Curator's Choice

Trace Decorative Arts & History with 25 special objects from our Collections. See items from around the world, ancient, medieval & modern.

This ex​hibition comprises 25 objects chosen by the Museum’s own curators in the Art & Industrial division. Special attention in this gallery is given to the Fonthill Vase – the earliest documented piece of Chinese porcelain in Europe, regarded as one of the Museum's great international treasures. Among the other objects in this exhibition is a Japanese ceremonial bell over 2,000 years old and the decorative gauntlets worn by King William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Location: National Museum of Ireland - Decorative Arts & History, Collins Barracks, First Floor, West Block, Benburb Street, Dublin 7.

Museum curators were asked to select an object in which they were interested. The 25 items selected show that while some objects document important milestones of political and military history, others are testimony to the way of life and beliefs of our ancestors.

Welcoming you to the gallery is the late-13th/early-14th-Century carved oak figure of St Molaise. This sixth-Century saint, who established his monastery on Inishmurray Island, Co. Sligo, should have one hand raised in blessing. Local lore explains that it was Cromwell’s men who cut off both hands. This statue, which was a focal part of an annual pilgrimage, was venerated in a church there for centuries. It was transferred for safekeeping to the National Museum of Ireland when the last inhabitants left the island in 1948.

Nearby is a cabinet that gives a different insight into the man. This was Oliver Cromwell’s wedding present to his daughter Bridget when she married Charles Fleetwood, a soldier who is remembered for his merciless transplantation of dispossessed Irish people from 1653 to 1654. Closed, the cabinet’s simple style echoes the Puritanical ethos of his age. Open, it displays an appreciation of wealth and learning; its erotic paintings are said to represent scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Another famous figure represented by memorabilia here is King William III of England. In gratitude for his hospitality after the Battle of the Boyne, he gave John Dillon of Lismullen, Co. Meath some personal items including an engraved decanter. This handsome gift shows the quality achievable very shortly after lead glass was first invented. It also shows that military leaders expected the luxury of home even while on military campaigns.

The nationalist politician William Smith O’Brien, who was transported to Tasmania because of his part in the rebellion of 1848, was honoured by his compatriots when he was pardoned six years later. A presentation cup, made from recently-mined 24 carat gold, was commissioned from William Hackett, a Dublin goldsmith then resident in Melbourne. The cup is decorated with Irish and Australian symbols, and the finial depicts Hibernia carrying a cap of liberty and crowning Smith O’Brien with a laurel wreath. Conscious of the sacrifice of his compatriots and the symbolism of the piece, Smith O’Brien bequeathed it to the Royal Irish Academy to ensure its preservation for posterity.

In contrast, a stone nearby is simply carved with the symbols of the Passion of Christ. For centuries, and in an international context, both the poor and the wealthy meditated through reading these symbols. Tradition says that this locally-carved stone was found in a small walled-up room in Summerhill, Co. Meath. Dated 1740, it has been suggested that it was an altar stone used during the penal period, when Mass was said furtively in such homes and at mass rocks.

Another contrast is an item of major international importance, the Fonthill Vase. Of celadon porcelain, it was made about 1300 AD. When the vase was brought to Europe shortly afterwards, it was treated as semi-precious stone and hence given silver-gilt mounts. As Europeans were unable to make porcelain until over four centuries later, such objects were treated with great respect. The vase, which is one of the best-documented pieces of Chinese porcelain known, is recorded through the centuries in the collections of Louis the Great of Hungary, Charles III of Durazzo, the Dauphin of France and William Beckford of Fonthill Abbey. Unrecognised because the mounts were removed in the 19th Century, the vase was acquired by the Museum at auction in 1882 for about £28.