the ladder used to take his body down from the cross. On the right are the hammer and pincers used to hammer in and to pull out the nails of the Crucifixion.
A sword at the bottom of the composition is typical of 16th century Irish swords.
The Royal or MacMahon tomb is said to have been commissioned around 1470 by Máire O’Brien MacMahon, the wife of Terence MacMahon of Corcovaskin.
The canopy once had pride of place over the Royal or MacMahon tomb, built against the north wall of the chancel.
Above the central arch of the canopy, an alabaster dish measuring 14 cm displays an image of the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter, showing the influence of English religious art at this time, and, perhaps, pointing to a trade in objects like this between Limerick and Bristol.
The sequence of images on the tomb suggests that this was an Easter sepulchre, a representation of Christ’s tomb that would have been placed to the left of the main altar and would have been a focus of the Easter ceremonie,s when the general laity were given the rare opportunity to pass through the rood screen from the nave to the chancel.
The panels on the tomb narrate the scenes of the Passion: the Arrest of Christ, his Flagellation, his Crucifixion, his Entombment and the Resurrection. All are modelled on English alabaster tables.
The panel depicting the betrayal and arrest of Christ consists of two parts. To the left, an archbishop is dressed in an alb and Gothic chasuble with a pallium and holding his archiepiscopal staff.
The main part of the panel shows Christ in the centre being kissed and embraced by Judas. Peter is to one side holding the sword he uses to cut off the servant’s ear. Malchus is on the ground, holding his severed left ear in his right hand. Four soldiers are also in the scene, including one armed with an axe.
The panel depicting the Flagellation shows Christ stripped down to a short loincloth and bound by his hands to the pillar. His four torturers, two on each side, are dressed in the uniforms of Roman soldiers, wielding scourges of three knotted lashes.
The central position in the Crucifixion panel shows the cross mounted on a small base, bearing the figure of Christ with a large halo. On either side of his feet kneels an angel with outspread wings, holding between them a chalice to collect the blood that streams from his wounds. Two more angels hold chalices to collect the blood pouring from his pierced hands.
There are four figures in the corner, including the Virgin Mary supported by two of the other women who are present at the Crucifixion. The fourth figure, Saint John the Evangelist, approaches from the rear.
On the opposite side, a group of armed soldiers gather around a centurion, who points towards the cross and the scroll that reads: Vere hic est Filius Dei, ‘Truly this is the Son of God’ (Matthew 27: 54).
The carving that shows the entombment of Christ is ornamented with a moulding down its length. Christ’s body lays on the tomb, wrapped in a shroud that is folded back from the upper part of his body.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus stand at the head and foot, in long belted gowns, the one with a headdress in the shape of a mitre, the other with a pointed cap that indicates he is a pious Jew. The three Marys and Saint John the Evangelist stand behind the tomb, while Mary Magdalene kneels in front, holding the extended arm of Christ in one hand and in the other the myrrh that that she would bring to the tomb for his anointment on Easter morning.
The panel showing the Resurrection of Christ is divided into two parts. One panel shows the resurrection, with Christ holding a cross and staff, and flanked by sensing angels as he steps from the tomb onto four soldiers sleeping below.
On the second panel, a woman holds an open book in her hands. She is dressed in contemporary, closely-fitting clothing, with an impressive heat-shaped headdress, a full skirt, and a gown full sleeves and turned-back cuffs. This is generally taken to be a depiction of the donor, Máire O’Brien, holding a prayer book or a Book of Hours.
The panel showing Christ and the Twelve Apostles was incorporated into the Creagh tomb. It was built against the wall at the back of the original tomb in rectangular, unornamented compartments, separated by plain, double chamfered uprights.
There appears to be no precedent for a sculpture like this in such a position on a tomb. The stones on which the figures were carved were cut to fit them into place. They may have formed the frontal for another tomb chest, perhaps the tomb that belonged to the tracery screen under the south arch of the tower.
On each side of the figure of Christ the Judge there are six apostles, to the left and right, and they can be identified with various symbols associated with each apostle, such as the cross saltire or X-shaped cross for Saint Andrew, the keys for Saint Peter, the palm with Saint John, the sword with Saint Paul, the saw with Saint Simon, and the knife with Saint Bartholomew.
By 1843, the MacMahon or Royal tomb was reduced to a mere heap of carved stones, with the principal carvings rebuilt into the family tomb of the Creaghs of Dangan.
The tomb was erected by the Creagh family incorporating fragments from two separate tombs dating from around the same time in the late 15th century.
After years of exposure to frost and rain, the canopy was also in a state of hopeless ruin, and was replaced by a modern structure.
About 50 years later, many pieces of the ancient canopy were found scattered about the church, which had been abandoned by the Church of Ireland in 1871. One fragment of the façade stopped a hole for a bell rope in the tower. The pier was found outside the south wall of the chancel, and other pieces were found nearby.
TJ Westropp prepared drawings for a proposed restoration in 1893, showing sufficient pieces of the canopy had survived. It was reconstructed by the Office of Public Works in 1952, and stood just west of the Creagh Tomb.
The rebuilt canopy was taken down for conservation work in 1998. A few more original pieces were found on the site, and missing pieces were restored to the work. Guided by Westropp’s drawings, craft workers from Office of Public Works reassembled the fragments from the royal tomb, resulting in the present reconstruction that has pride of place in the centre of the nave of the former friary church today.